Alumni who became principals

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While most young students can’t wait to take what they’ve learned in school and get out into the “real world,” some of them have found that their paths have led them right back to where they started. According to the Office of Catholic Schools, several diocesan principals are leading the same school where they learned to read and write. 

Daniel Cinalli, principal of St. Michael School in Annandale, started kindergarten at St. Timothy School in Chantilly and then went to high school at Paul VI Catholic High School in Fairfax. Years later, he returned to Paul VI as a teacher and then to St. Timothy as an assistant principal for three years. 

"I loved teaching and I loved organization, but I didn’t think that I would ever be a principal. It just wasn’t on my radar." Kathleen McNutt

“I always loved Catholic education and being surrounded by it all day long,” said Cinalli. “I formed relationships that are still important to me to this day. Some of the groomsmen at my wedding I (met) in kindergarten.”

Cinalli was encouraged to pursue a position in administration by Tom Opfer, Paul VI Class of ’96 and current principal of Paul VI. Opfer also attended St. Timothy elementary school, where he says the seeds were planted for a career in education.

“I think I am very blessed to have outstanding, dedicated teachers who loved teaching in Catholic schools, and through their witness to Catholic values they promoted the joy of teaching,” said Opfer. “I had a wonderful high school experience, and I want the students to have a similar experience.”

When 7-year-old Kathleen McNutt entered her third-grade classroom at St. Louis School in Alexandria and met her favorite teacher, Catherine Zacharie, she knew she wanted to be a teacher. 

“I never strayed from that,” said McNutt. “I loved St. Louis. I loved every year.”

While she knew she wanted to be a teacher, she never imagined she would become principal someday. 

“I loved teaching and I loved organization but I didn’t think that I would ever be a principal. It just wasn’t on my radar,” said McNutt. 

She first returned to St. Louis as a mom and eventually president of the Parent Teacher Organization. She started teaching third grade in 2009, happy to be back in the classroom. Two years later, she was asked to spearhead the development and construction of a new preschool, which opened in 2012. The project gave her the experience and motivation she needed to pursue a master’s degree in administration at Marymount University in Arlington. She then took the helm officially as St. Louis principal in 2014.

“The journey into administration was very much God driving and me sitting in the passenger seat,” said McNutt.

While the job can be challenging sometimes, she is grateful to the Diocese of Arlington, the Office of Catholic Schools and the opportunities to collaborate with her fellow principals. 

“I feel blessed to serve alongside them and I’m so grateful for the support I get from the diocese,” said McNutt. “They are a gift to families and they are a gift to the staff.”

Not all principals were as eager to come back to school. Instead of dreaming of the day she would re-enter the classroom as a teacher at St. Luke School in McLean, Maureen Ashby, principal of Holy Spirit School in Annandale, was running in the opposite direction.

“I always said I was never going to be a teacher because I lived that life as a child,” said Ashby, whose mom worked at St. Luke School in McLean. She saw her mom put in the long days and nights with piles of grading. It motivated her to get a job in a law firm after graduating from James Madison Univeristy in Harrisonburg, but she believes God and St. Elizabeth Ann Seton had other plans for her.

 “I have always had a devotion to Elizabeth Ann Seton, so I know in my heart of hearts she is the reason I ended up in education,” said Ashby.

But it was not until the birth of her first child that Ashby started to rethink the possibility of a career in education. She knew she wanted a job that would help her be more present for her daughter. 

She started at St. Luke as a physical education teacher while also taking education classes. After teaching at St. Luke for eight years, she transferred to Holy Spirit School in Annandale and eventually began teaching middle school history. She was encouraged to get her master’s in education administration by Sister Patricia Helene, a Sister, Servant of the Immaculate Heart of Mary teaching at Marymount University. 

In 2015, Ashby became principal of Holy Spirit School and the rest is history.

“I think I have an understanding of the education the students are receiving,” she said. “The diocese has a wonderful curriculum and that gives me the desire to pass it on. I want the students to graduate from elementary school with very fond memories just like I had.”

Other former diocesan alumni who are now principals include Mary Pat Schlickenmaier, principal of St. Rita School in Alexandria; Thomas Curry, head of school at Bishop Ireton High School in Alexandria; Sister Mary Sue Carwile, IHM, principal of St. James School in Falls Church; Joseph Vorbach III, head of school at Bishop O’Connell high school in Arlington; and Dave Conroy, principal of All Saints School in Manassas. 

They are all students who enjoyed their Catholic school education so much, they came back and are now passing that same faith-filled education experience on to the next generation. 

“The Diocese of Arlington is blessed with so many outstanding Catholic schools to help students grow in their faith formation,” said Opfer. “I feel we are blessed in the ministry of Catholic education.”

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2018