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Winter Newsletter

Fellows, Partners, and Supporters of the ACE Principal Academy,

When I talk to diocesan partners and prospective candidates about the Cabrini and Chicago Fellowships, a common question I receive is “how much of a commitment is the program?” Especially after the past few years, oftentimes these individuals will state that they’re already at their breaking point, or that there is no way they can prioritize the program commitments on top of everything else they already have on their overly full plates as Catholic school principals. While the past few years have certainly presented unimaginable challenges that have pushed the limits of what we believe we can handle on our own, I cannot help but be a little disappointed when I hear these types of responses. Not because these individuals are declining an invitation to consider the Fellowship, but because it is the first sign that I have failed to underscore the value and benefit of this program as an opportunity to sustain leaders in the work they are already currently undertaking.

While the primary goal of the ACE Principal Academy is to foster excellence for principals to transform themselves, and their schools, we believe that a foundational building block of this work is that principals must first be sustained themselves in order to effectively do this work. If you look up the etymology of the word sustain, you will quickly find phrases such as “to hold up” and “to keep up or maintain.” Although important, this maintenance is not what I mean when I reference the need to sustain principals. If you look more deeply, you will also find the root of this notion in concepts such as “to provide the necessities of life” or “to suffer or endure.” These phrases more accurately and more powerfully underscore the importance of this sentiment, especially when you consider the mindset that because principals have extensive experience, or they are fully certified, they already have everything they need to succeed at the job. By virtue of attaining the position, there is an implicit expectation that the individual does not need more themselves. However, as these deeper meanings emphasize, principals, like all individuals, are in need of constant sustenance as a source of strength and nourishment in enduring the rigors and responsibilities of leadership.

What, then, are the types of food and drink that principals need to be better sustained in this work? A recent RAND report on teacher and principal well-being indicated that additional support, such as coaching, mentoring, and professional development, was one of the top reasons why principals are likely to stay in their jobs (Steiner,, 2022). Moreover, researchers believe that “professional development can allow for personal growth and learning for principals, act as a job resource that increases their resilience at work and can be beneficial in developing principals’ self-sustaining abilities, maintaining compassion for themselves, making their roles more sustainable in the long term” (Wang, Pollack, and Hauseman, 2022, p. 22). In our Catholic worldview, we know that this also involves time to simply come closer to God and our faith, through reflection, prayer, and worship.

This need to attend to the well-being of principals is one of the reasons we believe in not only the importance being part of a cohort throughout the fellowships, but also in providing weekly coaching to the Fellows in the ACE Principal Academy, ensuring they are surrounded with additional avenues of support as they tackle the many demands of the role. Moreover, it is also why we ask them to step away from the busyness of their schools in the middle of each year to participate in a retreat with their peer Fellows. In doing so, we strive to provide principals with the nourishment they need professionally, communally and spiritually to be sustained in this work. So as we prepare to take the current Fellows on retreat next month, I ask that you join us in prayer so that they can each receive whatever it is they need to continue to make God known, loved, and served to their school communities. 


Steiner, E. D., Doan, S., Woo, A., Gittens, A. D., Lawrence, R. A., Berdie, L., Wolfe, R. L., Greer, L., & Schwartz, H. L. (2022, June 15). Rates of stress among teachers and principals are running high. RAND Corporation. Retrieved January 12, 2023, from 

Wang, F., Pollock, K., & Hauseman, C. (2022). Time demands and emotionally draining situations amid work intensification of school principals. Educational Administration Quarterly. 

Over the holidays I was filled with joy to have my daughters home and back in the nest with us! Despite the wonderful connectedness that technology affords us, I miss their physical presence while they are both away at school. After demanding and successful fall semesters, both of my girls spent their first couple days home seeking rest — lounging, sleeping, and taking comfort in home-cooked meals — before participating in the joyful hustle and bustle of the Christmas season. It was these first few days of quiet that got me thinking: What is it that we need in order to truly renew?

Some people equate rest with renewal, or say that rest is for the body what renewal is for the mind; some promise renewal with a massage or yoga class, a good nap or drinking chamomile tea before bed; sometimes we equate recharging with a vacation from work or an opportunity to travel. While each of these things might be enjoyable or give us a boost of motivation, none of them are able to sustain us long-term. What is it we truly need then, in order to be renewed and recharged? Psalm 121 reminds us that God will always provide us with strength and the help we need:

“I will lift up my eyes to the mountains;

From where shall my help come?

My help comes from the Lord,

Who made heaven and earth.”

As Catholic school leaders, your vocation is one of service; you are constantly pouring yourselves out for others as you work to renew your communities. Spending even just a few minutes connecting with God in meaningful ways everyday is the life source necessary to be God’s hands on earth. When we look up and partner with God, we lean on His strength and gain the spiritual renewal that allows us to do God’s work and bring Christ to our communities. God strengthens us through the Gifts of the Holy Spirit, and Jesus provides us with a model for looking up. Jesus Himself relied on His Father’s strength, separating Himself from the crowds and from His friends often in order to pray, be with God, and recharge. In those moments when you find yourself in need of renewal for your soul, lift your eyes to the heavens and know that God is with you. Remember that your leadership creates spaces for God to be known, loved and served, and that you never walk alone.

Kristina Reyes (Chicago Cohort 2 Fellow) believes that every child she is lucky enough to have at her school deserves the best educational experience possible, and the elements she learned through the ACE Principal Academy Chicago fellowship relative to Instructional Leadership, Creating a Christ-Centered Culture of Joy, and Winning with People, helped her to make that belief a reality. We are fortunate that Kristina has been transparent in sharing her leadership journey with us. 

Kristina became Head of School at The Academy at St. Joan of Arc, an independent Catholic School located in Evanston, Illinois, in 2019. Just one year before, the parish school had an enrollment of 147 and was slated to be closed. Under her leadership, a new independent school was born, and today that school serves 234 students and is thriving. Much of this success is because Kristina strives daily to ensure that every decision is based upon what is best for students. She is able to do this, in part, because the faculty, staff, and community operate from a shared set of beliefs about students and learning. As Kristina states, when they started out, “One of the most important activities we did as a faculty was forming our root beliefs. We came together to discern what we truly believed about teaching and learning. This was a critical first step that laid the foundation for the success of our school.” Kristina learned how to engage in this process through the ACE Principal Academy Summer Institute, and then subsequent immersion experiences, to visit schools where her cohort critically examined how schools articulate and live out shared beliefs. 

Among those foundational principles was the belief that Excellence is Intentional. Throughout the program, Kristina learned that adult actions determine student outcomes. Aligning actions to this belief means that all adults in the building understand that everything they do has to be done to the best of their ability, including being prepared for students and preparing them to be critical thinkers dedicated to a life of service. One way that Kristina supports her teachers in this endeavor is by creating a culture of coaching within her building. “When I learned the direct impact of highly effective teaching on student achievement, it became clear we had a collective responsibility to strengthen instructional practices within our school” (Marzano, 2003). Therefore, over the course of a year, all teachers receive instructional coaching in addition to professional learning around core instructional practices. 

Implementing a coaching program within a school requires a foundation of trust and collaboration, which is why a second root belief, Relationships are the Foundation of the Academy, is paramount to the culture. Kristina shares that coaching is welcomed in her building in part because her staff has embraced the mindset that everyone, students and adults alike, are partners in learning. This change in mindset was only possible because Kristina prioritized relationships, as demonstrated by her investment in teachers through coaching. “Teachers know they're not in this alone. They know it is my job to guide them and help them to be the best they possibly can. I have a mentor; I have a coach who works with me. I can't do this alone. I'm always growing and ready to learn new things. The ACE Principal Academy played a transformational role in my leadership development. It taught me practical and easily implemented steps that have made a huge impact at my school.”

Marzano, R. J. (2003). What Works in Schools: Translating Research into Action. Alexandria: ASCD. 


August Newsletter

This past year has been a year of transition and growth for the program. Building upon the foundation that started seven years ago as a partnership with the Archdiocese of Chicago to support principal growth and development, the ACE Principal Academy expanded its reach to engage Catholic school leaders from dioceses across the country. This expanded program is called the Cabrini Fellowship and named in honor of St. Frances Cabrini, who worked tirelessly to serve the marginalized and to bring the love of God to all whom she encountered. Mother Cabrini worked for many years in the Chicago area and from there she influenced communities all over the country, establishing schools and orphanages. Mother Cabrini persevered in the face of tremendous opposition in order to do good and serve those most in need. Inspired by Mother Cabrini, the ACE Principal Academy aspires to make God known, loved, and served by supporting the development of Catholic school leaders, primarily through the Chicago and Cabrini Fellows who engage in a two-year program that integrates high-quality professional learning experiences with individualized coaching and spiritual nourishment which are delivered through a vibrant community of practice.
And yet, we are just getting started. We know that success in this endeavor will require not only maintaining the support provided to school leaders via these fellowships, but also new initiatives and creative ways to support the nearly 6,000 schools and school leaders across the country. This newsletter is one way in which the program strives to support and remain connected with you, our partners in this ministry, as we continue to grow and find new ways to offer professional growth opportunities to principals across the country. These initiatives will continue to respond to the evolving needs of leaders, schools, and dioceses – yet at the core of this work our mission is always to foster excellence for Catholic school leaders.
Excellence, when it comes to schools, can elicit a multitude of preconceptions. Where in our schools do we strive for excellence? How is excellence determined from community to community? What actions will ultimately cultivate excellence and lead to success in our schools? Depending on whom you speak to, you may receive a different answer that reflects the unique challenges which that individual encounters in their local setting. Educational leadership scholar Thomas Sergiovanni (1984) defined excellence as a quality superseding competence and that requires the development of “love of learning, critical thinking and problem-solving skills, and curiosity and creativity” (p. 45).  This is not to diminish the importance of competence – the mastery of certain predetermined, essential fundamentals – but rather I would posit that Sergiovanni argues that excellence requires an insatiable desire to continually improve. It is this same belief that each of us can grow which inspires the ACE Principal Academy’s work and unites all of our leaders, regardless of the community in which they serve. Carol Dweck (2019) encapsulates this growth mindset as a quality that enables individuals to  “take on more challenges or persist more in the face of setbacks.” We intentionally chose the tagline “to foster excellence for Catholic school leaders” to underscore our belief that excellence, and the continual pursuit of it, is a necessary building block for innovation and success. Every member of the ACE Principal Academy understands that in order to achieve excellence, they cannot become complacent with the status quo, and that there is always something that can be done to achieve greater levels of excellence. Working together, we believe new habits and new learnings can be implemented for the betterment of teachers, students, and school communities.
I want to close this first newsletter by extending my sincere gratitude. Thank you to all of you for the work you accomplish every day, and in particular, the ways in which you encourage and support school leaders to continue in this important ministry of leadership in Catholic schools.  I hope this newsletter will serve to keep you informed about the ACE Principal Academy and provide spiritual nourishment and inspiration to continue advocating for Catholic school education and for those who lead these schools with excellence.
Greg O’Donnell, Ed.D.

 Fr. Lou DelFra, C.S.C."To follow Jesus is alway a beginning; it is THE beginning happening once again."

– Fr. Julián Carrón

Every once in a while, and especially when we are starting something new, it helps to remember: the first disciples of Jesus had no idea what they were getting into!
That is to say, they didn’t just wind up disciples and future saints.  They had to BEGIN somewhere.
Beginnings, by definition, are incomplete – they are the initiation of something that is not yet.  As such, beginnings – like the beginning of a new school year – are filled with a freshness, a sense that anything can happen.  And… beginnings – like the beginning of a new school year –are also filled with uncertainty, disorientation, even some fear.
Take heart:  this was true for the first disciples too.  John the Evangelist captures the “spirituality of beginning” – famously and sublimely – in the first chapter of his Gospel.  John the Baptist stands waist-high in the Jordan River, screaming a brilliant new message of the coming of God’s Kingdom.  His message is full of hair-raising imagery, but also full of conviction and resonance, which would explain the crowds that journeyed into the desert to hear him preach.
In the Bible, big things often begin in the desert (see the 10 Commandments, or Jesus’ Temptation).  But this is a bit counter-intuitive.  When we begin something, we usually prefer to begin from a place of strength and move along with some certainty from there.  The desert is not a place of strength or certainty.  In the Baptist’s desert, life hangs by a thread.  No one actually lives there (except him), and insects are standard fare.  His disciples go there, not to be comforted in what they already know, but to lose, momentarily, their daily comforts, so that they could encounter something fresh and new.
And then, one day, the Baptist finally proposed – a new beginning.
An unidentified figure mysteriously enters the scene.  John points to him as he walks by, and says to the disciples, “There goes the one we have been waiting for.”  It must not have been what most of them expected, for only two disciples – Peter’s brother Andrew, and a second, unnamed – follow.  And even they don’t know exactly what they’re doing.  They just walk behind this mysterious figure, and can’t even compose themselves enough to ask him where he’s going.
Finally, perhaps sensing their disorientation, Jesus turns and asks, “What are you looking for?”  Surely, he already knows the answer – they don’t really know.
At a loss, and now feeling how far from their familiar comforts they have strayed, they make a plea for a home-cooked meal around a fire.  “Teacher,” they ask, “where is your home?”
Jesus, in turn, invites, with three indelible words, right to the heart: “Come and see.”  And so it begins.
Perhaps in this story of the beginning of the disciples’ journey, we can see some semblance of our story, here at the beginning of a new semester.  All educators begin a new school year in some degree restless, vulnerable – beginnings begin in the desert.  If you are not feeling some sense of freshness and its corresponding vulnerability, you are probably not really beginning this year, but just continuing last year.  Beginnings demand restless, vulnerable hearts.
Coming to accept the restlessness that is an inevitable part of any new beginning can be a great spiritual exercise to begin this school year.  In fact, John’s Gospel suggests that in the courageous following of our restlessness are often invitations from Jesus to . . .  come and see, placing our trust in Him.
So, as you start this year, in what ways are you feeling restless? In what ways is this new beginning calling you to act courageously? How can you step into this new beginning to “come and see” Jesus more clearly in the midst of these happenings? As Jesus invites you to “come and see” what He has in store for your school this year, what helps you to trust and to follow?

The Principal Academy welcomed forty-two Chicago and Cabrini Fellows to campus for a Summer Institute this July, the largest gathering of Catholic school leaders in the program to date. The week opened with a spiritual retreat, simply inviting the leaders to first step away in prayer, much like Jesus did throughout his ministry. The themes of these retreats invited first-year Fellows to reflect upon how Christ is Always with Them and that we have been charged through the new commandment to first and foremost to love one another. The focus for the second-year Fellows encouraged them, like Jesus does to the Disciples, to cast out their nets a second time as they prepared to “feed their sheep.” This time spent in prayer, reflection, and fellowship set the tone for a week full of renewal, visioning, and planning for these amazing leaders.

The Summer Institute provided the opportunity for the Fellows to further their thinking and grow their mindset around the domains of the Principal Academy, which include Establishing an Intentional Christ Centered Culture of Joy, Leading for Instructional Excellence, and Winning with People. The Fellows experienced a combination of learning and practice in each of these domains, and were encouraged to identify the areas in which they could start leading for transformation within their own school communities. A highlight of the week was a lesson in inspirational leadership that included a visit to the office of former University president Fr. Hesburgh or, for some of our Fellows, a tour of the football facility with Fr. Nate Wills, C.S.C.           

The week concluded with the ACE Missioning Mass in the Basilica of the Sacred Heart, at which our second-year fellows were celebrated and “missioned” as they returned to their schools to carry on the work they’ve begun to lead each of their schools to excellence. At this mass, each fellow was presented with an inspirational image of Jesus encouraging His disciples to cast their nets into the sea as a reminder to continue to cast their nets within their own communities.

First-year Fellows left this experience inspired to cultivate root beliefs, increase their own leadership presence, and ensure their teachers are implementing core instructional practices. Second-year Fellows built upon prior experiences and left inspired to articulate a vision for their individual schools, invest in teacher development through instructional coaching, and implement meaningful planning experiences for teachers to elevate instructional practice. 

ACE Principal Academy

Hear from some of the ACE Principal Academy Fellows who spent a week of their summer at Notre Dame. Click here to view the videos from Lisa Reiger, Mary Maloney, Kristy Kane, Patti Paulsen, and Jennifer Farrand.