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A Catholic Principal’s Zeal in Cleveland

If you follow St. Thomas Aquinas-Cleveland Principal Rachael Dengler on Twitter, you know that she’s prone to posting things like this:

In her first year as principal, Rachael has brought unstoppable zeal to the work—at a time when the challenges for all school leaders are significant. Last week, her school recognized a milestone: During the same week just a year ago, St. Thomas Aquinas was slated to close. Here’s what she posted about that anniversary:

This Catholic Schools Week, this dynamic educator who considers leading a Catholic school to be her dream job—and whose school is beating the odds—shares with us why both are true:

When I first envisioned myself in my own classroom, I imagined deep wood trim around the blackboard, thick, hundred-year-old closet doors, and the faint smell of incense from the chapel down the hall—elements that, at the time, I forgot were not actually present in America’s typical classroom. You know, things that made my time in the classrooms at St. Charles Borromeo School and Lima Central Catholic High School charming and homey.

So, when I arrived in my first classroom in a charter school just outside of Cleveland, I immediately felt confused—lost, even. The modern gray walls with sharp window lines were not what I subconsciously expected or wanted. Nevertheless, I prepped, rehearsed and got ready for my first days as a language arts teacher, and I loved my students the way that I had anticipated.

When it came time to renew contracts at that charter school, I knew I loved the result of my time with these students, but the way I went about each day felt wrong. I couldn’t pray with my students; our relationships were surface level; and I had very little time or few events in which I got to know them and their families as real people outside of our gray-walled learning box. So, I decided to look elsewhere and stumbled upon a Catholic school looking to hire a middle school English teacher. Little did I know when I came to interview that the warm office in which I first met Nancy Lynch, the former principal at St. Thomas Aquinas and current principal at Archbishop Lyke School, would eventually become my own.

I first made it to the school only after I accidentally buzzed into the chapel doors not once, but twice, and Bishop Roger finally had to walk me to a separate building where the school office and classrooms were. I walked into the school office that was full of that deep dark wood I remembered, and Mrs. Williamson, our school administrative assistant—and quite frankly, my favorite personal prayer warrior in my first year as principal—told me she was praying for me before my interview began.

St Thomas Aquinas-Cleveland’s Yvonne Williamson in action.

From that moment, I knew I wanted to be a teacher in this building. Even though that would mean I was committing to another year working and living hours away from my parents and three brothers, I felt at home. This feeling would only amplify over the next six years as I went from “Miss O’C” to “Mrs. D,” as I was invited to family homes and gatherings of my students, as I attended high school graduations of my former students, as I received daily hugs (pre-COVID) from both students and their parents after a successful assessment or personal accomplishment. Immediately, I was a part of the STA family.

From the moment I was prayed for as I walked into my first interview, to now as I walk into my office daily with the same prayer warrior asking God to be on my side as we tackle the day together, I have been a part of the family. So when, in January of 2020, I was told that St. Thomas Aquinas School was going to be closing for good, the fear that gripped me wasn’t about losing my job; it was about losing my family.

I wasn’t afraid to go on interviews again, or to drive up to a new building and probably get lost on the way to the office again. I was afraid of missing out on family moments and graduations that I had been anticipating being a part of. I was afraid of not finding a place in which my coworkers would pray for and with me. I was afraid that my students and their families would end up in a school in which they couldn’t be with the classmates that they’d grown up with. I was afraid for all of the students who would never get the opportunity to be welcomed into this family like I was.

I sat on my couch that night, sobbing to my husband, begging him to help me think of a way to do something, to make this stop. My pup, Ralph, who was STA’s therapy dog and who accompanied me to Room 101 each week, rested upon my lap while Allen and I talked in circles about what this closure would mean.

Those next weeks were some of the hardest of my life. We attempted to celebrate Catholic Schools Week 2020, knowing that some of us wouldn’t have the opportunity to be in a Catholic school to celebrate the following year. On Friday of that week, seven or eight fellow teachers were laying on the floor of my classroom after an exhausting day of celebrating our students when Dr. Frank O’Linn, the superintendent of the diocese, came into the school office to announce that through an anonymous donor, STA would stay open.

We remained on the floor of my classroom in shock and in awe of what just happened. Some of us, myself included, had already started interviewing for new jobs. Some even had accepted new positions. There were obvious fears: what if this happens again? Is this even real? Could we just be closed again in another two weeks or next year?

This, of course, was all before the pandemic even hit. But even through all of that fear, this chance to keep our family together was too great to give up. Every teacher in our building came back.

Every single one.

Brothers at St. Thomas Aquinas take a mask break.

Even through this pandemic, the demands of remote learning, the pressure that comes with navigating a new normal—all under new leadership (enter me), and the transition into the Partnership Schools networks with a new curriculum across every grade level—we persist. But we don’t just persist, we thrive.

We’ve lived through twenty first days of school this year as we had new students coming into the STA doors every single day for the first month of school…and even now. This Catholic Schools Week, we will welcome six new students to STA for the first time. The school that was about to close last year now has an enrollment 44 percent higher than the week we lay on the floor, drained and stunned.

When we returned to prepare for the 2020-2021 school year, we had more obstacles to face than any other school year before this. But knowing all that we almost lost—and seeing new students thriving with all we have to offer—has fired us up to take on those obstacles. Take on a new curriculum in every grade level? Welcome over a hundred new families to our school in one year? Take on new students daily for the whole first month of school? Do all of this while teaching in-person and remotely in the middle of a world-wide pandemic? If that’s what it takes to keep our family together, then we’ll do it. And we’ll be grateful to do it.

We still have those hundred-year-old closet doors, but they’re re-stained and refinished. We still have that deep wood trim that shines just a little bit brighter now. That faint smell of incense will never go away. In a lot of ways, we’re still the same. But in more ways, we’re better—and every new student and parent helps make us better still.

To work with and on behalf of people I love in a community that welcomed me is something I do not take for granted. That’s why, even on the days when it is hard, being a Catholic educator truly is my dream job.