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Spring 2024 Newsletter

What Great Catholic School Leaders Do

By Greg O'Donnell, Ed.D., Director, ACE Principal Academy 

I am often asked by both applicants and prospective diocesan partners the following questions: 

  • What is it that you teach to principals during the two year Cabrini fellowship?
  • What are the practices that you expect Cabrini Fellows to engage in and adopt in their schools as a result of participating in the program?

While the why behind this work is clear, given the myriad of responsibilities which principals assume everyday, what the program focuses on to foster excellence for Catholic school leaders and their schools may be less obvious.  In order to better answer these questions from partners and to provide a clearer roadmap for Cabrini Fellows to connect all of the tenets of the program, over the past year, the ACE Principal Academy team along with other colleagues here at Notre Dame have organized the habits and practices that we examine with Fellows in this Conceptual Framework, which outlines the interconnected nature of these behaviors of effective leaders, specifically through an authentically Catholic lens. 

APA Conceptual Framework
ACE Principal Academy Conceptual Framework
Conceptual Framework through a Catholic Lens
Conceptual Framework through a Catholic Lens


Grounded in the findings of the 2021 Wallace Report, which synthesized two-decades of research on How Principals Affect Students and Schools, the content of the program focuses on three key categories of skills that the most effective school leaders prioritize: people, instruction, and the organization (Grissom, Egalite, and Lindsay, 2021). Within the program, we foster this by facilitating reflection with principals through key learning experiences that narrow in on the following three domains:

  1. Organizational leadership - designing the systems and structures that create an intentional shared culture.
  2. Managerial leadership - understanding one’s own strengths as a leader, and recognizing how this leadership is received by others within their spheres of influence.
  3. Instructional leadership - ensuring that above all else, everyone and everything within the organization is focused on facilitating shared, high expectations for student learning.

Moreover, we recognize that this research is based largely within public schools. While at a high level these practices are universally applicable to every school, they fail to consider the unique nuances that are vital to the successful operation of a Catholic, faith-based school.

To this end, the work of the program focuses not merely on the practices which influence the culture of a school, but rather, examines these within a Cristo-centric lens to ensure these school communities reflect the same joy experienced through complete recognition of God’s love for us. Instead of merely looking to manage others in their positions, transformational Catholic school leaders embody the same teachings of Jesus and bring out the best in others by modeling vulnerability and recognizing their teams’ strengths, rather than focusing on how to improve upon their deficits. In examining their role as instructional leaders, instead of simply coaching teachers who are struggling most, transformational Catholic school leaders first recognize that coaching is a means to ensure that all teachers are seen, known, and valued by the leader, and thus prioritize time providing all teachers feedback on their craft and simultaneously identifying bright spots within the school to further magnify the great work that is being accomplished within the community to ensure student learning.  

This framework helps to underscore the interconnectedness of these practices of transformational Catholic school leaders, allowing for a greater understanding of the why behind each action, and also articulates specific practices that leaders can focus on to begin to foster habits that will drive positive transformation of their communities. Thank you for being a part of this movement with us.

Greg O’Donnell, Ed.D.

Director, ACE Principal Academy

Chosen, Sustained, and Transformed by God

By Megan Cerbins, ACE Principal Academy Cabrini Fellows Cohort 2

Over the last few months through a Bible study I have been doing with the Walking with Purpose ministry, I have been studying the book of Ephesians and it is incredible how applicable this book is to the work we do as Catholic School Principals.  Now, the Book of Ephesians was written by the Apostle Paul who believed he held his position and path “by the Will of God”.  He doesn’t list his credentials or qualifications except that his “job” or “mission” is to do the will of God.  God wanted him and He chose him.  Yet, Paul felt.. as we all do at times… unworthy and questioning the “mission” and the “call” of where we are supposed to be.  We have to remember as in the Gospel of John, the Father says “It was not you who chose me, but I who chose you”.  God chose each and every one of us for this call, yes into the roles we are in…but more relevantly he chose us 18+ months ago.  It was HE who chose US to become the Cabrago Family.  We didn’t “choose” this, and even Nikki, Greg, and Carol didn’t “choose” us per se.  It was HE that chose US.  He chose us because he wanted to do a work in each and every one of us.  That work He did in us has made us into who we are today. 

Throughout the book of Ephesians, there are three key revelations that Paul wanted the readers to understand.  In my Bible study, the author refers to them as the following; The Wakening, The Wrestling, and The Warrior. 

First, Paul takes us through the Wakening, or the realization that God chose us.  Now, I mentioned God chose us to be in this Cabrago group.  However, God also chose each of us to be right where we are today, both personally and professionally.  Ephesians 1:5 says “He destined us for adoption to himself through Jesus Christ, in accord with the favor of his will”  See, we weren’t just chosen, we were destined.  I was always told growing up “God has a plan” and when I was little I felt I had the innocence of a child and I grasped onto this with all I had, knowing He did have a plan.  I use an image I had growing up with my students often.  I like to imagine that God has a library of books and each one of us has one with our name on it.  At any moment God can take that from his library and say to us “see I wrote that into your plan, I knew you would be there”. He would also quickly flip through the rest of the “written” pages while I try to catch a quick glance.  In Ephesians, Paul writes that not only were we chosen, but our sole purpose is to accomplish things within His will.  In Ephesians 1:11-12, it says “in him we were also chosen, destined in accord with the purpose of the One who accomplishes all things according to the intention of His will.  So that we might exist for the praise of his glory, we who first hoped in Christ”.  We were chosen to fulfill that purpose here on Earth, Paul is telling us that whatever path being set forth, whatever direction we are heading was destined in order to fulfill God’s will for our lives.  Every moment of every day is a part of God’s will for our lives and it is meant to happen and to be FOR HIS GLORY.  So the first revelation in the book of Ephesians is that God chose us each to gather together over the last 18+ months.  He knew decades ago that we would spend these last 18+ months together.  He wrote these pages in our books, and we were able to make it into something so beautiful.  He chose us to enter the journey together, grow together, learn together, fail together, and encourage one another.  Each of us was chosen individually but we were chosen for each other.  God wrote the plan, but it is by our free will what we do with that plan.  It is up to us on how we reflect and look at each moment as an opportunity.  In the book of Hebrews, it states that [God] will not leave you or forsake you.  In each moment, He is there, we just have to trust and have faith in His divine, masterful plan.

The next revelation is the tough one…literally.  This is the wrestling…the trials, the tribulations. We all know God’s will is chosen for us, but it can be so hard to accept.  God’s will for the moment can be painful, hurt so deep, and rock us to our core.

Ephesians 3:13 says “So I ask you not to lose heart over my afflictions for you; this is [for] your glory”.  I will read it again Ephesians 3:13 - “So I ask you not to lose heart over my afflictions for you; this is [for] your glory”.  Yes, God wills situations into our life.  I enjoy listening to Fr. Mike Schmitz and I heard him talk about perfect will and permissive will.  Perfect will is God’s divine plan for our life and Permissive will is what he may permit.  I feel this is where this quote comes perfectly into place. Ephesians 3:13 - “So I ask you not to lose heart over my afflictions for you; this is [for] your glory”.  Afflictions aren’t a part of God’s perfect will as His perfect will is for us to all be divinely in heaven.  But afflictions are permitted and intended for His glory and our growth.  This is such a hard thing to accept and our nature is to fight for control when this happens.  Over the last 18+ months, this group, Cabrago has been through many afflictions, both professionally and personally.   I believe that through these afflictions and trials, came amazing lessons and revelations about  support, love, and true fellowship in this life on Earth.  It isn’t about what you went through, but who was walking alongside you as you traveled.  In Ephesians 4:2-3 it states “with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another through love,  striving to preserve the unity of the spirit through the bond of peace.”  This verse sums up Cabrago.  Through our trials and tribulations, none of us were able to take away the pain, the struggle, the worries, but we were able to be there.  Through humility…we were there, through gentleness in action and word…we were there….through patience…we were there.  Through all of that, we will be forever united in the Spirit and truly encountered a bond of peace that Paul is talking about.

The last revelation is my most favorite -  “The Warrior” - cue “I am the warrior” because yes we all are.  18+ months…that is how short it has been, how quickly we have bonded.  Through the trials, the tribulations, the struggles, we persevered as warriors through and through.  In Ephesians 4:23-24 it states “and  be renewed in the spirit of your minds and put on the new self created in God’s way in righteousness and holiness of truth”.  I don’t believe that there is one person in this group, Cabrago Fam, that is the same person as when we started.  The main reason to apply for the Principal Academy is to grow in your skills to lead your school in a transformational way, yet what they don’t tell you is that it is SO MUCH MORE THAN THAT.  In order to truly transform your school, you must first transform yourself or as Paul says “renew in the spirit of your minds”. Through the design of this program, it is meant to unite us in our faith, renew our spirits, and truly put on a new self.  Through this program, we have a renewed sense of purpose and destiny for our lives and profession.  We have been equipped with the tools to stay strong in all that we do.  In Ephesians 6:10 it states “draw your strength from the Lord and from his mighty power,  put on the armor of God so that you may be able to stand firm against the tactics of the devil”.  I don’t know about you, but prior to this program I had no firm ground to stand on (and I still have my days of weakness) but just like Paul said to draw your strength from the Lord, and in perfect summing up of all of Ephesians, draw strength from God’s permissive will, and God’s permissive will brought us right to each other.  See…I chose Ephesians to get us to this message but the message is this…God knew just what he was doing for each of us when in the Winter/Spring of 2022 He led us to apply to this program.  He KNEW exactly what the next 18 months would entail.  He chose us.  He knew every situation we would encounter at our schools.  He knew that some individuals would only enter Cabrago for a period of time.  He knew COVID would cause some frustrating situations. He knew we would all get emotional at Hero, Hardship, Highlight.  He knew a little too much wine would get drunk.  He knew about the late night Grotto walks.  He knew two sweet babies would be born.  He knew flight delays would happen.  He knew devastating accidents and deaths would happen.  He knew cancer would rear its ugly head.  He knew every one of these situations would happen and he promises us just as Paul wrote Ephesians 3:13 - “So I ask you not to lose heart over my afflictions for you; this is [for] your glory”.  See, God knew what each of us needed and he knew we each got exactly that.  He chose us and loved us right where we were prior to Cabrago, yet he refused to leave us that way.   Each of us in Cabrago, which will be the one and only, were destined to be here.  We were destined to grow, we were destined to struggle, and we were destined to leave better than we were before.  See, God never gave up on any of us through it all.  He knew what he was doing.  But, even though our immersion tours, monthly meetings, retreats are coming to a close, He isn’t done taking us each on a journey, both our own personal journey and our professional journey.  There is a song I listen to on repeat right now to remind me of my journey through my life, this school year, and especially my journey through Principal Academy.  It is called “Yet” by the King will come.  It is a beautiful reminder for every day, but these lyrics stuck out as I prepared for today’s reflection:


 “I know I’m not the same, but you knew that I would change, and I think that you are trying to tell me it’s ok, I know I have come so far, but got so far to go.”


I Wanted to Be Part of the Solution

McLawhorn profile photo

Jodi McLawhorn (Chicago Cohort 4), Director of Leadership Formation, Archdiocese of Chicago

Wrapping up a particularly difficult job interview, the sitting principal walked Jodi McLawhorn to the front doors. Anxious to leave and being just steps away from her exit, Jodi said to herself, “Okay, thank them for their time, but this place is a mess. I’m out of here.” 

Turning to leave, “I literally felt something tug me,” Jodi recalls.

Realizing nobody else was there, she paused. There was one more question she wanted the answer to. “You’ve spent the last hour telling me all about what doesn’t work at this school. I’m wondering what does work? Why is this school still open?”

The principal said, “Oh, that’s easy. The teachers… The people. They love this school. The community loves this school.”

And in that moment Jodi thought… “I could do that.”

It’s that “can do” spirit that led her to become the principal at St. Albert the Great in Burbank, Illinois and that continues five years later to guide Jodi McLawhorn (Chicago Fellows Cohort 4), as the director of Leadership Formation for the Office of Catholic Schools in the Archdiocese of Chicago. With almost 30 years dedicated to Catholic education, she credits her time in the ACE Principal Academy Chicago Fellowship (formerly the Center for Transformational Leadership), for completely changing the way she leads.

“As an administrator, as a principal, my challenges, my issues, my day-to-day experiences were my own, but then to be on campus at Notre Dame where they're speaking my language and they're addressing the exact things that I am feeling every single day. Every time we talked about our faith, or every time we talked about growing our schools academically, spiritually. I had never, ever experienced that type of professional development in my life that was so connected to what I was actually experiencing day in and day out. It was so spot on and targeted exactly to the issues and challenges in Catholic education, and I had never experienced anything like that.”

“I used to lead from a fear-based mentality: Afraid of what might happen if I don't do this thing the right way. But when I became a part of the Chicago Fellows my view of leadership changed to leading based upon:


leaning into your faith, 

doing things like 

loving kids radically, 

loving parents radically

putting that love out there in such a radical way that it's transformative.” 


Jodi noticed it changed the way she sent email communications and the way she talked to people. It provided her with a different lens to view leadership not from a place of fear, but rather from a place centered in love.

“I wanted to be part of the solution. My school grew as a direct result of me being a part of the ACE Principal Academy program,” said Jodi.

Jodi has taken the ACE Principal Academy mission to "strengthen, sustain, and transform principals to impact their schools and communities" to heart. Jodi's personal leadership transformation — to a proactive approach and an asset-based mindset —  not only transformed her school, but continues to transform her wider community at a systems level as the Director of Leadership Formation for the Archdiocese of Chicago.

In this new role, Jodi’s long-held desire to be part of the solution for Catholic schools hasn't changed. “What I love about the position that I've taken — and the reason why I took this position — was because the programs target Catholic school principals. I work with 150 Catholic school principals every single day.” 

Upon seeing an opportunity to create a structure where all principals could be supported, formed, and sustained in the same way that she felt in the Chicago Fellowship, Jodi went straight to work when she arrived at the archdiocese in 2022. She asked herself, “How can we grow leadership formation programming? How can we make this more meaningful and impactful for our principals?” She thought about her experience within the ACE Principal Academy, and remembered distinctly the work around defining each schools’ root beliefs. 

Jodi went to her superintendent and pitched the idea to him.

“We need root beliefs. We don't have them and we need them.” Jodi said, “This is going to define all of our work. This will anchor everything that we do, every decision we make, every program we launch, everything we do is going to be aligned to these root beliefs.” 

He was sold and the first one they came up with was the easiest to define: “Great principals create great schools.”

“If that is what we believe, then everything we do needs to align to that. If we believe that great principals create great schools, then what could we do to have great principals? And that thought would not have been there if it wasn't for that seed that was planted through my experience at Notre Dame,” said Jodi.

“This is just another way for me to have an impact on the principalship. It wasn't because I didn't want to be a principal. It wasn't because the principalship was hard — although it was really the hardest job I've ever had — but that wasn't the reason. The reason I took this job was because I knew in this position I could have a greater impact on Catholic education.”

“I will shout it from the mountaintops, if we could re-energize people with this idea of spreading our love, spreading our joy, making that an intentional part of Catholic education… We're always going to have challenges, but it's how we address them, believing we will find a way together.”

Supporting, forming, and retaining great principals, in turn helps make great schools and all that trickles down to the children. This belief is what drives Jodi to take on this challenging work of Catholic school leadership.

“I believe that kids can be anything they want to be. Kids can be successful if they've got God to lean on. I've always felt that way but I was never able to articulate it. My experience at Notre Dame was really helpful for me with that.” 

Reflecting back on that “tug” that changed her principalship trajectory and asked now what she thought that tug was? 

“I don't know. It had to have been divine intervention. Honestly, it had to have been my angel wings. When you've got God in your corner, anything is possible. That's why I'm so committed to all of this. [The ACE Principal Academy] changed my life. I know it can change the lives of others, too.”

Past Newsletters

Winter 2024 Newsletter

Within the Principal Academy Fellowship, one of the first themes explored with the Fellows is the many roles of the Catholic school principal. Instructional leader, cultural leader, personnel manager, and, in many cases, marketing director, enrollment manager, counselor, and resource provider—all roles that school leaders must embrace and understand as a part of their practice. And, while the work is both time-consuming and challenging, leaders are also goal-oriented individuals who are capable of successfully wearing many hats. But as uniquely Catholic school leaders, the role of spiritual leader seems to be the one in which leaders often find themselves questioning, “Am I enough?”

The role of spiritual leader is not just one of the hats a Catholic school leader wears, but a truly foundational role. In Catholic Schools on the Threshold of the Third Millennium, our schools are identified as opportunities for evangelization, “Catholic schools are at once places of evangelization, of complete formation, of inculturation, of apprenticeship in a lively dialogue between young people of different religions and social backgrounds." (Laghi, 1997) Coupled with the research demonstrating that a majority of individuals who cease identifying as Catholic do so between the ages of 13 and 17, (Bourbon, 2018) and that attendance at Catholic schools and family involvement in faith experiences heightens chances that individuals will continue to identify as Catholic into adulthood, (Hodge, 2021) the need for robust experiences the provide belonging and encounter is imperative. The need for principals to respond to this call for increased spiritual leadership is perhaps more important than ever.

A transformational spiritual leader sparks awe and wonder in others by sharing and encouraging a deep, personal relationship with God and they motivate, encourage, and catalyze others to live out their faith actively in the world in the same way. Such Christ-centered leadership extends beyond daily prayer and mass attendance, and is woven into the fabric of the school experience; it underscores actions and decisions, and influences the discourse, experiences, and relationships we foster. When leaders ask, “Am I enough?” relative to their role as spiritual leader, often this tension is attributed to an association of “spiritual leadership” as a vast knowledge of scripture, a deference of this role to the work of the pastor, or a discomfort with leaning into vulnerability and leading authentically. But true spiritual leadership is found in the encounters we provide for others, not merely in scripture. What leaders sometimes fail to recognize is that even asking the question, “Am I enough?” demonstrates a recognition that not only are they enough, but within them exists a desire to lead their community in this way and a willingness to meet people where they are on their own faith journeys - the very essence of spiritual leadership.

As Catholic school leaders, it is our responsibility to catalyze others to live out their faith actively, thereby fostering a sense of belonging within the faith and encouraging active participation. To accomplish this, we must:

  • Authentically model an active faith life for your community. Prioritize time and activities that fulfill your own spirituality, enabling you to pour into others.
  • Be willing to share your faith through liturgical experiences, reflections, prayer, and in your interactions with others. 
  • Promote an awareness of Catholic values and acknowledge and celebrate when and where they are animated throughout your school community. 
  • Provide resources, time and space for faculty and staff faith development, and engage in conversations around this topic. 
  • Provide rich opportunities, through service, prayer, and education for your community to develop a deeper understanding of their own faith life and integrate this into your work. 

By embracing and engaging in opportunities to model and share our faith with the community in which we serve, we answer the call to evangelize and make disciples of Christ. And when we enter into this work in good faith and with a willingness to engage others and draw them in through faith experiences, we can be assured that our spiritual leadership, in Christ, is always “enough.”

Laghi, P. Card. (1997). The Catholic School on the Threshold of the Third Millennium. 

Bourbon, J. (2018, January 22). Study asks: Why are young Catholics going, going, gone? National Catholic Reporter Online. Retrieved February 2, 2024, from

Hodge, B. (2021, November 9). Special report: Why Catholics leave; why Catholics stay. The Pillar. Retrieved February 2, 2024, from

With the passing of the holidays and the continued lack of sunlight and cool temperatures, this time of year can feel challenging. This is especially true in schools where younger students can feel cooped up from a lack of recess; the exciting homecoming games and dances of the Fall have concluded for our high schoolers, and seasonal burnout can creep in for our teachers and leaders. We crave the warmth and new life that Spring brings. This period of gray leading to spring is not so different from the 40-day journey of Lent we embark on with Jesus that leads us to a joyful Easter. 

In our house, to the chagrin of my 11-year-old son, we earmark Saturday as the day we all pitch in and clean the house as a family. I delight in the balance and sense of calm that comes after we’ve cleaned the house; perhaps it’s about bringing order to things and discarding (donating) the things we no longer need. Similarly, Lent is a time of preparation, a “spring cleaning” of the soul in which we consider letting go of those things that don’t serve us and our relationship with God. 

I (secretly) love Lent; my heart yearns for it each year. A sacred, intentional pause in an otherwise harried world in which busyness and overscheduling are lauded. Especially as Catholic school leaders, it can often feel like many worldly things are vying for our time and attention. In a counter-cultural way, Lent encourages us to recalibrate ourselves to what is most important and to draw nearer to the One who is continually seeking to be closer to us.

As we approached the start of Lent, I was reminded of  the Catholic hymn often heard during Lent, Return to God 

Return to God with all your heart, the source of grace and mercy;
Come seek the tender faithfulness of God

Now the time of grace has come, the day of salvation;
Come and learn now the way of our God. 

I will take your heart of stone and place a heart within you,
A heart of compassion and love. 

If you break the chains of oppression,

If you set the prisoner free;

If you share your bread with the hungry,

Give protection to the lost;

Give shelter to the homeless,

Clothe the naked in your midst,

Then your light shall break forth like the dawn. 


Time and again, God is asking us to return to him with our whole hearts and selves. In our busy lives, sometimes it can feel easier to tune out and scroll on social media than it is to intentionally be still and listen for God’s voice. This Lenten invitation for stillness,  introspection and reconciliation can be an exciting opportunity to return to God and to use our time and gifts in ways that serve him. 

As you journey through this Lenten season, I hope you experience the feeling of accomplishment that accompanies “spring cleaning”. More importantly, may you find moments of quiet that allow you to reconnect with God and truly prepare your heart and mind for the celebration and joy that Easter brings

Headshot of Liz Martino
Liz Martino

Nestled against the lake in Blackwood, NJ, Our Lady of Hope Regional School (OLOH) is home to over 400 faculty, staff, and students. In any classroom, one might find the students enthusiastically engaged in a group project, while teachers collaborate in the faculty offices to bring their students a high-quality, faith-filled, Catholic education. However, visiting OLOH just three years earlier, anyone walking the halls of the building would have encountered a very different environment, where everyone was working independently to accomplish their goals. The school was functioning, but without a strong sense of their collective responsibility for the mission and success of the school. The lonely grind of the adults in the school affected the students, who, watching and learning from their teachers, often worked alone and disengaged from each other in their pursuit of learning. 

As she embarked on her new role as the principal, Liz Martino felt this same sense of isolation. She also knew that something had to change. It was at that point that her superintendent, Dr. Bill Watson, recommended Martino for the ACE Principal Academy Cabrini Fellowship, hoping that through this experience, she would thrive within the context of a cohort and “learn a way of leadership that would help the school excel at being Catholic, by foregrounding the mission more often and intentionally, and with fewer distractions from the swirl of pressures that principals face.” Martino eagerly jumped on board, excited to learn strategies and tactics that would improve her leadership and positively impact her school community.

As a Cabrini Fellow, Martino experienced the power of working and learning in community,  and was “encouraged to do what is best for kids by being [herself] and loving her people.” It was through this fellowship that Martino was exposed to leadership practices that transform the culture of the school, such as developing a shared set of root beliefs and animating these through daily gatherings of the entire school community. Moreover, she experienced firsthand a new way to manage her team by prioritizing relationships among the adults in the school while also delegating leadership responsibility to teachers to encourage collaboration and foster autonomy. Martino knew any school-wide change would require motivating her teachers to buy-in to this transformation, so she focused first on tending to the adult culture in the school, trusting that the culture among the students would follow. 

A hallmark of Martino’s leadership has been positively building-up the adult capacity in her school around the shared beliefs of the community. One way Martino lives this out is through the implementation of daily morning meetings with her faculty where she celebrates exceptional instances of teachers and students living out their school’s root beliefs. She also leverages these meetings to model instructional techniques and strategies that intentionally reflect these shared beliefs. "In morning meetings, I’ve incorporated turn-and-talks to build student engagement.” says Martino.  “Now, in classrooms, teachers have made this a regular practice, and students respond to their partners in a way that all learners can be engaged simultaneously.”

From the central office, Dr. Watson has observed this culture shift first-hand, noting, “Under Liz's leadership, OLOH has worked toward a healthy balance of pastoral care and accountability for high standards. With both the encouragement of the Cabrini team and other fellows, and specific coaching and skill building, Liz has learned to delegate some of the time-consuming operational matters to trusted teachers, who in the process are mentored as leaders by Liz.”

This distributed leadership, guided by Martino’s warm and steady modeling and support, has transformed the way the school operates. Martino notes of her faculty, “They are encouraged to lean on one another and are motivated by a sense of connection to their students. They feel safe and inspired to express their ideas in their meetings.” Furthermore, teachers now willingly take on leadership within four key faculty committees focused on making incremental improvements for the school. The teachers also organized themselves into a newly adopted house system, where all teachers and students belong to a house with its own identity and character. The students quickly began to blossom in this new space where life together is encouraged and leadership is shared. 

It has taken persistent work on the part of Martino to turn her school into a relationally rich learning environment. According to Dr. Watson, “Liz has helped the community to see and live within the tension of living out the faith, ultimately providing an environment as complex as the Gospel it preaches in word and deed every day.” At OLOH, this Catholic identity manifests through the shared set of root beliefs and the intentional teamwork between the adult leaders. This in turn has trickled down to the students, giving way to an environment of communal learning. 

“I love working with [our] teacher leaders,” Martino glows, “and [I] am impressed with the many ways they make our school better.” Her commitment to developing the collective responsibility of the team has provided clear direction for Martino’s leadership. “Principal Academy has helped me dream bigger for my school and has deepened my understanding of the impact of my leadership on the community.”

Fall 2023 Newsletter

Leaders frequently grapple with the task of implementing initiatives to propel their schools towards goals that they’ve cast, whether it's increasing enrollment, enhancing student achievement, refining instructional strategies, or catalyzing growth. Despite the difficulty in changing human behavior, motivating others to act in a new way is often essential for a leader to accomplish, in order to provoke systemic change.

Motivation can be elusive enough when we are trying to find our own impetus for growth and change, so working to inspire motivation in others is an especially challenging task for leaders. We know that people are motivated in varied ways: some people are intrinsically motivated, driven by purpose or their own curiosity, others may be extrinsically motivated, influenced by rewards, incentives or approval. The question for school leaders becomes: How can one inspire motivation among a team with varied motivational needs? Self-determination theory suggests that when people are afforded autonomy in their work, have someone pouring into them by building their capacity and supporting them by layering in accountability and guidance, they are more likely to be committed to the team’s goals and motivated to achieve them (Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M., 1985). Leaders who ground their work in investing in people through deep, personal relationships create an environment where motivation swells.

In schools where time is often our most limited resource and we believe that every minute matters, we can put pressure on ourselves to jump right into the work of improvement, without spending the necessary time to first build relationships. Because strong, positive relationships are linked to an increase in individuals’ belief in their own abilities, leading to greater creativity, increased persistence and enhanced performance (Fiori, Mcilvane, Brown, & Antonucci, 2006), neglecting relationships can actually undermine the work we’ve set out to do. Prioritizing relationships as essential, and meaningful in their own right, enables school leaders to build the very foundation that their work of improvement will thrive upon. As relationships develop, motivation grows, and as motivation grows, shared work is elevated.

Within the Principal Academy, effective leadership means adopting a people-first approach and holding relationships as sacred because these foundational leadership elements are vital to building and maintaining trust. In my work with school leaders across the country, I’ve witnessed the galvanizing power of leaders investing in relationships:

  • One principal, faced with disappointing school data suggesting that instruction was less than ambitious, decided to launch a morning prayer circle where adults could get to know each other more personally and support each other. These relationships translated to a deeper understanding of each other and the development of collective responsibility faculty-wide; in one year, school data was reported as strong or very strong in all areas of the 5 Essentials.
  • In another school, the principal was working to establish core instructional practices with the hope of helping all students reach grade-level mastery in math and reading. She held coffees with the principal and hosted a potluck dinner where parents and teachers could grow to know each other better and partner more authentically on behalf of their children. She protected time every morning to greet families by name and welcome students to school in the morning. Test scores climbed as relationships deepened.

By pouring into people, Principal Academy Fellows establish a relational culture, where trust and psychological safety exist, heightening motivation and enabling every person to contribute to the team. Teams are motivated to achieve ambitious goals and aspirational work is attainable because the work is situated within a relationship. 

- Nikki Raftery, M.Ed., Leadership Coach, ACE Principal Academy


Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (1985). Intrinsic motivation and self-determination in human behavior. New York, NY: Plenum.

Fiori, K. L., Mcilvane, J. M., Brown, E. E., & Antonucci, T. C. (2006). Social relations and depressive symptomatology: Self-efficacy as a mediator. Aging & Mental Health, 10, 227–239.


Watch Kelly's spiritual reflection

Good morning. It is a blessing to be able to share with you today. We made it through October - alleluia!

Being a spiritual leader is the one aspect of school leadership that I have actually felt confident in at times over the years. (Being an instructional leader or manager of the budget, not so much.) Maybe it was because I was raised in Catholic schools from K-12th grade and then again in my grad school experiences at Notre Dame. Maybe it was because my parents instilled a sense of responsibility to participate in a full faith life in our parish. Maybe it was because there was a stretch of time where I spent more days at church than anywhere else each week - so much so that my students asked if I lived there. Maybe it was because I taught middle school religion for a number of years and, in doing so, grew deeper in my own faith.

Maybe it doesn’t really matter at the end of the day what has given me this strong desire to share my faith with others but simply the desire to do so. And, I would argue, each of us has that same or similar desire or we wouldn’t be working as leaders in Catholic schools. Our job is to help our students become saints. And while that may sound lofty and idealistic, the work itself is real, and it’s hard. It often requires us to go against what our world, certain parents, or even colleagues expect or want in difficult situations.

About a month ago, as I was boarding a plane - to Newark in fact (because, well, timing) - I was faced with a situation where some of our students had been doing the Nazi salute as a joke to each other, and once to one of our Jewish students. While recommendations for out-of-school suspension or other tactics were suggested by fellow council principals and others, I saw it, instead, as an opportunity for learning and understanding. The truth is, these young boys had no real understanding of what that symbol meant. Yes, they knew about WWII and Hitler, but they didn’t learn yet about the atrocities and hate directed toward the Jewish people and others with disabilities or with other reasons to be targeted. As a leader of a Catholic school, I could not see punishment solving anything. So yes, the students spent time out of class (an in-school suspension, if you will), but during that time we read part of a graphic novel picture book about a young man who survived the Holocaust, we discussed the current war in Israel, we talked about concentration camps and how and in what manner people were killed for no reason other than their faith, and we watched a documentary about one school’s journey to overcome ignorance and learn and share about the Holocaust in meaningful ways. Was it a perfect way of handling the situation? I doubt it. Was it a Catholic school way of handling the situation? I would like to think so.

Our days are filled with many (sometimes too many) examples like this - situations where we are pressured to quickly and severely make a situation right. The problem is - well, there are likely many problems - that many situations are not black and white, there are often many layers (just like when you peel back an onion), and we are dealing with young people whose brains are not fully formed - they’re going to make mistakes. We need to remember that their time with us is a journey and that parents are partners, not adversaries, in that journey. (It would help if they remembered that too.) Our faith as Catholic school leaders can help ground us in this and remind us to do the right thing even if it’s not the most favorable or popular decision.

Several years ago, I was invited to speak at the graduation of students I taught in 6 & 7th grades, and I shared with them the following story: A priest just finished reading the Gospel, and he came down the steps in front of the school community to give his homily. He asked the students a question: “What is the most important thing in this church?” The students thought for a moment, and one boy’s hand shot up. “The Eucharist.” A great answer...but it wasn’t what the priest was looking for. (Though, I would have certainly approved of that answer.) A little girl in front raised her hand and said, “the people.” Also a good answer, but not the “right” one. More hands went up and the students pretty much named everything in the building except one thing. The priest stopped, and he the exit sign. His point was that it didn’t matter what they learned or did in the building unless they took it with them and lived it in the world.

At St. A’s, probably like many of your schools, we have a “vision of a graduate” or, as they call it in Jesuit circles, “grad at grad values” - we’re actually in the process of updating ours. In a sense, that’s our “exit sign” - it’s how we want our students to leave our school and live in the world, not just with knowledge and school smarts but with faith and a moral compass, wisdom and good decision-making. It makes no difference what we teach them at “insert your school name here” if when they leave our building on any given day or after graduation they forget what it means to be people of faith by what they say and how they act. This is our charge as spiritual leaders at our schools.

And so, today, I invite you to take a few minutes to reflect on your school’s “exit sign”.

Dear Lord, thank you for the gift of our time this morning. Thank you for the opportunity to make God known, loved, and served in our school communities by being spiritual leaders. Give us the grace, courage, and strength to make decisions that deeply align with our faith so as to help our students grow into your disciples in our schools and in our world. We lift up each other and our students to you today. You know what we need before we ask it. Thank you for your mercy and goodness, Lord. Amen.

Jennifer Farrand
Jennifer Farrand

The Golden Dome of Notre Dame glinted in the afternoon sunlight on Jennifer Farrand’s first day of the ACE Principal Academy fellowship. Her calling to make the Academy of St. Benedict the African “an oasis of safety and love for her scholars, and academically excellent” weighed heavily on her. The Englewood neighborhood has many beautiful aspects, but all too common challenges abound for the community that's long been on the receiving end of concrete and abstract societal marginalization. She had a vision for the school to be the best it could be to “benefit her children most,” but the steps to get the school there were unclear. The loneliness of leading such a mission, as a principal, posed an even greater burden. But attending the ACE Principal Academy’s summer institute was the beginning of a revolution in Jennifer’s school development. As she got to know the other fellows that summer, feelings of isolation gave way to community: “having our Chicago and Cabrini colleagues means having colleagues to discuss ideas, learn from each other… It makes this work as a principal more connected and communal.” This sense of connection and community expanded beyond her cohort in the Principal Academy and spilled into the way she viewed her school community, especially when it came to casting a vision and advancing goals at her school. In facilitating change and growth in her school, Jennifer realized she could turn, not only to her new cohort, but also to the community within her own school: “The root beliefs of the school weren’t mine to define, they were ours, as a community, to define.”

By the fall, the ACE Principal Academy’s immersion experiences were taking Jennifer inside schools that were much like hers on a socio-economic level, and they were rising above their financial challenges and implementing school practices that she had only dreamed of. These sister schools valued safety and a loving community the way St. Benedict the African did, but they managed to also implement measures that raised their academic rigor. After these trips she realized that she finally knew the steps to take to reach her goal. “It wouldn’t be easy,” she admitted, “but I was ready!”

Now, after three years of steady and persistent work at the Academy of St. Benedict the African, the community’s victories and growth are evident. Since the beginning of Jennifer’s participation in the ACE Principal Academy, their median literacy growth has risen 117%, their median math growth has gone up 105%, and they quickly moved to #3 in the Big Shoulders Plus Network.

There was, however, still one gaping hole to fill: The school had no church; no dedicated sacred space for the community to directly encounter God. When Jennifer began her time in the ACE Principal Academy, she admitted that she “didn’t feel Catholic enough to undertake such a monumental role” of being the spiritual leader of her school. However, she had a vision for the school as one where the love of God would be tangible in the hallways and classes and relationships. If they were to make this a reality, they needed that sacred space. “So… we built a church,” Jennifer declares. Now her school has a beautiful chapel in which the kids have “at least one religion class a week.” This peaceful place of prayer for both the students and leadership has had a major impact on the spiritual culture of the school. “Our school is a joyful place!” Jennifer smiles proudly. “In my time with the Principal Academy, I gained confidence in my ability to lead a Christ-centered culture of joy in our building.” Jennifer’s school has built on the communal strengths long present and growth to reach her goal of being a refuge for the kids while also achieving academic excellence. Jennifer confidently affirms,  “We are both now.”

True to one of the Principal Academy’s slogans, Jennifer found a way to make faith and kindness personal for the kids. Lessons learned inside the chapel walls find their way to each individual student in the form of a t-shirt. Each year, a t-shirt is thoughtfully designed for the kids to wear as “an outward reminder of our inward commitment.” This year, on “Kind Shirt Day,” the school reveals to the kids the new t-shirt with the motivational phrase: Be Kind, Be Useful, and Be Fearless. Jennifer’s deep desire to put the needs of the kids first and make the school about and for them has paid off. She has built the school into a Christ-centered, “joyful environment,” where the kids feel “valued and respected. They are willing to take risks, to trust, to learn, from both the staff and their peers.”

End of Summer 2023 Newsletter

Figure 1. From Hattie, J. (2012). Visible Learning for teachers.
Figure 1. From Hattie, J. (2012). Visible Learning for teachers.

Over the past few decades, collective efficacy, or a faculty’s shared self-perception that their efforts make an educational difference to their students over and above the educational impact of students’ homes and communities, has become a sort of sine qua non for school improvement. The impact that a strong, ambitious, and effective “shared perception” can have on student outcomes has been shown by researchers to have two to three times greater an effect on academic achievement than other common factors, many of which are oftentimes outside of the control of the school (see Figure 1). In short: If a school has a strong sense of collective teacher efficacy, then most other obstacles limiting academic performance can be overcome.

The question then is how can we, as leaders, foster a sense of collective efficacy in the pursuit of excellence for our schools? A recent study by Donahoo, O’Leary, and Hattie (2020) identified five key practices for leaders to engage in that foster collective teacher efficacy in schools:

  1. Empowered Teachers: The extent to which teachers are authentically engaged in decisions around school improvement.
  2. Cohesive Teacher Knowledge: The extent to which teachers are aware of sound teaching practices and how they are being used by their colleagues within the school.
  3. Goal Consensus: The extent to which there are shared goals, and processes for how to accomplish these goals.
  4. Embedded Reflective Practices: The utilization of opportunities that effectively examine student evidence to inform instructional pedagogy.
  5. Supportive Leadership: How effectively leaders buffer teachers from ineffective distractions and positively recognize teacher accomplishments.
Figure 2: From Donohoo, O'Leary, & Hattie (2020). Conceptual Framework: Leading for Collective Teacher Efficacy
Figure 2: From Donohoo, O'Leary, & Hattie (2020). Conceptual Framework: Leading for Collective Teacher Efficacy

Effective implementation of each of these practices is not something that can simply be crossed off of a checklist during back to school meetings. Instead, it requires thoughtful restructuring of professional learning and collaboration that continually empowers and engages teachers in conversation on a set of shared, effective instructional practices, coupled with positive praise from leadership to recognize and support teachers in the pursuit of these new expectations. Moreover, leaders must also establish a “healthy school culture [that] generates high levels of commitment to the mission of the organization, as well as high levels of trust and collaboration (Goddard et al., 2004).” Since the principal is the greatest lever for change across the whole school, what they choose to prioritize as most important, and then how they build a culture of trust and support to put this into practice, sets the tone for the narrative of the school.

Just as a principal building collective efficacy among their teaching faculty results in school improvement, research calls for an increased “teaching and learning approach” to the support and supervision of principals (Honig & Rainey, 2020). The ACE Principal Academy offers fellows this same opportunity to nurture collective efficacy in their own leadership through their shared witness to best practices in action during the Summer Institute and on immersion experiences, reflection upon the leadership they provide to their own schools, and setting coaching goals that refocus their time on these priorities. Given the importance of developing collective efficacy, how can we help everyone involved in our schools better understand why this work is so relevant, and then empower all stakeholders to join in the pursuit of this excellence, both academically and spiritually, for our Catholic schools?


Donohoo, J., O’Leary, T. & Hattie, J. (2020). The design and validation of the enabling conditions for collective teacher efficacy scale (EC-CTES). Journal of Professional Capital and Community, 5(2), 147-166.

Hattie, J. (2012). Visible learning for teachers. London and New York: Routledge.

Honig, M. & Rainey, L. (2020). Supervising principals for instructional leadership: A teaching and learning approach. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press.

Goddard, R. D., Hoy, W. K., & Woolfolk Hoy, A. (2004). Collective efficacy beliefs: Theoretical developments, empirical evidence, and future directions. Educational Researcher, 33(3), 3–13.

Tschannen-Moran, M., & Barr, M. (2004). Fostering student learning: The relationship of collective teacher efficacy and student achievement. Leadership and Policy in Schools, 3(3), 189–209.


St. Symphorosa 5 essentials for schools

As she enters her eighth year as principal, Dr. Kathy Berry, a graduate of the 4th cohort of the ACE Principal Academy’s Chicago Fellows, is welcoming her largest ever class of students at St. Symphorosa. Enrollment for the 2023-24 school year now stands at 241 students - just two months before, the school served only 217 students. “Historically, we’ve not been this high in 9-10 years,” explains Dr. Berry. While this increase in numbers is certainly supported by the availability of Tax Credit scholarships, Berry points to an increasingly positive view of the school culture and the increased academic rigor of St. Symphorosa as catalysts for this growth, both evidenced by recent data from the 5Essentials, the research-based tool developed by the University of Chicago to measure school climate and culture. In just this past year, the first since Berry completed the ACE Principal Academy, the school has seen meaningful growth across all five measures as a result of her leadership. 

Dr. Berry notes that St. Symphorosa was not a failing school before she arrived, but that part of setting the stage for success has been through focusing on celebrating the hidden gems of the school and to continue to build upon these successes to keep getting better as a community, “I think that things on the inside weren’t getting outside. Nobody knew about the good things, we weren’t labeling them, we weren’t talking about them. We can be humble but you also have to shout out the good news.” Dr. Berry attributes her experience as a fellow with the Principal Academy as an integral part of bringing St. Symphorosa to where it is now.  “I enhanced my Catholic identity and about how to develop and nurture relationships with stakeholders and I learned about how to be a more effective instructional leader,” she explains.


When asked to explain why the school has experienced such growth, Dr. Berry attributed this to having “all the pieces in place to have a strong foundation to keep growing enrollment and also pushing hard on our academics, as well as forming our children to be disciples of Christ.” For Dr. Berry, this foundation begins by fostering a collaborative environment through her radical commitment to practice what she preaches with her faculty and staff, “It’s not enough to just model loving and serving in the school, you have to teach it as well; you have to tell people you’re doing it.” By making her leadership transparent, sharing rationale for decisions and including the community in the shared work of the school, Dr. Berry has created an environment at St. Symphorosa where all stakeholders are invested in the success of every student.


For Dr. Berry, this collective work begins with the root beliefs and vision of the school, which she created and cultivated during her time as a fellow in the Principal Academy, “Whenever I’m in front of people I’m talking about our beliefs, when we’re in meetings they’re on every agenda. I’m connecting the dots between our vision and our root beliefs.” This intentionality gives language to the changes and leadership decisions that Dr. Berry is enacting, and helps teachers to understand why these are important to the success of the school. She recognizes that it is not enough for leaders to have good ideas and run with them, but in order to win with people and create a collaborative environment, leaders have to empower others to know how they can contribute towards that common goal. To that end, Berry revisits her root beliefs every year with her team in order to ensure that they continue to animate their shared work with families and students in the school.


Dr. Berry further exemplifies this synergy of modeling and teaching in her approach to teacher coaching. During the fellowship, Dr. Berry was exposed to an approach to teacher coaching which changed her instructional leadership at St. Syms. “I was doing coaching before but it was a different type of coaching, more reflective. With Skyrocket it’s more directive so I use it in different ways, I’ve made it my own.” In tailoring this model to the particular needs of the school, Dr. Berry involved her teachers in the process, having them draft an “award winning list” of strategies to focus on for instructional excellence. She also empowered two other coaches to help bear the load so that now every teacher can get coaching. 


However, Dr. Berry does not only focus on providing coaching for others in the school, she also recognizes her own need for continued one-on-one coaching, “It’s something I want as part of a culture: that we’re all coached because we all have things to improve. The kids and the parents see me as a learner,” she says humbly. This desire for lifelong learning was sparked through the Fellowship, and it inspired her to continue to seek out an additional year of leadership coaching this past year after she finished the program.“I asked to continue to be coached because I know I have more to learn. My coach helps me problem-solve and also she gives me confidence; she’s a great listener, but then she also has very specific thoughts, advice and a research base that I don’t have.” Dr. Berry’s open acknowledgement of her own room for growth and desire to stretch sets the tone for the expectations that she has for her faculty, staff, and the school community. 

This year, St. Symphorosa’s theme is “Setting the Stage for Success.” In many ways, Dr. Berry has already set the stage for success by her outstanding witness to model and engage with her community in a humble, clear, and intentional way.

I will bless the Lord at all times; his praise shall be always in my mouth. 

My soul will glory in the Lord; let the poor hear and be glad. 

Magnify the Lord with me; and let us exalt his name together.

Last fall, a friend and I decided to pray Psalm 34 every day. The end of summer and early Fall is a beautiful time of year, especially in South Bend. The trees are exploding in color everywhere you turn, the air is crisp and the breeze, although carrying a hint of the coming winter, is still balmy. The sun is warm, the geese are flying south, and all of nature seems to encourage us to “bless the Lord at all times.” And so we did. We enjoyed those fall days and every day rejoiced to pray together, “I will bless the Lord at all times!” It was easy for God’s “praise to always be in our mouths”; it was easy to “exalt his name together.” The psalm also proclaims, “Taste and see that the Lord is good.” Again, the words and prayers flowed forth like second nature - how easy to taste and see that He is good. 

As the weeks rolled by, the days got colder – a coming winter both externally and internally for me. The novelty of new beginnings and beauty visible at every turn was fading and I was getting tired and discouraged. My hopes were being disappointed, my grand dreams were being frustrated. And yet I continued to pray that psalm every day. Every day I said, “I will bless the Lord at all times. His praise shall always be in my mouth.” Doing this daily invited me to reckon with the truth of the psalm: was I blessing the Lord at all times? Were His praises always in my mouth? How could I pray this every day if I didn’t feel like it?

One day in December, I woke up filled with more anxiety than I had ever experienced. I was scared about the future and fears of things going wrong, and the last thing on my mind was gratitude or praise. When I sat down to pray Psalm 34, my throat choked up and the words could barely come out. His praises were not in my mouth that morning. I was in no mood for exalting the Lord. That was the moment when other parts of the psalm struck me in ways they never had before. 

I sought the Lord, and he answered me, delivered me from all my fears…

This poor one cried out and the Lord heard, and from all his distress he saved him…

The Lord is close to the brokenhearted.

Ah yes, this I understood. I understood what it was like to seek the Lord, to beg Him for answers, to cry out and be distressed. Here the psalmist was assuring me that the Lord delivers us from fears, He hears us in our distress, and He is close to the brokenhearted, even when we don’t feel His presence. Now I understood that blessing the Lord at all times didn’t require me to feel good, it was a choice that I could make every day. It’s a choice that I chose every day because the Lord is good. It’s a choice that depends on trusting that God has everything under control. Trust didn’t come easily to me, especially when things looked bleak, but the more I prayed this prayer as the weeks and months went by, the more I believed that He would deliver me from my fears, that he would save me from distress, and that he is close to the brokenhearted. I spoke these words over and over for months, hoping that they were true in my heart. Then, the blows fell all at once.

In April my worst fears came true. I lost a friend, I was far from home, my future was unknown to me, and the Lord hadn’t answered my questions. It was the perfect opportunity to lose faith in God, to feel betrayed, to stop praying. 

But somehow, the very first words that sprang to my lips were “I will bless the Lord at all times.” 

My practice of praying those words every day had created a habit of praise in me, a habit that went on auto-pilot when I lost the strength to try. I clung to that phrase in the ensuing days, and I felt the sweetness of hope, love, and trust in God that blossomed through those difficult days. Every day there was opportunity to complain, to stress, to compare my situation with others who seemed to have things better off. But that meant every day there was also the opportunity to reject the complaining, to entrust my life to the Lord, to not compare myself with others but instead to refocus my words into words of praise and gratitude. 

In time, just like the psalmist, my trust in God was confirmed. The Lord delivered me from my fears, the Lord heard my cry and saved me from my distress, and the Lord was close to me when I was brokenhearted. Now I know that the words in the Psalm are not wishful thinking; they reflect reality profoundly. As Catholics, we know and believe in a God who is close to us, who became man for us, who suffered and died out of love for us, and rose from the dead. He continues to be with us in the Eucharist, in Scripture, in our apostolic Church. What greater confidence do we have than this to bless the Lord at all times? 

Now the fall is approaching again - a time of new beginnings for schools. New students, new faculty, new staff, a new year to look forward to. In this newness, I encourage you to start developing the habit of praise. As we enjoy this time of new life, we also know there will be inevitable disappointments: days when we will be faced with resistance, when our expectations and anticipations are not met, when people fail us, and when we fail those around us. We can prepare now for the difficult days by practicing praise every day. Whether it is easy or hard for you now to taste and see that the Lord is good, I invite you and challenge you to bless the Lord at all times. 

Magnify the Lord with me, and let us exalt His name together.

Spring 2023 Newsletter

What makes someone a leader? In this work of fostering excellence for Catholic school principals, this is a question that our team often asks ourselves. Sure, the positional power that comes with the title implies an inherent responsibility and ability to lead. More often than not, however, I find that the things that most urgently consume a principals’ time, energy, and focus are rarely viewed through this lens of leadership. Rather, principals are often overwhelmed by the tasks of management: hiring teachers, marketing the school, responding to a disciplinary situation, evaluating teachers, or sending a newsletter to parents. While all of these tasks are important technical functions that need to be completed effectively to ensure the vitality of the school community, does the mere successful completion of such tasks inherently make someone a good leader? 

In his 2004 Harvard Business Review article, Daniel Goleman tackles this question and offers a powerful insight into what makes someone an effective leader. Through his research, Goleman notes that great leaders “are alike in one crucial way: They all have a high degree of what has come to be known as emotional intelligence.” Moreover, Goleman’s work underscores that the organizations led by leaders who exhibit higher levels of emotional intelligence also tend to demonstrate higher levels of successful performance. 

This has profound implications for how to best support principals to foster excellence for their schools. Certainly, a strong understanding of best practices is a baseline expectation to make someone a good leader. But it is not the title, position, or even necessarily what a person does that makes them effective, but rather, how they exert influence through their actions. Individuals with higher levels of emotional intelligence possess greater self-awareness; they are able to self-regulate how they respond to situations; they understand and can relate to the emotional makeup of others; they are able to navigate complex relationships and forge common ground among stakeholders; and they demonstrate an intrinsic commitment to organizational success. 

For school leaders, this means leading is not simply about marketing the school to prospective families, but recognizing how possessing a positive, joyful disposition in encounters with prospective families can leave a lasting impression that makes them want to entrust their children to your care. It is not merely conducting a search for a new teacher, but casting a compelling grander vision for the school that helps a candidate recognize how joining your school will bring them even greater fulfillment by helping to advance that vision rather than simply teaching the subject they’re passionate about as they could at any other school. Effective leaders focus not merely on coaching teachers regularly and consistently around best practices so they can improve their classroom instruction, but deftly deliver feedback that is free of personal judgment and thoughtfully tailored so that the teacher is most receptive to this needed growth.

This notion of recognizing the influence of our actions provides the foundation for the work we do within the ACE Principal Academy. It is not merely about engaging principal fellows in discussion around best practices in education, but moreover, helping them to nurture their own emotional intelligence by reflecting deeply on how their leadership actions will influence others. In doing so, these individuals separate themselves from any other school administrator and can begin to have a transformational impact on their school.

- Greg O’Donnell, Ed.D., Director, ACE Principal Academy

ACE Principal Academy leaders understand the power of Gospel-centered leadership and the pervasive joy found in community when Christ’s message of sacrificial love is lived out in service to others. They model vulnerability and a willingness to inspire others through their faith as they embrace the responsibility of being a faith leader within their schools. Throughout the two years of the Fellowship, the opportunity for delivering Gospel-centered reflections within the community is gradually released from Principal Academy and ACE team members to the Fellows themselves.   

We invite you to watch this reflection on Matthew 14:24-33

Pulling up to the morning car line at Saint James Catholic School in Arlington Heights, IL, the first thing that you will notice is principal Mike Kendrick (Archdiocese of Chicago, Cohort 4) outside dancing and greeting students and parents with music, smiles, high-fives and his mantra: “It’s a great day to be a Bulldog!” Kendrick believes in the invitational imperative of our faith to provide all whom we serve with the same radical hospitality modeled by Christ and embraces his role as the self-described “chief culture officer” through this lens. Kendrick explains that his decision to use each morning threshold greeting to ensure students and families are invited, by name, into a warm and loving community is the result of learnings from his time as an ACE Principal Academy Fellow where he learned concrete ways to ensure Christ’s love animates everything he does as a school leader, “Education is a relational ministry where the way we treat others is incredibly important.” 

This welcoming invitation doesn’t stall at students and parents, but extends to faculty and staff, as well. Kendrick prioritizes building authentic relationships with his team by nurturing trust and vulnerability, qualities that were modeled for him through the ACE Principal Academy. “I learned how to create a community within my staff. It allowed me to feel comfortable bringing my staff together. When people hear and see genuine nature and honest rationale for why a decision is made, then staff tend to lean into it knowing that it is focused on the core mission of doing what is best for the students being served. The Fellowship helped me grow as a visionary leader and gave me the confidence to lead with my heart and my head.”

When Kendrick accepted the principal position, he inherited a successful school, with stable enrollment of 486 students and a generally satisfied community. In his first summer as a part of the ACE and Notre Dame community, Kendrick was challenged to dream bigger by creating an aspirational vision for Saint James. “The paradigms of how I viewed school leadership and the role of the principal shifted. I was pushed outside of my comfort zone to take my school and create a grander vision of what it could become. This grander vision focused on core root beliefs, Christ-centered culture of joy, and what it means to provide excellent academic and faith formation to the students and families.” Beyond these qualities of excellence that any Catholic school strives to embody, an important part of Kendrick’s vision for Saint James was a calling to make Catholic education accessible for every learner through a commitment to inclusive education. “My vision for St. James is creating a school that stops at nothing to do what is best for the students being served. This can be done by building classrooms where students can grow academically, providing inclusive support in a Catholic school so all students can receive an education while being immersed in the faith, and helping students create authentic relationships with Christ.”

After his fourth year leading the community, this vision is becoming a reality at Saint James. Enrollment is up 22% and students are receiving inclusive services to meet their diverse needs. In order to support diverse learners, Kendrick capitalized on two pivotal experiences of the Principal Academy: immersion learning trips and his development as an instructional coach. “Being able to see highly effective schools firsthand and feeling that sense of urgency for the students was greatly impactful on the development of my vision for St. James.” In order to support teachers in enacting this urgency, Kendrick engaged in instructional coaching with his faculty. “I learned how to give feedback based on teacher actions in order to improve the instruction in a classroom. This shifted how I looked at feedback for teachers. As opposed to being solely an evaluative endeavor, I now see it as a coaching role where I am looking to build the capacity of my teaching staff. The idea of giving direct and specific feedback and allowing the teacher space to practice those changes has helped me to provide my staff with concrete strategies to improve.”

Kendrick keeps his vision for Saint James at the forefront of every decision he makes, “I want everyone who enters my building to leave having felt the love of Christ through the interactions of the teachers, students, and community.”  As the Saint James community continues to adapt and do what is best for kids, no matter the circumstances, they are expecting enrollment to surpass 600 students for SY 2023-2024, and currently have waiting lists at several grade levels. Merely two years ago, serving this many students still felt out of reach. Kendrick credits his time in Principal Academy for teaching him how to enact wildly important goals that have made this growth possible, “I found ways to help my staff grow and reignite a fire for academic growth and to help their students grow deeper in their relationships with Christ. I worked with my staff and community to build a vision for what St. James can be and take steps to make those dreams a reality. All of those strategic moves can be linked back to my experiences in the Fellowship.

Winter 2022 Newsletter

Fellows, Partners, and Supporters of the ACE Principal Academy,

When I talk to diocesan partners and prospective candidates about the Cabrini and Chicago Fellowships, a common question I receive is “how much of a commitment is the program?” Especially after the past few years, oftentimes these individuals will state that they’re already at their breaking point, or that there is no way they can prioritize the program commitments on top of everything else they already have on their overly full plates as Catholic school principals. While the past few years have certainly presented unimaginable challenges that have pushed the limits of what we believe we can handle on our own, I cannot help but be a little disappointed when I hear these types of responses. Not because these individuals are declining an invitation to consider the Fellowship, but because it is the first sign that I have failed to underscore the value and benefit of this program as an opportunity to sustain leaders in the work they are already currently undertaking.

While the primary goal of the ACE Principal Academy is to foster excellence for principals to transform themselves, and their schools, we believe that a foundational building block of this work is that principals must first be sustained themselves in order to effectively do this work. If you look up the etymology of the word sustain, you will quickly find phrases such as “to hold up” and “to keep up or maintain.” Although important, this maintenance is not what I mean when I reference the need to sustain principals. If you look more deeply, you will also find the root of this notion in concepts such as “to provide the necessities of life” or “to suffer or endure.” These phrases more accurately and more powerfully underscore the importance of this sentiment, especially when you consider the mindset that because principals have extensive experience, or they are fully certified, they already have everything they need to succeed at the job. By virtue of attaining the position, there is an implicit expectation that the individual does not need more themselves. However, as these deeper meanings emphasize, principals, like all individuals, are in need of constant sustenance as a source of strength and nourishment in enduring the rigors and responsibilities of leadership.

What, then, are the types of food and drink that principals need to be better sustained in this work? A recent RAND report on teacher and principal well-being indicated that additional support, such as coaching, mentoring, and professional development, was one of the top reasons why principals are likely to stay in their jobs (Steiner,, 2022). Moreover, researchers believe that “professional development can allow for personal growth and learning for principals, act as a job resource that increases their resilience at work and can be beneficial in developing principals’ self-sustaining abilities, maintaining compassion for themselves, making their roles more sustainable in the long term” (Wang, Pollack, and Hauseman, 2022, p. 22). In our Catholic worldview, we know that this also involves time to simply come closer to God and our faith, through reflection, prayer, and worship.

This need to attend to the well-being of principals is one of the reasons we believe in not only the importance being part of a cohort throughout the fellowships, but also in providing weekly coaching to the Fellows in the ACE Principal Academy, ensuring they are surrounded with additional avenues of support as they tackle the many demands of the role. Moreover, it is also why we ask them to step away from the busyness of their schools in the middle of each year to participate in a retreat with their peer Fellows. In doing so, we strive to provide principals with the nourishment they need professionally, communally and spiritually to be sustained in this work. So as we prepare to take the current Fellows on retreat next month, I ask that you join us in prayer so that they can each receive whatever it is they need to continue to make God known, loved, and served to their school communities. 


Steiner, E. D., Doan, S., Woo, A., Gittens, A. D., Lawrence, R. A., Berdie, L., Wolfe, R. L., Greer, L., & Schwartz, H. L. (2022, June 15). Rates of stress among teachers and principals are running high. RAND Corporation. Retrieved January 12, 2023, from 

Wang, F., Pollock, K., & Hauseman, C. (2022). Time demands and emotionally draining situations amid work intensification of school principals. Educational Administration Quarterly. 

Over the holidays I was filled with joy to have my daughters home and back in the nest with us! Despite the wonderful connectedness that technology affords us, I miss their physical presence while they are both away at school. After demanding and successful fall semesters, both of my girls spent their first couple days home seeking rest — lounging, sleeping, and taking comfort in home-cooked meals — before participating in the joyful hustle and bustle of the Christmas season. It was these first few days of quiet that got me thinking: What is it that we need in order to truly renew?

Some people equate rest with renewal, or say that rest is for the body what renewal is for the mind; some promise renewal with a massage or yoga class, a good nap or drinking chamomile tea before bed; sometimes we equate recharging with a vacation from work or an opportunity to travel. While each of these things might be enjoyable or give us a boost of motivation, none of them are able to sustain us long-term. What is it we truly need then, in order to be renewed and recharged? Psalm 121 reminds us that God will always provide us with strength and the help we need:

“I will lift up my eyes to the mountains;

From where shall my help come?

My help comes from the Lord,

Who made heaven and earth.”

As Catholic school leaders, your vocation is one of service; you are constantly pouring yourselves out for others as you work to renew your communities. Spending even just a few minutes connecting with God in meaningful ways everyday is the life source necessary to be God’s hands on earth. When we look up and partner with God, we lean on His strength and gain the spiritual renewal that allows us to do God’s work and bring Christ to our communities. God strengthens us through the Gifts of the Holy Spirit, and Jesus provides us with a model for looking up. Jesus Himself relied on His Father’s strength, separating Himself from the crowds and from His friends often in order to pray, be with God, and recharge. In those moments when you find yourself in need of renewal for your soul, lift your eyes to the heavens and know that God is with you. Remember that your leadership creates spaces for God to be known, loved and served, and that you never walk alone.

Kristina Reyes (Chicago Cohort 2 Fellow) believes that every child she is lucky enough to have at her school deserves the best educational experience possible, and the elements she learned through the ACE Principal Academy Chicago fellowship relative to Instructional Leadership, Creating a Christ-Centered Culture of Joy, and Winning with People, helped her to make that belief a reality. We are fortunate that Kristina has been transparent in sharing her leadership journey with us. 

Kristina became Head of School at The Academy at St. Joan of Arc, an independent Catholic School located in Evanston, Illinois, in 2019. Just one year before, the parish school had an enrollment of 147 and was slated to be closed. Under her leadership, a new independent school was born, and today that school serves 234 students and is thriving. Much of this success is because Kristina strives daily to ensure that every decision is based upon what is best for students. She is able to do this, in part, because the faculty, staff, and community operate from a shared set of beliefs about students and learning. As Kristina states, when they started out, “One of the most important activities we did as a faculty was forming our root beliefs. We came together to discern what we truly believed about teaching and learning. This was a critical first step that laid the foundation for the success of our school.” Kristina learned how to engage in this process through the ACE Principal Academy Summer Institute, and then subsequent immersion experiences, to visit schools where her cohort critically examined how schools articulate and live out shared beliefs. 

Among those foundational principles was the belief that Excellence is Intentional. Throughout the program, Kristina learned that adult actions determine student outcomes. Aligning actions to this belief means that all adults in the building understand that everything they do has to be done to the best of their ability, including being prepared for students and preparing them to be critical thinkers dedicated to a life of service. One way that Kristina supports her teachers in this endeavor is by creating a culture of coaching within her building. “When I learned the direct impact of highly effective teaching on student achievement, it became clear we had a collective responsibility to strengthen instructional practices within our school” (Marzano, 2003). Therefore, over the course of a year, all teachers receive instructional coaching in addition to professional learning around core instructional practices. 

Implementing a coaching program within a school requires a foundation of trust and collaboration, which is why a second root belief, Relationships are the Foundation of the Academy, is paramount to the culture. Kristina shares that coaching is welcomed in her building in part because her staff has embraced the mindset that everyone, students and adults alike, are partners in learning. This change in mindset was only possible because Kristina prioritized relationships, as demonstrated by her investment in teachers through coaching. “Teachers know they're not in this alone. They know it is my job to guide them and help them to be the best they possibly can. I have a mentor; I have a coach who works with me. I can't do this alone. I'm always growing and ready to learn new things. The ACE Principal Academy played a transformational role in my leadership development. It taught me practical and easily implemented steps that have made a huge impact at my school.”

Marzano, R. J. (2003). What Works in Schools: Translating Research into Action. Alexandria: ASCD. 

Fall 2022 Newsletter

This past year has been a year of transition and growth for the program. Building upon the foundation that started seven years ago as a partnership with the Archdiocese of Chicago to support principal growth and development, the ACE Principal Academy expanded its reach to engage Catholic school leaders from dioceses across the country. This expanded program is called the Cabrini Fellowship and named in honor of St. Frances Cabrini, who worked tirelessly to serve the marginalized and to bring the love of God to all whom she encountered. Mother Cabrini worked for many years in the Chicago area and from there she influenced communities all over the country, establishing schools and orphanages. Mother Cabrini persevered in the face of tremendous opposition in order to do good and serve those most in need. Inspired by Mother Cabrini, the ACE Principal Academy aspires to make God known, loved, and served by supporting the development of Catholic school leaders, primarily through the Chicago and Cabrini Fellows who engage in a two-year program that integrates high-quality professional learning experiences with individualized coaching and spiritual nourishment which are delivered through a vibrant community of practice.
And yet, we are just getting started. We know that success in this endeavor will require not only maintaining the support provided to school leaders via these fellowships, but also new initiatives and creative ways to support the nearly 6,000 schools and school leaders across the country. This newsletter is one way in which the program strives to support and remain connected with you, our partners in this ministry, as we continue to grow and find new ways to offer professional growth opportunities to principals across the country. These initiatives will continue to respond to the evolving needs of leaders, schools, and dioceses – yet at the core of this work our mission is always to foster excellence for Catholic school leaders.
Excellence, when it comes to schools, can elicit a multitude of preconceptions. Where in our schools do we strive for excellence? How is excellence determined from community to community? What actions will ultimately cultivate excellence and lead to success in our schools? Depending on whom you speak to, you may receive a different answer that reflects the unique challenges which that individual encounters in their local setting. Educational leadership scholar Thomas Sergiovanni (1984) defined excellence as a quality superseding competence and that requires the development of “love of learning, critical thinking and problem-solving skills, and curiosity and creativity” (p. 45).  This is not to diminish the importance of competence – the mastery of certain predetermined, essential fundamentals – but rather I would posit that Sergiovanni argues that excellence requires an insatiable desire to continually improve. It is this same belief that each of us can grow which inspires the ACE Principal Academy’s work and unites all of our leaders, regardless of the community in which they serve. Carol Dweck (2019) encapsulates this growth mindset as a quality that enables individuals to  “take on more challenges or persist more in the face of setbacks.” We intentionally chose the tagline “to foster excellence for Catholic school leaders” to underscore our belief that excellence, and the continual pursuit of it, is a necessary building block for innovation and success. Every member of the ACE Principal Academy understands that in order to achieve excellence, they cannot become complacent with the status quo, and that there is always something that can be done to achieve greater levels of excellence. Working together, we believe new habits and new learnings can be implemented for the betterment of teachers, students, and school communities.
I want to close this first newsletter by extending my sincere gratitude. Thank you to all of you for the work you accomplish every day, and in particular, the ways in which you encourage and support school leaders to continue in this important ministry of leadership in Catholic schools.  I hope this newsletter will serve to keep you informed about the ACE Principal Academy and provide spiritual nourishment and inspiration to continue advocating for Catholic school education and for those who lead these schools with excellence.
Greg O’Donnell, Ed.D.

 Fr. Lou DelFra, C.S.C."To follow Jesus is alway a beginning; it is THE beginning happening once again."

– Fr. Julián Carrón

Every once in a while, and especially when we are starting something new, it helps to remember: the first disciples of Jesus had no idea what they were getting into!
That is to say, they didn’t just wind up disciples and future saints.  They had to BEGIN somewhere.
Beginnings, by definition, are incomplete – they are the initiation of something that is not yet.  As such, beginnings – like the beginning of a new school year – are filled with a freshness, a sense that anything can happen.  And… beginnings – like the beginning of a new school year –are also filled with uncertainty, disorientation, even some fear.
Take heart:  this was true for the first disciples too.  John the Evangelist captures the “spirituality of beginning” – famously and sublimely – in the first chapter of his Gospel.  John the Baptist stands waist-high in the Jordan River, screaming a brilliant new message of the coming of God’s Kingdom.  His message is full of hair-raising imagery, but also full of conviction and resonance, which would explain the crowds that journeyed into the desert to hear him preach.
In the Bible, big things often begin in the desert (see the 10 Commandments, or Jesus’ Temptation).  But this is a bit counter-intuitive.  When we begin something, we usually prefer to begin from a place of strength and move along with some certainty from there.  The desert is not a place of strength or certainty.  In the Baptist’s desert, life hangs by a thread.  No one actually lives there (except him), and insects are standard fare.  His disciples go there, not to be comforted in what they already know, but to lose, momentarily, their daily comforts, so that they could encounter something fresh and new.
And then, one day, the Baptist finally proposed – a new beginning.
An unidentified figure mysteriously enters the scene.  John points to him as he walks by, and says to the disciples, “There goes the one we have been waiting for.”  It must not have been what most of them expected, for only two disciples – Peter’s brother Andrew, and a second, unnamed – follow.  And even they don’t know exactly what they’re doing.  They just walk behind this mysterious figure, and can’t even compose themselves enough to ask him where he’s going.
Finally, perhaps sensing their disorientation, Jesus turns and asks, “What are you looking for?”  Surely, he already knows the answer – they don’t really know.
At a loss, and now feeling how far from their familiar comforts they have strayed, they make a plea for a home-cooked meal around a fire.  “Teacher,” they ask, “where is your home?”
Jesus, in turn, invites, with three indelible words, right to the heart: “Come and see.”  And so it begins.
Perhaps in this story of the beginning of the disciples’ journey, we can see some semblance of our story, here at the beginning of a new semester.  All educators begin a new school year in some degree restless, vulnerable – beginnings begin in the desert.  If you are not feeling some sense of freshness and its corresponding vulnerability, you are probably not really beginning this year, but just continuing last year.  Beginnings demand restless, vulnerable hearts.
Coming to accept the restlessness that is an inevitable part of any new beginning can be a great spiritual exercise to begin this school year.  In fact, John’s Gospel suggests that in the courageous following of our restlessness are often invitations from Jesus to . . .  come and see, placing our trust in Him.
So, as you start this year, in what ways are you feeling restless? In what ways is this new beginning calling you to act courageously? How can you step into this new beginning to “come and see” Jesus more clearly in the midst of these happenings? As Jesus invites you to “come and see” what He has in store for your school this year, what helps you to trust and to follow?

The Principal Academy welcomed forty-two Chicago and Cabrini Fellows to campus for a Summer Institute this July, the largest gathering of Catholic school leaders in the program to date. The week opened with a spiritual retreat, simply inviting the leaders to first step away in prayer, much like Jesus did throughout his ministry. The themes of these retreats invited first-year Fellows to reflect upon how Christ is Always with Them and that we have been charged through the new commandment to first and foremost to love one another. The focus for the second-year Fellows encouraged them, like Jesus does to the Disciples, to cast out their nets a second time as they prepared to “feed their sheep.” This time spent in prayer, reflection, and fellowship set the tone for a week full of renewal, visioning, and planning for these amazing leaders.

The Summer Institute provided the opportunity for the Fellows to further their thinking and grow their mindset around the domains of the Principal Academy, which include Establishing an Intentional Christ Centered Culture of Joy, Leading for Instructional Excellence, and Winning with People. The Fellows experienced a combination of learning and practice in each of these domains, and were encouraged to identify the areas in which they could start leading for transformation within their own school communities. A highlight of the week was a lesson in inspirational leadership that included a visit to the office of former University president Fr. Hesburgh or, for some of our Fellows, a tour of the football facility with Fr. Nate Wills, C.S.C.           

The week concluded with the ACE Missioning Mass in the Basilica of the Sacred Heart, at which our second-year fellows were celebrated and “missioned” as they returned to their schools to carry on the work they’ve begun to lead each of their schools to excellence. At this mass, each fellow was presented with an inspirational image of Jesus encouraging His disciples to cast their nets into the sea as a reminder to continue to cast their nets within their own communities.

First-year Fellows left this experience inspired to cultivate root beliefs, increase their own leadership presence, and ensure their teachers are implementing core instructional practices. Second-year Fellows built upon prior experiences and left inspired to articulate a vision for their individual schools, invest in teacher development through instructional coaching, and implement meaningful planning experiences for teachers to elevate instructional practice. 


ACE Principal Academy

Hear from some of the ACE Principal Academy Fellows who spent a week of their summer at Notre Dame. Click here to view the videos from Lisa Reiger, Mary Maloney, Kristy Kane, Patti Paulsen, and Jennifer Farrand.