By ANDREW NELSON, Staff Writer | Published February 5, 2016
ATLANTA—Before she was a teenager, Lisa Cordell knew she wanted to be a teacher. She spent time in classrooms helping at an elementary school. Summers were spent preparing school bulletin boards. She was so sure of her vocation she joined Future Teachers of America.
“I wanted to be able to pass along knowledge of academics and of faith,” she said about her zeal for Catholic education.
She taught in public school for a couple of years. The Catholic schools, though, drew her back with their “atmosphere, the environment, the mission.” The principal of Our Lady of the Assumption School in Brookhaven said her enjoyment now comes from leading teachers to excel in helping their students.
Cordell received the 2015-2016 Principal of the Year award at this year’s archdiocesan Catholic education banquet. The Office of Catholic Schools hosted the event at the Hilton Hotel and Conference Center, Marietta, on Saturday, Jan. 30. She said the recognition, a selection made by her fellow principals, is an honor, but she remains “humbled and a little embarrassed.”
Parents see Cordell’s “quiet, steady confidence,” said Gretchen Derazi, the president of OLA’s Home and School Association.
“Parents love how welcoming she is to both new and older families,” said Derazi. “She treats every child and family with love and respect.”
She has created an environment where administration, faculty and parents work together, she said. Concerns raised by parents are considered with an eye to whether suggested changes would benefit the school, Derazi said.
Cordell, a native of Chattanooga, Tennessee, the oldest daughter of a school teacher and an insurance executive, arrived early at her career.
She said, “It was about the fifth grade. My mom had not gone back to work as a teacher yet, but she was in my school, St. Jude, helping teachers. I always liked doing bulletin boards, which is crazy. So, when my mom did go back to work, I would come in during the summer and I’d do all the bulletin boards. Looking back at it, I know she was thrilled. I would just help her with things like that.”
Holding a master’s degree in educational leadership from Kennesaw State University, she’s been a presence in OLA School since 1994, first as a parent and volunteer, then teaching middle school. She has been a technology teacher and coordinator, coordinated middle school and curriculum at OLA and directed the extended care program before becoming principal in 2012.
“Everybody always says I love children. And that’s true—I love children. I could do a lot of things loving children. But what I really wanted was to be able to pass on knowledge of academics and of faith. As a teacher, I could do that, through the religion classes and my example. I’ve found as an administrator I am able to do it almost as well, mostly through my actions and leading teachers to help their students.”
Mementos cover her office walls—crosses given as gifts and framed pictures of the students’ spring musicals. On her bookcase, the colorful puppet Zazu, a character in “The Lion King,” looks over the room.
The school opened at Our Lady of the Assumption Parish under the direction of the Sisters of Mercy 65 years ago. It has 528 students in prekindergarten through eighth grade, with 75 faculty members and staff. The school honors its roots in the religious community by embracing the sisters’ fourth vow: service.
They have a school-wide day of service where every classroom chooses a different way to serve others. Every month the school makes bag lunches for St. Francis Table, the Atlanta soup kitchen at the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception.
“Service is a very big part of our daily lives, both school-wide and on an individual basis,” Cordell said.
During her tenure, Cordell said she is pleased that lines of communication and camaraderie are strong among leaders at the parish, the school and the preschool program. She is proud also of how the school now has two resource teachers serving the youngest students.
“Pre-K, kindergarten, first grade, those are the building blocks for all academic learning,” she said. “If we can’t get the reading, if we can’t get those building blocks taken care of, then they are going to struggle all the way through.”
About the award, Cordell said she knows other principals in the archdiocese are also doing what she does.
“I was surprised. I was shocked. We all work hard. I really had no expectations of being awarded. To be awarded by your peers, I think is an honor.”