January 17, 2014

‘Keep the biggest heart for Jesus’

Tour helps superintendents get to know schools, understand their unique qualities

The archdiocese’s superintendent of Catholic schools Gina Fleming listens as kindergarten students Tori Benyon and Connor Baldwin of St. Rose of Lima School in Franklin share their reasons for why they appreciate their school. Fleming has made it her goal to visit all 68 Catholic schools during this school year to learn what makes them special. (Submitted photo)

The archdiocese’s superintendent of Catholic schools Gina Fleming listens as kindergarten students Tori Benyon and Connor Baldwin of St. Rose of Lima School in Franklin share their reasons for why they appreciate their school. Fleming has made it her goal to visit all 68 Catholic schools during this school year to learn what makes them special. (Submitted photo)

By John Shaughnessy

Gina Fleming has had plenty of reasons to smile as she completes her visits to all 68 Catholics schools in the archdiocese this school year, including one priceless and telling moment with a kindergarten student.

The moment occurred as Fleming—the archdiocese’s new superintendent of Catholic schools—visited St. Joan of Arc School in Indianapolis. During the visit, a boy in kindergarten noticed her necklace of five silver hearts as she knelt to talk with him.

When the boy asked her who the biggest heart was for, Fleming answered, “That’s the heart for Jesus. We always have to keep the biggest heart for Jesus.”

After the child pointed to another heart, Fleming told him it was for her family, “just like Jesus has a family, too, with Mary and Joseph.”

When the boy asked about the next heart, Fleming said, “That’s for all of my friends, including you.”

Then the child touched one of the two remaining hearts and sweetly told Fleming, “I think this one should be for me.”

That moment still makes Fleming smile—partly because of the way it represents one of the constant qualities she noticed during her tour.

“It speaks to the importance of relationships and how that’s emphasized in our Catholic schools,” Fleming says.

Two questions and nine pans of brownies

After she started her role as superintendent of Catholic schools on July 1, 2013, Fleming foresaw a two-fold purpose in visiting all the schools with the two assistant superintendents, Rob Rash and Mary McCoy.

Fleming thought the visits would let them get to know the schools and understand their unique qualities.

She also viewed the visits as a way to establish relationships with administrators, teachers, students and parents, and “affirm their dedication and hard work by going into their communities and extending our help.”

At every school, Fleming asked two questions, “What makes you most proud of your school?” and “How can we best serve you?”

“The overwhelming majority of responses to the first question were the strong Catholic identity, the staff, the school and parish community, and the rigorous academics,” Fleming says. “What always came up first were their faith and their relationships.”

She, Rash and McCoy also always brought a pan of homemade brownies to every school.

“It was interesting to see the looks on the faces of the people at the hotel in New Albany where we stayed for three days when we brought in nine pans of brownies,” Fleming says with a laugh.

The visits and the extra efforts have resonated with school staffs throughout the archdiocese.

“This was the first time we can remember the superintendents visiting Seymour for no other reason than to experience St. Ambrose School,” says Michelle Neibert-Levine, the school’s principal.

“They visited every classroom and interacted with the students and staff. We were also able to showcase what we felt made St. Ambrose School special. I wanted to find a way of thanking them for making the time to visit us. Instead, they were the ones that came bearing gifts.”

Fleming’s visit “both impressed and touched” Karen White, the principal of St. Lawrence School in Lawrenceburg in the far southeastern part of the archdiocese.

“This is just an outward sign of her professionalism and concern for all of the administrators, staff and students in our school,” White says.

“St. Lawrence was thrilled to show her what a successful school we are, especially since we are probably the farthest school from the central office. We loved that she took the time to visit.”

Favorite memories

During her visits, which she hopes to complete in January, Fleming has also brought every school a framed copy of a prayer of St. Augustine:

“Breathe in me, O Holy Spirit, that my thoughts may all be holy. Act in me, O Holy Spirit, that my work, too, may be holy. Draw my heart, O Holy Spirit, that I love but what is holy. Strengthen me, O Holy Spirit, to defend all that is holy. Guard me then, O Holy Spirit, that I always may be holy. Amen.”

That focus on faith also marked many of Fleming’s favorite memories from the visits.

“I loved being with the children at All Saints Day Mass at St. Luke School in Indianapolis,” Fleming says, smiling. “The kindergartners were all dressed up as saints.

“We were at St. Mary School in North Vernon as they were preparing for their fall festival. There were volunteers everywhere across the campus. Yet Father [Jonathan Meyer] took time to let us visit the eucharistic adoration chapel. Even amid all this flurry of activity, there was this emphasis on why we exist—Jesus.”

She also recalls how she was moved by the girl who led students in prayer at St. Mary of the Immaculate Conception School in Aurora.

And Fleming savors a meeting she had at St. Christopher School in Indianapolis where the pastor, Father Michael Welch, the principal, Ronda Swartz, and assistant principal, Karen King, shared a powerful sense of the mission of Catholic schools.

That sense of mission is one of the constants that Fleming noticed during the school visits.

“It affirmed what we already knew, which is that the administrators and staff are incredibly dedicated to the mission of the Church and the vision of our Catholic schools.”

School administrators also see that same quality in Fleming.

“Gina is the personification of what a Catholic educator should be,” says John Hegarty, principal of Father Thomas Scecina Memorial High School in Indianapolis. “She is student focused while understanding the importance of the teacher in the classroom. My experience of her is that her leadership style and philosophy is based on her Catholic faith and her belief in the universality of the Church.”

A touch of humor, and a reminder

The visits to the schools also helped Fleming, Rash and McCoy bond in a way that road trips often make possible. And there were touches of comic relief along the way, too.

At St. Barnabas School in Indianapolis, principal Debra Perkins introduced Fleming to the students and posed this question to them, “What does a superintendent do?”

Fleming still smiles at one of the student’s answers: “Tell other people what to do.”

The touches of humor—along with the brownies, the personal interactions and the witness of Christ’s presence in each school—all created a feeling that Fleming hopes to continue to develop as she leads the Catholic schools in the archdiocese.

“It was all a reminder of why we do what we do,” she says. “These trips served as our ‘oxygen’—to breathe in the beauty of what is working well in our schools and show us where we can assist to further elevate the capacity of all.” †

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