Sacred Heart Parish School (SHPS), which is celebrating its 125th anniversary this year, welcomed a new principal this summer. Rachel McKenna, Ed.D., joined the school and parish community this summer and hit the ground running.
“Dr. McKenna is a leader who I believe possesses the knowledge and desire to create the kind of Catholic school that is distinguished by intelligent, caring, faith-filled students of character,” said Gene Zanger, a parent of two students at SHPS and member of the school's Board of Limited Jurisdiction.
“She is well-educated, young, engaging and driven. Education was not necessarily her first interest, but it found her on her journey. Her initial studies in science has bestowed on her beneficial critical thinking skills that I have been impressed with in her short tenure,” Zanger added.
McKenna, 30, has a science background, but decided to pursue science and education after her undergraduate studies. She has a doctorate in Organization and Leadership through the University of San Francisco's School of Education and a master’s degree in education from the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana. From June 2007 through May 2009, she participated in a two-year program called the Alliance for Catholic Education (ACE), through which she taught middle school science at an under-resourced Catholic school in the Tremé area of New Orleans. She said the experience taught her humility and about a different culture.
“It was the first time I was in a completely African-American neighborhood and school. We had to learn to trust each other. I wanted the parents to know that I was there to help their children succeed,” McKenna said. “It was an amazing experience. They taught me so much. I had never experienced some of the things they told me about. Many of my students were just coming home after being away for a year or more after Hurricane Katrina. Students shared their stories with me. One fifth-grader told me about being stranded on a bridge for days. A helicopter had to bring them food and water.”
McKenna grew up in Southern California, where she earned her bachelor’s degree in biology from the University of California at San Diego. She has always loved science and wrote her dissertation, “Girls and STEM in Catholic Schools: A Mixed Methods Exploration of Interest, Confidence, and Perceptions of STEM,” as part of her graduate studies.
“I was given a great role model in my mother,” McKenna said. “She always encouraged me. I watched her go back to college to earn her degree when I was in high school and we would do our homework together at the kitchen table. She taught me the values of hard work, determination, and perseverance.”
McKenna and her husband, Patrick – an attorney with a firm in San Jose – met at UCSD and moved to Northern California after she returned from Louisiana.
SHPS has faced challenges in recent years keeping enrollment up – the current student body consists of 188 kindergarteners through eighth-graders, down from a high of almost 600 a decade ago. Throughout the fluctuations of enrollment, Sacred Heart/St. Benedict Catholic Church has committed to partnering with the school and is working to keep the infrastructure maintained. With one class per grade, they’ve converted old classrooms into media spaces and moved the kindergarten into the main building in order to facilitate teacher and student interaction and collaboration with curriculum. The school also imprelemented a Transitional Kindergarten program this year, which helps to bridge the gap between preschool and kindergarten, allowing for early curriculum development. Parents are also involved in the school and required to complete service hours in the form of volunteering for events and fundraising.
“One of my mottos is ‘Big dreams. Start small. Work together.' The community has welcomed me with full hearts and we are coming together to make SHPS the most successful for our children.’” McKenna said. An active alumni group is also a big part of the school’s success, she said. In August, they worked with the Men’s Club to celebrate the 125th anniversary with a special Mass at Sacred Heart Church led by Bishop Richard Garcia and a pasta feed in the school gym afterwards.
McKenna said she hopes to expand communication and technology at SHPS. She plans to have regular outreach between parents, students, faculty and staff via the school’s newsletter, The Pulse, Beehively, an internal website, the school’s public website and calendars. This includes celebrating successes of the school with photos of school happenings and classroom learning spotlights alongside school logistics.
She has also hired an additional full-time math and science teacher to provide more individualized attention to those subjects. This allows sixth- to eighth-grade math classes to be split into smaller classes and further differentiation of instruction. McKenna also received a grant for a VEX Robotics Team to be offered as as one of several electives offered for these junior high classes. The school has also invested in a 1:1 iPad device program for grades 3-8 and shared iPads for preschool through second-grade, as well as, a device management system to keep track of them.
“I taught science for fourth through eighth grades at a Catholic school in Saratoga," McKenna said. "I was a member of their leadership team, working primarily as the Data Team Lead. We worked to implement data in a digital form and to train faculty and staff how to effectively use data in their classrooms."
McKenna said her philosophy includes educating the “whole mind, body, and soul. I am excited to be at SHPS, to be welcomed into this wonderful ministry, together in one community, dedicated to the pursuit of academic excellence and committed to our mission of instilling values of service, justice, and compassion,” she said.
“I believe wholeheartedly in Catholic education. I myself am deeply rooted in the Catholic faith having attended Catholic school for my elementary, high school, and graduate-level education. I believe in providing an education that promotes and engages well-rounded students to reach their highest spiritual, intellectual, emotional, and social potential.”
To learn more about SHPS and McKenna, visit the school's website by clicking here.