(Excerpted from University of Notre Dame’s Alliance for Catholic Education)
Dominic Fanelli is halfway through his second year as principal at St. Mark the Evangelist School in Harlem–one of six schools in the Partnership Schools network. It’s a time he says is characterized by St. Katherine Drexel’s guidance to “press forward and fear nothing.”
After experiencing the challenges of being a first-year principal, Fanelli, a member of the 18th cohort of ACE Teaching Fellows and now a member of the 17th cohort of the Mary Ann Remick Leadership Program, came to Notre Dame last summer for his first semester of Remick coursework ready to improve himself and his practices.
“The Remick summer was great in a lot of ways,” Fanelli said. “One way was just mentally, emotionally, and physically putting myself back together after a really difficult year. [The Remick faculty] gave me a real game plan–coming in and connecting me with a lot of people who have been in similar situations, talking through difficult conversations, putting culture first–but not only putting it first, but knowing how to put it first.”
As the summer went on, Fanelli recognized that school culture derives from a school’s root beliefs. The issue was that St. Mark lacked root beliefs. With the help of Christian Dallavis, the senior director of ACE’s leadership programs, Fanelli created a mental model of what those root beliefs could look like for the St. Mark community. In forming his own root beliefs, Fanelli dug into the rich history of St. Mark and the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, who are deeply committed to the Eucharist and its ability to unify. In this work, Fanelli discovered their foundress, St. Katharine Drexel, and found inspiration in her words.
After calling his assistant principal each day of the summer and with his own root beliefs in mind, Fanelli opened the 2018-19 school year with a professional development session for his faculty focused on creating the school’s root beliefs. Fanelli encouraged his staff during this conversation by saying, “We all have beliefs, and I bet you 80 percent of the things we believe are in common. But we’ve got to find out what those 80 percent are. Then we’ve got to abide by those, and they’ve got to direct everything we do. We have to be authentic to who we are and name who we are.”
Together, the St. Mark faculty wrote five root beliefs:
- We are better together as a St. Mark family.
- All children can learn.
- God is in all things.
- With God, anything is possible.
- We are meant to constantly grow.
As they went around the room and came to agreement about their faith in these beliefs, Fanelli was struck by how similar these five root beliefs were to the ones he had formed with the help of Dallavis over the summer. In this moment, he could already sense the difference between this school year and his first as principal. The previous year, he would try to gather as many ideas as possible from his team to make a decision. However, this year Fanelli has aimed for his staff to take truly ownership of their ideas in the form of these root beliefs. By formulating and taking ownership of their root beliefs, Fanelli says that his team is “on fire and fired up to be here.”