Facing the beginning of a new academic year with the COVID-19 pandemic still raging, the new administration at St. Thomas the Apostle School (STA) is facing a broad range of challenges.
But Principal Erin Monahan and Assistant Principal Maria Beckert are STA veterans and believe the community strength of faculty, staff, parents and students will pull the 132-year-old Catholic school, 5467 S. Woodlawn Ave., through troubled times and into the future.
Beckert is a Wicker Park resident who attended Xavier University in Cincinnati before earning a master's degree from Loyola University Chicago, through which she was placed as a first grade teacher at STA. She had that job for four years, additionally serving on the teacher assistance team, working in teacher mentorship, and on the leadership team.
"It was this year in the winter that I was approached to step into the assistant principal role," she said. Some of her past mentors held administrative roles, and she was excited to utilize their approaches in coaching and mentoring other teachers. "I've wanted to take on that mentor role as a mentor to someone else down the line," she said.
Monahan lives in Bridgeport and attended St. Joseph's University in Philadelphia before earning two master's degrees from Loyola. Like Beckert, she came to STA first through graduate school, teaching middle school language arts.
"Hyde Park is an awesome and beautiful neighborhood, so to move to Chicago and get to see this part of the city has been fantastic," she said. "I loved my time in the middle school, so I became the lead teacher on that team, taking the lead on procedures, expectations, setting the culture there."
But she wanted to do more; two years ago she became assistant principal to Tim Gallo, whom she succeeded as principal. She plans to pursue her doctorate in education while serving as STA's principal.
STA announced Gallo's transition to the Big Shoulders Fund, a support organization for schools in the Archdiocese of Chicago, and Monahan's hiring on June 22.
"It was great to learn from him how to establish a great school culture and to continue to build on the foundation of previous principals," she said. "In this time of COVID, I wouldn't want to be anywhere else than here with my St. Thomas family."
Both said their Catholic educations and faith compelled them to work at a parochial school.
"I personally believe in educating the whole person," Beckert said, academically, socially, emotionally and spiritually. "Personally, I really connect with the Jesuit 'cura personalis.' I went to a Jesuit university, and it's just really important to me, this idea of education and care of the whole person."
She pointed to STA's social-emotional learning teacher as a testament to these ideals. "I want to work for an institution that also believes these philosophies in education, and that's why I've stayed at St. Thomas for as long as I have and continue to support Catholic schools."
Monahan said the feeling of home at a Catholic school has kept her tied to them.
"I moved across the country, and the only reason I stayed after my first program was because I found a home here at St. Thomas," she said. "And I think that is rooted in not only the beliefs, but the kind of people who are attracted to a Catholic school. It's people who want to have community, who want to have that fellowship, who are looking for other people to connect with and lean on."
At a moment of racial reckoning, the fact that STA has a predominantly white faculty teaching a mostly African American student body is not lost on either the women or the students’ parents. It was a frequent point of discussion during the school’s monthly meetings for administrators and parents over coffee during Gallo’s tenure.
"Parents are saying, 'You look at your student population, and you're teaching young African American students, but your staff is mostly white. We want our children to be taught by African American teachers,'" Monahan said. "They want to know what's going on and if we're doing our due diligence to hire a diverse staff.
"We definitely are. We're looking within the archdiocese and beyond the archdiocese to find qualified candidates, so people who have a degree, license and experience, who are meeting our mission."
But teachers are in high demand, Monahan said, and STA competes with Catholic, private and public schools to hire candidates: "The spaces are plentiful, and the candidates are a small pool. It's not a new struggle, but it is definitely on the forefront of our minds, especially during this recruiting season."
She said there are not benchmarks for diverse hiring but that STA has hired more men and Black people this year and will prioritize doing so in the future.
Most of STA's students are not themselves Catholic, which Monahan said speaks to the school's mission of "serving God's children in extraordinary varieties."
"We want to make sure that we're celebrating what our kids are bringing while also highlighting what we believe as Catholics," she said. "That's something that we ask in our interviews, to see where candidates fall on what, because we want them to know that this is not your typical Catholic school that you may have in your mind. It's a unique place."
And, of course, Monahan and Beckert must begin a new academic year during the worst health crisis in a century, after a small, online-only summer program. Under instructions from the archdiocese, they are forming committees on safety and academics with the support of Pastor Christopher Kituli of the St. Thomas and the Apostle parish, 5472 S. Kimbark Ave.
As of yet, Monahan does not have concrete details about what the school year will look like, from whether instruction will be taught in a hybrid, part-remote manner to whether recess and gym class will be held.
"Those details are just not ironed out yet, and the archdiocese will continue to provide answers and support for us at this time," she said. Parents have been very patient, understanding and trusting of the school's contingency planning, she said, though they are eager to hear the eventual decisions.
Faculty members are excited to collaborate, share and resume teaching students, talking through iPad-sanitizing strategies, preventing fraudulent attendance records over Google Forms and how to help students make new friends if they have to learn while quarantined in their homes again. Beckert said a teachers are training themselves on utilizing more online platforms in the fall, whether or not remote education is necessary again.
"I am so humbled and inspired by everybody's attitude," Monahan said. "It definitely keeps me uplifted that they're excited to be back."
Economically, Monahan said enrollment is good and the school is making "tough but financially smart decisions." The administration has taken into account the recession's impact on families; STA scholarships, which are planned to continue as they exist now, are supported by a few outside organizations. She said the administration is keeping in mind the sacrifices families will have to make to continue children's enrollment when planning the school's own budget.
Monahan knows that if she is struggling during these times, so too are her elementary school students. But she is touched by their innocence, joy and perspective, and she finds it within herself to lean into unease "and have that moment with God so that I can understand his plan a little bit better."
"I think for me personally, it has definitely been a challenge, not in finding why this is happening, but how you connect and find community and find God through all of this," she said. "That changes on a day-to-day basis, and it's supposed to. Faith is not supposed to be this stagnant thing for us, but it's supposed to be an active journey."
Beckert worries and prays for her students, and she also remembers a family member who said faith and trust in God is not meant to be linear.
"It's supposed to be something that you rely on in moments of despair," she said. "Where we are in this world right now, I find myself calling on my faith even more than I have in the past, because it's not necessarily something that's supposed to always have the answers, but rather something that is a sense of support.
"I've been doing my best to call on my faith during these times, because I personally am struggling with an understanding of where we are as a community within our social structure and economics."