April 19, 2019

Principal earns national honor with ‘young at heart’ attitude

Showing her ‘young at heart’ spirit, Sarah Jean Watson, principal of St. Lawrence School in Indianapolis, gets in on the fun with some of her students for a photo opportunity with Clifford the Big Red Dog. (Submitted photo)

Showing her ‘young at heart’ spirit, Sarah Jean Watson, principal of St. Lawrence School in Indianapolis, gets in on the fun with some of her students for a photo opportunity with Clifford the Big Red Dog. (Submitted photo)

By John Shaughnessy

Everything you need to know about Sarah Jean Watson as a principal begins with the announcement that she shares every school day with her students:

“If no one yet has told you today, I love you very much.”

It also helps to know the approach that Watson takes with her teachers, an approach of appreciation defined by the time she told them there would be a staff meeting, and instead she took them for a field trip to an apple orchard.

Then there is the way she lives her Catholic faith so fully that it has a dramatic impact on the community of St. Lawrence School in Indianapolis.

“Many of the students at St. Lawrence are not Catholic,” says Christina Knych Ugo, president of the school’s Parent-Faculty Organization. “Each year that Miss Watson has been at St. Lawrence, I have witnessed students, parents and faculty joining the Catholic Church. Miss Watson proclaims the Catholic faith daily with her words and actions. It has been wonderful to witness the evangelization that is taking place at our school.”

All these qualities have led Watson to be honored with a 2019 “Lead, Learn, Proclaim Award” from the National Catholic Educational Association (NCEA), for her dedication and commitment to excellence in Catholic education.

Chosen from more than 150,000 Catholic teachers and administrators across the nation, Watson will receive the award during the NCEA’s national convention on April 23-25 in Chicago.

It’s quite an honor for the 39-year-old Watson who considers herself “about 11 at heart.”

“I believe you have to feel young to do this job,” she says with a laugh. “You have to be at the kids’ level to understand them. I love to be young at heart and be right there with the kids when they do things.”

That helps explain some of the fun and wacky costumes she wears on special days, and the joyous smile that she flashes frequently. Still, there is no mistaking the serious foundation of her approach to the students in her school.

“We need to meet all of their needs before they’re ready to learn,” Watson notes. “St. Theodore Guérin said, ‘Love the child first, then teach them.’ Our goals as Catholic schools are to get everyone to heaven and make saints of our students and our colleagues. That’s how I try to approach every day.”

She also stresses inclusion at St. Lawrence, a school where the student body is “55 percent African-American, 25 percent Hispanic, 15 percent white and 5 percent multi-racial.”

Watson leads one of the five pilot schools in the archdiocese’s Latino Outreach Initiative, according to Gina Fleming, superintendent of Catholic schools for the archdiocese. The initiative seeks to invite Latino students and families to Catholic schools, and then provide support for them.

“She works diligently to ensure that Catholic education is accessible to and affordable for all students,” Fleming notes. “Sarah even works as an advocate for families who are facing deportation within the Indianapolis community.”

For Watson, such efforts are all about embracing the mission of the Catholic faith and Catholic education.

“Those who are new to our country or who are first or second generation, they need Catholic schools,” she says. “We are truly being ‘Church’ when we reach out to the community around us. We benefit when we minister to everyone in our parishes.”

Still, Watson’s influence has never stopped at the boundaries of her school and parish, says Rob Rash, assistant superintendent of Catholic schools in central and southern Indiana. She has served as the president of the Archdiocesan Principal Association. She teaches the history and mission of the Church to new teachers. And she serves as coordinator of the archdiocese’s annual Catholic Schools Week Mass.

At the national level, she has served on the NCEA’s professional development committee and its executive committee on elementary schools.

Asked when she sleeps, Watson laughs and says, “Saturdays!”

“Her résumé will point out her 13 years as a principal and her many accomplishments,” Rash says. “What her résumé will not show is her kindness, graciousness and wonderful sense of humor.”

It’s all part of being young at heart while focusing on what she considers the four qualities at the heart of a Catholic education: spirituality, academics, behavior and social-emotional learning.

“I believe Catholic education is the best education we can provide to children holistically,” she says. “It’s part of who I am. It’s what I believe in.” †

Local site Links:

Like this story? Then share it!