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After high-flying career with TSA, David Lima helps Catholic schools thrive

First slide

David Lima’s winding career path has been fueled by prayer and patriotism. 

Lima, 46, started as a Catholic high school teacher in Taunton, Mass. — at the school both he and his wife, Julie, attended. But salaries for new teachers were so low that he left after a couple of years to earn more money while Julie worked on her doctorate. “I loved Catholic education, but I had to feed my family,” he said. 

Then 9/11 happened. In the wake of the terrorist attacks, the government created the Transportation Security Administration, and Lima felt called to join. “Patriotism was a big thing in our house,” he said. “My dad was in the Army for 35 years.” 

After rising through the ranks of the TSA for more than a decade, Lima swerved back to his Catholic school roots, becoming a teacher and principal at his children’s school, St. William of York in Stafford. He recently started a new job as assistant superintendent, focusing on accreditation and supporting principals.

“David’s immediate past experience as a principal in the diocese is very valuable to the Office of Catholic Schools, particularly as he works with school leaders on reaccreditation processes,” said Superintendent Joseph E. Vorbach. “He also brings unique perspective and problem solving-skills from his time in the federal government that can help us strengthen the ways we support the schools.”

Lima, 46, sat down recently to reflect on his journey — and on the importance of teaching in every role.

When he joined the TSA, he was sent to Dallas, to be one of the first airport screeners there. But “they quickly found out I was a teacher and moved me into training,” he said. 

He trained screeners and wrote training curricula, moving rapidly up the ranks. When he’d risen as far as he could on that track, he became a Transportation Security Investigator, ensuring that airlines, railroads and public transportation systems complied with federal regulations. 

Again, when bosses learned of his teaching background, they made him a trainer. “I was training people on how to do investigations on things I hadn’t even done yet,” Lima said. 

After a few years, he was tapped to move to TSA headquarters to design a nationwide investigator training curriculum. After praying about it with Julie, he accepted the offer. They moved with their four children to Virginia and settled in Stafford, where they could afford a house as nice as the one they’d left behind in Texas. They loved St. William of York Church and the children loved the school. Julie worked remotely as an assistant professor and gerontology researcher at Brown University in Providence, R.I., while Lima shuttled back and forth from TSA headquarters to the National Law Enforcement Training Center in Glynco, Ga. 

The agency continued to recognize his gifts. He led a variety of compliance-related projects, then was asked to be a liaison with members of Congress, educating them and their staffs about the TSA and its needs. Along the way, he earned a master’s in public administration. “I spent a lot of time on Capitol Hill,” he said. 

After 11 years with the TSA, Lima was riding the train to work one morning and praying the Liturgy of the Hours when he realized, “I really don’t want to do this anymore.”

He believed as strongly as ever in the mission, “but I really wanted to go back to teaching in Catholic schools,” he said. He learned of an opening at St. William of York, and discussed it with Julie, who supported him, even though it would mean a 50 percent pay cut. They decided they could tighten their belts. 

He taught there for two years, and “it was the best decision I ever made,” he said. In addition to being back in a Catholic school setting, he got to spend more time with his kids. “Every day I got to eat lunch with our daughter and hold our son’s hand walking him to kindergarten. All the time I missed before, being on the train, I got to spend with them,” he said, adding that “God always provided — we never struggled.” 

After two years, he was asked to become principal, a position he held almost four years. During his tenure, the student body grew from 142 to 213, and test scores went from “not great to fantastic,” he said. Turnover dropped for both teachers and students; the only ones who left before graduating were from military families transferred off the nearby Marine Corps base at Quantico. Living in Stafford has been good for Lima’s family as well, and they plan to stay put at least until his youngest, a seventh grader, graduates. “We love St. William of York. It’s a great little country parish and a wonderful place to be,” he said. 

But he knows he can have an even greater impact as assistant superintendent. “Seeing what this office did during the pandemic, and the support they gave to schools, was nothing but inspirational,” he said. “Catholic education means a lot to me. I want to help Catholic schools grow, so every student who wants a Catholic education will be able to get one.”

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2021