Lead. Learn. Proclaim. Awards Winners 2021
Sister Percylee Hart, RSM, is the principal at Union Catholic High School in the Archdiocese of Newark. Sister Percylee has been the principal of Union Catholic High School since September 1980. Her stewardship allowed for the successful merger of the Union Catholic Girls and Boys Schools and she has been the catalyst for every major advance that the school has made in the past 38 years. She is credited with positioning Union Catholic as one of the premier Catholic high schools in the state. Until 1980, Sister Percylee was the principal of Red Bank Catholic High School for ten years.
Like so many during the year of COVID-19, Sister Percylee was challenged with keeping her school operating. The financial worry for the school and the affordability of Union Catholic for families was foremost on her mind. To keep things moving forward, she established a development office, planned giving and an endowment fund. Sister Percylee also decided that student activities and athletic and parent events had to stay afloat for the good of the school community. The faculty and staff helped make those events virtual, “which was a whole paradigm change,” she says.
The rewards are many, but Sister Percylee says, “the most rewarding part of my job is witnessing the growth and development of our students, teachers and our staff. And creating an environment for that to occur and witnessing it happen.’’ She continues, “I think it’s relational, interacting with our students because we are made in the image and likeness of God, so for me it’s relating to the God within each of us.’’
Sister Percylee cherishes for herself and her school community the basic calling to live out core values of respect, responsibility, honesty, compassion and community. She refers to these values as being Jesus’s message to be able to treat every person with dignity and respect.
Every day, Sister Percyclee strives to “provide the environment to become all God calls you to be and enable the growth and development of our students.’’ Receiving the LLP Award is described by her as a team effort. “When I accepted this award, I took it for the entire UC community because it has an impact on all of us,’’ she said. “This would never occur without our wonderful community here at Union Catholic. To receive an award like this is a big burst of positivity, and I’m very grateful to NCEA for choosing me.’’
Deacon Lawrence Houston is the principal at St. Joan of Arc Catholic School in the Archdiocese of New Orleans. Deacon Houston has been an educator for 31 years. Before becoming principal at St. Joan of Arc, he was the principal at St. Peter Claver in the Tremé neighborhood of New Orleans, where he worked for 23 years. St. Peter Claver Catholic School was established by the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, whose foundress is St. Katharine Drexel.
Deacon Houston says the most challenging time in his career was overseeing the closure of St. Peter Claver in 2019. The school had provided education for African Americans in New Orleans and had a legacy of educating generations of students, many who were parishioners of St. Peter Claver Church. Deacon Houston explained that the school educated parents and even grandparents of students when it closed in 2019.
What he cherishes as one of his most rewarding parts of his vocation as a Catholic school educator is when a “student who comes into your school as a three- or four-year-old, matriculates into higher education and comes back, calls or emails as an adult to say they were thinking about you and the positive effect you had on their life and how thankful they are.”
While Deacon Houston says he finds many aspects of being an administrator can be singled out to be his favorite, but his most favorite is going into the PreK classroom and being greeted with unconditional love. He says it comes by way of a loud “Hi Deacon!” and “a hug around your leg or multiple fist bumps.”
Through his ministry as a Catholic school educator and a deacon, he says he is able to witness to the power of Jesus through daily prayer and the sharing of stories with his school community. “In conversation with faculty and staff, parents and students I am able to bring in the teachings of Jesus and how they are to shape our lives,” he says. “I can also affirm the faith journey we are all on.”
As an LLP Award winner, Deacon Houston says, “I am called as a Catholic educator to educate the whole child, and so to receive this award is a humbling experience. To be chosen from amongst the many wonderfully qualified Catholic educators from around the United States makes me thankful and proud to be placed by God in Catholic education.”
Providencia Quiles is the principal at Nazareth Regional High School in the Diocese of Brooklyn. Ms. Quiles began her career in Catholic schools as a substitute teacher after a business career. She was offered a full- time position at Most Holy Trinity in Brooklyn, teaching math and science to sixth, seventh and eighth graders until her friend, Mr. DeSimone, suggested she interview at his school, Nazareth. She took the position as a ninth grade English teacher and after three years became the assistant principal of academics. Two years later she was asked to apply to be the principal, and is now going into her eleventh year.
In her first year as principal, the Nazareth Board of Trustees announced that the school would be closing its doors in June 2021. An impromptu assembly of more than 850 angry and passionate students, parents, coaches, faculty, administration and alumni got to work. Staff, select parent advisory members and especially Sharon Patrick, “our angel,” and Ms. Quiles created and executed a “Save the School” campaign to meet the board-stipulated three benchmarks: 1) Raise $700K; 2) Enroll 80 students; and 3) Create a specific plan for the future of Nazareth. Nine years later, Nazareth continues to educate 99 percent minority students in inner-city Brooklyn with a 100 percent graduation rate and 98 percent of students college bound.
From modest means in the projects of Coney Island, Ms. Quiles thought making lots of money would equal success. Private industry left her feeling unfulfilled, but with experience to share. “I realized how much my education had impacted the change in my lifestyle and working with students,” she recounts. “When you call an alumnus and they say, ‘thank you for never giving up on me,’ that is the most rewarding part of the job.”
Sitting in classrooms with engaged and enthusiastic students is what Ms. Quiles makes time for whenever she can. She says she enjoys lessons that use humor and laughter to engage students. With a school community of 40 percent non-Catholics, Ms. Quiles encourages students to open their minds to Christ, emphasizing that “ongoing service is a critical part of demonstrating who we are as Catholics and learning to take care of one another is the beauty of following God’s plan.” The Lead. Learn. Proclaim. Award is one of “the biggest honors of my life,” but she attributes it the exceptional educators who have been my partners throughout this journey at Nazareth.”
Naomi Kerns is a fourth grade teacher at Sacred Heart Catholic School in the Diocese of Boise. Ms. Kerns began teaching fourth grade at Sacred Heart in 2014, after seven years at a local public school. She explains that she inherited the fourth-grade job from a “talented and beloved veteran teacher.” While looking through that teacher’s files Ms. Kerns was surprised to find a fourth-grade assignment belonging to her husband when he was a student at Sacred Heart Catholic School 30 years prior. “It was the sign I needed to know I had made the best professional decision of my life,” she says.
Among her greatest challenges, Ms. Kerns said it is witnessing a student deal with real emotional hardship. “I pour myself into helping them feel their worth and the love we have and God has for them,” she explains. When the pain lingers for the student, Ms. Kerns says can feel defeated. “I think about, pray for, and even cry over these students long after they leave my classroom.”
Ms. Kerns finds the most rewarding part of her job is when students get excited about learning. She explains, “I love the feeling when a student gets hooked on a book or finds renewed enthusiasm about school." She said that is more important than any content she can teach. “I have the best colleagues in the world!” Ms. Kerns says, “I am so blessed to work alongside such strong teachers and wonderful people. They inspire me to be a better teacher and person. I learn from them every day.”
Ms. Kerns says she believes in St. Therese of Lisieux’s “Little Way” of trying to make small differences in the world. This quote of St. Therese resonates most with Ms. Kerns and reminds her of the power of simple kindness: “Miss no single opportunity of making some small sacrifice, here by a smiling look, there by a kindly word; always doing the smallest right and doing it all for love.”
“I love being a Catholic school educator! In the Catholic community, I am reminded daily to see each of my students in the likeness of God; it is a powerful and unique feeling to work at a place that helps me so clearly see them in that light. The work we do is bigger than ourselves and our school.”
Father Richard Millbourn, S.J., teaches at Saint Xavier High School in the Archdiocese of Cincinnati. Not too many teachers can say they also graduated from the school where they teach, but Father Richard can. He graduated from Saint Xavier High School in 1986 and since 2010, he has been teaching juniors morality and justice and seniors bioethics and walking the way – a course about and experience of the Camino de Santiago de Compostela. Father Richard has worked in campus ministry and taught interfaith perspectives on social justice and Ignatian spirituality to seniors and served as assistant principal at Loyola Academy in Wilmette, IL.
Helping his students recognize and understand the depth and breadth of experience and knowledge that shapes human existence is Father Richard’s passion and his challenge. He explains that his perception of students (as well as himself and people in general) is that they tend to develop increasingly narrow perceptions of what counts as valid experience. His practical approach is to be fascinated by science with its verifiability. “In society today we tend to discount experiences of faith and other experiences that cannot be objectively verified by scientific means,” he explains. As people, so much of our inner selves cannot be validated and affirmed by science, yet we need to rely on those inner realities to live the full, happy lives God invites us to.
Father Richard says that the reward of walking through the process of growth and maturity that begins with freshman boys and ends up with young men at graduation and thereafter is a gift to him. Exploring faith, ideas and predispositions while sharing students’ discoveries of the world around them, “made by God so that they can grow into their best selves, delights me,” says Father Richard. “I try to keep the Eucharist at the center of each day for me.”
“I know from years of work in Catholic education what an amazing group of dedicated and faithful people serve our students in Catholic schools; so many teachers deserve so much recognition and acknowledgement,” Father Richard says. “Whatever I do well that deserves recognition, I have learned from my teachers and my peers.”
Kelly Thompson is a first-grade teacher at Saint Ambrose Catholic School in the Diocese of Cleveland. A Catholic school teacher for 15 years, Ms. Thompson has been at Saint Ambrose for three years. She also taught at the Academy of Saint Adalbert and Saint Christopher – all in the Diocese of Cleveland. Full of experience in primary grades, mainly Kindergarten, her comfort level was tested when hired to teach fourth- and fifth-grade ELA and social studies classes.
Ms. Thompson credits her colleagues with helping her rise to the challenge of learning fourth and fifth grade curriculum and she earned a 4/5 endorsement at Notre Dame College of Ohio to be sure she had the tools for her students. Then in the 2020 – 2021 school year she switched to first grade. Chalking it up to “always learning, always looking for new ideas, but teaching in new and unfamiliar grade levels
can be challenging,” she explains. But now Ms. Thompson says she is very happy teaching in the first grade and hopes to continue working in this grade level for a long time.
How many teachers find planning to be one of their favorite parts of the job? Ms. Thompson says she does, “it’s where all the magic starts.” She says her routine is to read lesson manuals, blogs by other expert teachers and collaborate with her colleagues. She also watches videos and scours websites. Her objective is to “plan the most fun and engaging lessons I can for my students. I can have a great idea and great kids to work with, but if I don't thoughtfully plan out my lessons and find what I feel to be meaningful lessons then I am not doing my job right.”
Ms. Thompson likes to think she lives like she is wearing her faith on her sleeve. She is a mother and a teacher, working to be a role model for her own children and the students in her school. Leading by example, she says she strives to be a loving Christian “through my service to others and the kindness I show to all.” She ties faith into her classroom activities, sprinkling in faith learning experiences and conversations of love, service, and morals.
Recalling an Ash Wednesday prayer service where Saint Ambrose Pastor, Father Bob Stec, said, “It’s the little things that make a big difference,” Ms. Thompson thought about her LLP Award. She says she didn’t do anything big, but perhaps it is the countless “little things I do every day, that when all put together, make a big difference in the lives of the children I teach.”
Father Daniel F. X. Powell is the pastor at Saint John Neumann Catholic School, Diocese of Harrisburg. Father Daniel has been pastor at St. John Neumann since 2016 and was the pastor at St. Pius X in Selinsgrove and Catholic Campus Minister at Susquehanna University from 2012 to 2016. As soon as Father Daniel arrived at Saint John he knew he would need to relocate Saint Anne’s Catholic Grade School to Saint John Neumann – a process already in the planning stages. Through successful fundraising, which meant not borrowing funds to build the school, construction begin in January 2020. Even after COVID-19 suspended construction for eight weeks, the school opened with in-person classes on September 8, 2020.
Father Daniel finds the new building to be comfortable and as if it has always been a part of the Saint John Neumann community. But most important he says is the feeling inside the classrooms where the traditions and foundation of Saint Anne School are strongly felt. He credits the students, families, teachers and staff who all “rolled up their sleeves and went to work.” Father Daniel says he appreciates that he helped to realize a dream of a Catholic school at Saint John Neumann and the continuation of 95 years of Saint Anne’s history. “To be asked by God to be His instrument and to minister with so many who want to respond to His call has been amazing.”
Time spent with the students is the anticipated part of the day for Father Daniel. He notes the excitement he sees when he is in classrooms and students want to show him the work they are doing and tell him about their day. “They say as a priest we do not have children of our own,” explains Father Daniel. “When you are a pastor of a Catholic grade school you interact with many children and many families. What a blessing to be a true Father.”
Because of COVID, weekly Masses changed to student Masses divided into thirds on Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. He uses the opportunities to give students a “thought for the day, reminding them of the importance of their faith and how to express it in their daily lives.” Father Daniel says the LLP Award is recognition for the entire Saint John Neuman Parish and School, “we are a family of faith. We have been brought closer together through the adversity we have experienced. We will continue to move forward in faith trusting the Holy Spirit walks with us and we are never alone.”
Father Brent Shelton is the pastor at Saint Mary Parish and School, Diocese of Knoxville. When Father Brent arrived at Saint Mary in 2015, he wanted to tackle low enrollment first. His course of action was to fill the seats by inviting parents to “enroll their children first, and then we’d work out the tuition later,” he explains. His desire to put the emphasis squarely on the formation of the children, rather than on the fiscal situation of the families was a start to increasing enrollment. Every Catholic school is a community where all feel welcome – students, faculty, staff, parents, parishioners. Father Brent celebrates community in the school as well as within the parish, where the Hispanic parishioners “tend to be well connected to each other,” and where he supports this connectedness by offering a monthly “Misa de Misión.” This regular gathering takes place in nearby neighborhoods where parishioners and anyone who would like to join can participate in the Mass and then enjoy a meal. “That connectedness makes it easy for us to promote enrollment among our Hispanic families,” says Father Brent, and also extends the community beyond the Church doors and the school grounds.
For Father Brent, being in the school hallways and classrooms, talking to students is how he likes to spend his time. “When I visit the classrooms, I encourage the students to offer me their questions, comments, complaints and suggestions about everything, from the parish and school to politics and economics,” he says. “I like to see them listen to each other, formulate their thoughts for their classmates, and then discern God’s guidance in these conversations.”
Never straying far from the strong sense of school-parish-neighborhood fellowship, Father Brent explains that he sees the school as a ministry of the parish. “Because our parish is a community of believers, our school provides formation in community values. We teach our students, as a community, how to welcome Christ into their lives, and then how to build a culture of hospitality for everyone, especially those on the social margins.”
For Father Brent, formation in community values is critical for the education of children. He sees Catholic schools as extensions of the community life of believers and Catholic schools as well positioned to provide comprehensive faith formation for students. “I'm very grateful for this award because it gives us an opportunity to celebrate the great gift of Catholic schools.”
Father Joseph Tizio, C.Ss.R., is the pastor of Our Lady of Perpetual Help Mission Grammar School in the Archdiocese of Boston. His fourth school serving as pastor, Father Tizio also served at St. Peter the Apostle School in Philadelphia, St. Clement School in Saratoga Springs, NY, and now Our Lady of Perpetual Help School in Boston. He has ministered in Catholic education for 25 years and describes one of his main roles as a pastor is to be a cheerleader – “to let the faculty, staff, families and parishioners know that the impossible can become possible if we just believe.”
Father Tizio’s biggest challenge at Our Lady of Perpetual Help was a financial one, trying to get both the school and the church financially stable. He points to many people who worked together led by the school president, Aliece Dutson, “a tireless fundraiser for the school.” Father Tizio said the team effort included the business manager, accountant, the parish finance council and Ms. Dutson. All together they created new structures and procedures that gradually brought back financial stability to the school.
“Anyone who ministers in Catholic education will always tell you that in the end, it is the children and their parents who are the most rewarding aspect of what we do,” said Father Tizio. “I have found that watching people work together, making the needs of our students and parents their primary concern, to see them work as a team and create something new, that is what I have always found most rewarding.”
Among his favorite parts of the job, Father Tizio says celebrating the Eucharist with the school community is what he enjoys most and he hopes it’s the same for all of his congregants, “gathering for Eucharist is center of everything we do in Catholic education. I try to infuse my faith into all I do even in struggling with finances or maintenance issues, I try to make sure that I act and respond like a person of faith. I also try to remind myself and others that in the end we have to trust that ‘for those who love God all things work together for the good.’”