New Superintendent Jennifer Bigelow is ready to serve

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Jennifer Bigelow, the new superintendent of schools for the Arlington Diocese, used to think she wanted a career in politics.

An experience with her mother's second-graders changed her mind.

Bigelow was working on a congressional campaign in 1994, and her mother, who taught at Corpus Christi School in Temple Terrace, Fla., asked her to visit her class and explain the election to her pupils.

"I said, 'Mom, they're second-graders. I'm not quite sure I can get it to their level.' She said, 'They'll love you, and they'll eat it up.' So I thought, do I do a 'Schoolhouse Rock' type of thing?'

"So I did my best to kind of explain the election process for them, and they may not have learned anything, but I learned so much. It was so rewarding being in front of them and answering their questions, and seeing their youthful exuberance in learning. And I said, 'This is what I need to be doing.'"

The Florida native succeeds Sister Bernadette McManigal, B.V.M., who was appointed interim superintendent in September 2008 and took over permanently seven months later.

Bigelow was the principal at The Franciscan School in Raleigh, N.C., which has an enrollment of 700 in grades K-8. Now she'll lead a school system with more than 17,000 students spread across 48 schools and her own staff of 12.

That's a big jump.

She laughs. "That's right. And they're all mine."

A sense of humor, she says, is essential for her job. "It's an amazing staff here, and they've been so welcoming. They know what they're doing and I'm pleased to be part of them."

Living in Manassas, Bigelow is new to Washington traffic but fortunately she loves to drive. She plans to visit every school from Winchester to Fredericksburg to Fairfax this fall. In case she falls short, she also asked principals to produce informational podcasts so she can quickly familiarize herself with the schools that aren't within easy driving distance.

She's been busy meeting with teachers and principals prior to the opening convocation Aug. 23 at All Saints Church in Manassas, where the speaker was Bridgeport Bishop Frank Caggiano.

"The Diocese of Arlington is a growing diocese, and so I'm sure on the horizon we'll be looking at what can we do to support not only a growing diocese, but a growing Catholic education population as well," she said.

The fastest-growing segment is Hispanic. In the school year just completed, Hispanic students represented 12 percent of enrollment, up from 10 percent in 2013-14.

She's discussed Hispanic outreach with Renee White, diocesan school enrollment coordinator, and with the media-relations staff about "how we can do a better job with Spanish-language radio and television, and how do we reach more families."

Finding donors to increase the availability of financial aid and making families aware of their options for financial assistance is another priority. The average yearly tuition for an elementary school in the diocese is $5,000, and for high schools, it's as high as $14,000. Many families, Bigelow says, "may not be aware of all the opportunities."

Sister Bernadette "did a wonderful job working with the Virginia General Assembly over its tax-credit program (the Virginia Education Improvement Tax Credit, passed in 2012), not just for Catholic schools, but people who are interested in attending private school. I think we can continue to grow that program in ways we can help more people get a Catholic education and make it more affordable," Bigelow said.

Diocesan schools began awarding scholarships from that program in 2013.

A graduate of the University of Florida, Bigelow has taught at a public middle school and at her Florida alma mater, Academy of the Holy Names in Tampa. She has a master's degree in history and educational leadership from the University of South Florida, and is completing her doctorate at North Carolina State University.

This fall, she'll defend her dissertation on attrition factors affecting Catholic school elementary principals - a topic she knows all too well.

"In general, people are not taking the principalship. It's even more of an issue in Catholic schools, and so I think it's imperative for diocesan leaders and pastors to understand why principals might leave, and subsequently what programs or initiatives or support we can put together to support them."

The most critical factor, she explained, "is the pastor-principal relationship and whether or not the principal has received clear guidelines and expectations for their role, vis-a-vis the pastor's role."

Her message to parents: "Number one is that I'm here to serve them."

Jensen is a freelance writer.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2016