Dr. Mary Beth Bowling, who succeeded Leisa Schulz as superintendent of Catholic schools July 1, said she has a 30-day goal and a broader challenge ahead of her.
Initially, she is orienting a mostly-new leadership team.
“Having three new integral members of the team, it’s a priority for me to get them working together,” said Bowling in a recent interview. “That’s where my initial focus is — to make sure they’re oriented and supported well.”
With the exception of Dr. Donna Brown, the data and technology specialist, the educators in the Office of Catholic Schools are new to the agency.
Amy Nall, formerly an assistant principal and interim principal of Sacred Heart Academy, is the new assistant superintendent of schools. She succeeds Bowling who had served in that position since 2014.
Christine Kelly is the new curriculum, instructional and assessment specialist and Mary Parola, a former principal, is the school improvement and professional learning specialist.
Once the team’s foundation is firm, Bowling said, the broader challenge begins — rebounding from the pandemic.
“Our role at the Office of Catholic Schools is to serve our schools,” she said. “We are here to provide support when needed. We provided guidance in the pandemic, connect our schools to resources, provide technology support and curriculum guidance so every school doesn’t have to do that on their own.”
In the wake of the pandemic, she said, the office is looking for ways to help schools move forward from the many and varied ways they were affected.
“Everybody has had different experiences and different choices last year,” she said. “How are we going to rebound?
“Our families have been disconnected from our church,” she noted. “We need to look at how we reconnect to our Catholic identity and reconnect to community.
“As we rebound, our leadership — principals, assistant principals, presidents and pastors — they are going to need support and we will be there to work with them any way they see fit,” she said, noting that these leaders will, in turn, need to offer support to their teachers and students.
Bowling noted that social-emotional learning will be part of the curriculum this coming year, as students, teachers and school staff cope with their experiences of the pandemic, including trauma.
Beyond that, Bowling said, schools will also be addressing the academic implications of the pandemic. But unlike the other pandemic challenges, the answers to that lie in education.
“This isn’t a pandemic question. Can we respond in new and different ways? I think we can,” she said, ticking off a list of approaches the office will take: “We have a new staff. We’ll explore best practices. We’ll look at things differently.”
Bowling said students will have excellent educators to help them through, adding that she’s grateful for the way teachers and principals responded to the needs of students and families during the pandemic.
“Our Catholic school teachers were our front-line workers last year in terms of doing in-person instruction,” she said. “Every decision we made, we made knowing they were carrying those decisions out. Our teachers and our principals navigated very difficult territory and they were very appreciated.”
Bowling’s career in education began at St. Bartholomew School, where she taught second and fourth grades and middle school. She served as a teacher for eight years before shifting to leadership as a principal for 25 years. She was principal of St. Bartholomew, St. James, St. Patrick (where she was the founding principal) and Sacred Heart Model School.
Growing up, she attended St. Martha School, Assumption High School, Bellarmine University, the University of Louisville and Spalding University, where she earned a doctoral degree in educational leadership in 2004.
Last year, she was awarded the Lead. Learn. Proclaim. Award from the National Catholic Educational Association. The award recognizes “outstanding efforts, contributions and achievements on behalf of Catholic school education.”
When the award was announced, Bowling credited her success to those who influenced her, including her predecessor Leisa Schulz, the women religious who formed her and the pastors she’s known.
She was praised at the time for her ability to cultivate leadership qualities in teachers.
“Mary Beth has enriched Catholic school leadership in the archdiocese by creating opportunities for current and future leaders to focus on their call to Catholic school ministry,” said Schulz, who retired in June.
Bowling has been a member of St. Martha Church since she was a fourth-grader. It’s a place where she feels welcome and comfortable, she said, adding that’s something she hopes to cultivate in her work.
“Feeling welcome and comfortable, whether you’re a teacher or a student, is critical,” she said.
Looking ahead to August, Bowling said the Office of Catholic Schools is awaiting decisions from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as well as state and local health departments and the Kentucky Department of Education before making decisions about health and safety guidelines for the start of the 2021-2022 school year.