St. Rita School’s principal honored with national award

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Sitting in her storied office - an artful assemblage of books, statuettes and papers - Mary Pat Schlickenmaier, principal of St. Rita School in Alexandria, said, "I'm overwhelmed and humbled by this award," and promptly deepened several shades of red. "But nothing I've ever done here I've done alone."

"She's the last person to believe she deserves it," said Josephine Cunningham, St. Rita's director of development and admissions. "But she does. She's so genuine, and she's always looking ahead."

The modest Schlickenmaier is the recipient of the South Atlantic States and Caribbean Region Distinguished Principal Award, a prestigious recognition from the National Catholic Educational Association. Schlickenmaier is among nine principals from across the nation honored this year.

An excerpt from NCEA's congratulatory letter to Schlickenmaier read: "Your contributions to Catholic education over the many years are truly impressive. Your colleagues, parents and superintendent of schools attest to your outstanding service to them and your commitment to Catholic education. You have been a source of great inspiration to all during your time at St. Rita School."

This April, Schlickenmaier will receive her award at a ceremony held during the NCEA Convention in Orlando. Schlickenmaier, who has been the principal of St. Rita for 17 years, is the first Arlington diocesan principal to earn the award.

But she has repeatedly insisted that the award is not her accomplishment alone.

"A principal is not isolated," she said. "A principal is part of the community. Everyone's involved. When parents talk about St. Rita, they talk about family. That's because we are a family."

During her tenure as principal, Schlickenmaier has brought interactive whiteboards to classrooms, designed a state-of-the-art science lab, updated the school computer lab and spearheaded many other programs and initiatives.

"First and foremost, comes ensuring and nurturing our Catholic identity," said Schlickenmaier. "We have a phrase here: We prepare children for life in this world and the next."

Most recently, Schlickenmaier oversaw the establishment of St. Rita's preschool, which embraces the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd, a Montessori method for teaching the Catholic faith to young children.

"We call the 3-year-old 'lambs' and the 4-year-olds 'shepherds'," said Schlickenmaier. "The whole program is child-centric and scaled down."

Prior to serving as a principal, Schlickenmaier was a teacher for 32 years. She spent two years at Elizabeth Seton High School in Bladensburg, Md., and 13 years at St. Mary School in Alexandria, her alma mater. Once a day, Schlickenmaier, who studied biology as an undergraduate at Loyola University in Baltimore, returns to her roots as a teacher by instructing eighth-grade Algebra I at St. Rita.

"When the diocese approached me to serve as the principal of St. Rita, I was thrilled," she said. "I felt the immediate spirit of family and the tangible presence of Christ here."

Raley Moore, a seventh-grader who has attended St. Rita since kindergarten, can attest to Schlickenmaier's ability to reinforce that sense of family. She said that when her mother's shirt caught on fire and her back was burned, the principal showed her family great kindness and support.

"Mrs. S. called us regularly and had dinners sent to our home," said Moore. "She's a big part of our family's life and school life. She's always trying to get involved."

Susan Gibson, resource teacher and counselor, said that's one of many examples of "Mary Pat emanating Christ's love."

Missy McGraw, a middle school math and religion teacher, said that the environment Schlickenmaier has fostered at St. Rita reflects "the eclectic and diverse nature of our church today."

"There are children here whose parents are high-powered White House officials, and there are children whose parents hardly make a dime," she said. "But there's a commonality here. We are here with the same mission and vision under (Schlickenmaier's) leadership every day."

Allison Cryor DiNardo, St. Rita finance council chairman, said that some of Schlickenmaier's greatest gifts are her inclusiveness and her ability to listen.

"She's not an arm-twister, and that's part of her magic as a leader," said DiNardo. "No matter who you are, she'll throw her arms up when you're walking down the hallway and say, 'You're here.' She wants everybody to feel welcome."

St. Rita parishioner Cindy Hart has had five children graduate from St. Rita School and currently has a seventh-grade daughter there. Schlickenmaier has been the principal during most of her two decades as a St. Rita parent. One of the things that "amazes" Hart about Schlickenmaier is her "energy."

"I don't see her dwindling," said Hart. "She knows the students. She knows the families. She just loves her job."

In familiarizing herself so well with the school community, Hart added that one of Schlickenmaier's greatest gifts is "really recognizing each individual's gifts and putting them to use in the school." She praised Schlickenmaier's teaching and writing skills, as well as her design sense. But Hart pointed to Schlickenmaier's personal dedication to God as her biggest strength.

"It's clear that she has a deep faith, and it permeates throughout school life," Hart said. "It's what makes her so dedicated, so hard working."

Stoddard can be reached at cstoddard@catholicherald.com.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2015