By STEPHEN O’KANE, Staff Writer | Published February 26, 2009
More than 400 educators and school administrators gathered at the Cobb Galleria Centre on Saturday, Jan. 31, for the second annual education banquet, honoring the many hard workers responsible for the effective Catholic education system in the Archdiocese of Atlanta.
Twenty-six teachers, academic coordinators, assistant principals and admissions directors were honored at the event, which was emceed by Karyn Greer, news anchor for 11 Alive News on NBC.
This year the archdiocese honored a principal of the year and preschool coordinator of the year in addition to recognizing one outstanding educator from each of the 18 archdiocesan and six independent Catholic schools in the archdiocese.
The two new honors were bestowed on Steve Spellman, principal of St. Pius X High School, Atlanta, and Kathy Cicio, coordinator of St. Thomas Aquinas Pre-School, Alpharetta.
All of the honorees were chosen for being exemplary role models at their particular schools for students, teachers, staff and the Catholic school system in North Georgia. They were also recognized as people who have made an impact in their school community and in the archdiocese at large.
The principal of the year and preschool coordinator of the year were chosen by their peers at meetings held last fall of all principals and all preschool directors, respectively.
The other honorees were chosen by their school principal.
But according to the Office of Catholic Schools, the purpose of the banquet is twofold.
In addition to honoring faculty and staff from the 24 schools, the event also raises scholarship monies for financially qualifying children of employees of parishes, archdiocesan schools and the archdiocese.
Father Ron Nuzzi, director of Catholic leadership programs in the Alliance for Catholic Education at the University of Notre Dame, was the keynote speaker.
Father Nuzzi has written extensively about Catholic education, the spirituality of leadership and inclusion in Catholic schools.
Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory celebrated a Mass in honor of the educators before the dinner.
Spellman has served as principal of St. Pius X High School since July 2000. He began his career teaching at Briarcliff High School in Dekalb County before earning a master’s degree and specialist degree in education from the University of Georgia.
Afterward, he taught in the Gwinnett County school system, at Central Gwinnett and South Gwinnett high schools. He was twice named as Gwinnett County Teacher of the Year before joining the Gwinnett Schools Central Office as executive director to the superintendent and board of education.
Cicio has been involved with the St. Thomas Aquinas Pre-School since 1997, first as a teacher and then as co-director. She has been the director since 2005. The preschool serves about 160 children from toddlers through pre-K.
She said that the preschool, one of more than 25 in the archdiocese, is blessed with a tremendous group of teachers and staff, as well as active parents and a supportive parish. A core value for teachers is to “welcome every child,” she said, and “work to find what that particular child needs” in order to learn and blossom.
“Our teachers and our staff give 100 percent plus every day. They are very loyal and they are very devoted to the children and to the program,” she said.”
“We are also blessed to have a parish staff who supports the preschool and supports us as we welcome the children into the parish life,” she added.
Three of the other honorees were Christa Jackson of St. Mary School, Rome, Linda Totino of St. John Neumann Regional School, Lilburn, and Ruth Murphy of St. Thomas More School, Decatur.
“Being together for Mass was a beautiful and meaningful way to begin the evening,” said Christa Jackson, director of admission and assistant principal of St. Mary School in Rome.
“The archbishop is always so eloquent and has a way of making each person he meets feel very special and appreciated,” she added.
Jackson began working at St. Mary School in 1995, but she was the parent of children there for nearly a decade before that.
“During those 10 years, I saw the difference that Catholic education makes in the lives of children, especially my own,” she said. “When my youngest son started pre-K, the principal offered me the job as admissions/development director—at that time, one person did both jobs—so my son and I shared our first day at St. Mary’s together.”
Jackson and her husband, Charles, and their four children are Baptist, and they attend Cave Spring First Baptist Church, where three generations of her family have worshipped. But according to Alex Porto, principal of St. Mary School, Jackson represents the essence and values of Catholic education.
“She really embodies the spirit of the school,” Porto said. “When anyone thinks of St. Mary’s, they immediately think of Christa Jackson.”
Jackson received her bachelor’s degree in English and psychology from Agnes Scott College, Decatur, and a master’s degree in special education from West Georgia College, Carrollton.
While she has seen the school change physically, with St. Mary’s constructing a new building, the spirit of the community has remained the same.
“With the construction of our new building, we not only looked better, but we finally had room to grow and expand in numbers of children who could experience what we like to call ‘the St. Mary’s difference,’” she said, noting that the school’s enrollment grew from 157 students to nearly 400.
“In spite of the fact that we have grown in size, I have seen very little change in the students themselves,” she added. “They are inquisitive, energetic and loving, and I see the impact that St. Mary’s continues to make on their lives and the lives of their families.”
The positive impact of Catholic education on the lives of Catholic and non-Catholic families is something that is recognized by all those involved in the field.
Linda Totino, religion coordinator for St. John Neumann Regional School in Lilburn, attended Catholic school from kindergarten through high school and felt it was something to share with her children.
“I wanted them to have the same experiences,” Totino said, applauding the Catholic education she received growing up.
She began as a substitute teacher at the Lilburn school in the late ‘90s and was hired as a classroom aide shortly afterward. She has been serving as the religion coordinator since 2001.
Totino attended Hunter College in Manhattan and then received her master’s degree in education from C.W. Post College of Long Island University in 1991. She finished a master’s degree in theological studies at the Atlanta campus of Spring Hill College in 2007.
Totino said the banquet was a wonderful event and an appropriate way to honor all those who work so hard to give students the opportunity to learn in a supportive community. For her, the Mass was an important part of the evening.
“The Mass was beautiful,” said Totino. “The archbishop’s words were very encouraging.”
She said she felt humbled by the honor, recognizing that it takes many people to put together a successful school program.
Jim Anderson, principal of St. John Neumann School, said he and the rest of the faculty and staff know they can count on Totino whenever they need something.
Among many other duties, Totino arranges the school’s liturgical celebrations and trains altar servers. And, according to Anderson, she does it with joy.
“Linda is always positive,” he said. “It’s rare that I see her without a smile on her face.”
Ruth Murphy, music teacher at St. Thomas More School, has spent 13 years teaching music at the Decatur school and said she is still as optimistic about Catholic education and her role in the students’ everyday lives as when she first started teaching.
Murphy began her studies at Anna Maria College, a Catholic institution in Paxton, Mass., where she earned her bachelor’s degree in music.
“After teaching for a year, I found I needed to go back to school,” she said with a chuckle.
She returned to Columbia University’s Teachers College in New York City, where she received a master’s degree in arts and music education. She spent several years teaching in the Northeast before moving South and beginning anew at St. Thomas More.
Murphy enjoys teaching the students everything from singing to instruments to hand bells, a new program that just started at St. Thomas More this year. She believes music, and the arts in general, are a wonderful and different way to keep students engaged.
“(The students) need to move around. They need to have a break,” she said.
Terry Collis, principal of St. Thomas More School, said Murphy was chosen because she is such a “selfless, giving person.” Collis said Murphy is always available to help out in any way and that she puts in a lot of hard work outside the classroom.
“She is just one of the most selfless people I have ever known,” Collis said.
At the banquet, all the honorees were joined by hundreds of their fellow educators from the network of Catholic schools in North Georgia. For many, it is the belief they have in Catholic education that keeps them going.
“I believe Catholic education is important because it does the best job of providing children with a well-balanced education,” said Jackson.
Totino agrees. “I feel Catholic schools are the salt of the earth,” she said.
“Not only do our children receive the daily message of God’s love for them that gives them the foundation for a lifelong Christian faith, but they also receive excellent academics, an emphasis on physical fitness, the importance of friendships and how to be a good friend, and firm behavioral expectations concerning appropriate and inappropriate actions and words,” added Jackson.
“All this rolled together in one great package, where families are important, and everyone has the opportunity to make a difference in the life of the school, make Catholic schools the best,” she said.
Other Honored Staff
Preston Bazemore, athletic trainer at Blessed Trinity High School, Roswell.
Patricia Ward, vice-principal at Christ the King School, Atlanta.
Jane Sullivan, English teacher and religion teacher at Holy Redeemer School, Alpharetta.
Kevin Evans, physical education teacher and football coach at Holy Spirit Preparatory School, Atlanta.
Susan Cartwright, art teacher at Immaculate Heart of Mary School, Atlanta.
Kathleen Powers, teacher at Marist School, Atlanta.
Sarah Traut, Latin teacher at Msgr. Donovan High School, Athens.
Lynette Wilson, coordinator of the primary years program, Notre Dame Academy, Duluth.
Cynthia Launay-Fallasse, French teacher and house system coordinator, Our Lady of Mercy High School, Fairburn.
Mary Baxter, seventh-grade social studies teacher, Our Lady of the Assumption School, Atlanta.
Orla Thomas, science teacher at Our Lady of Victory School, Tyrone.
Denise Jordan, middle school English teacher at Pinecrest Academy, Cumming.
Pamela Koehler, resource teacher at Queen of Angels School, Roswell.
Martha Manrique, assistant director of the Solidarity School, Atlanta.
Lorraine Dannehold, first-grade teacher at St. Catherine of Siena School, Kennesaw.
Priscilla Garten, development and admissions director, St. John the Evangelist School, Hapeville.
Frances Chapman, art teacher at St. Joseph School, Athens.
Jill Ramsey, media specialist and assistant principal, St. Joseph School, Marietta.
Maria Elisa Goncalves, sixth-grade science and religion teacher, St. Jude the Apostle School, Atlanta.
Teresa Carnes, pre-kindergarten teacher, St. Peter Claver Regional School, Decatur.
John Podhorez, plant manager, St. Pius X High School, Atlanta.