Love of education multiplied

Wearing a shirt from the opposing school’s softball team, Principal Lou Whitaker felt she owed her students an explanation.
Standing in a Notre Dame Catholic School Mustangs T-shirt with Pope John Paul II Catholic School face paint, the longtime educator said she needed all the students to know she wasn’t confused about who she was cheering for.
She was cheering for both.
The merged sports apparel represented Whitaker’s new role as principal for both Catholic schools, which was announced earlier this week to parents of Notre Dame. Last month, Notre Dame parents and students learned that Sister Eileen Marie Woodbury wouldn’t be returning as principal next year.
Despite some turmoil due to the changes, Whitaker said she’s excited and believes the move will have positive impacts on both schools.
“The advantage is that we have an opportunity to join the staff development and resources of both schools,” Whitaker said. “Plus, both schools are each going to gain an assistant principal and that will help free my time to focus on our teachers and curriculum development whereas before I didn’t have as much time to do that.”
It’s not going to be easy, Whitaker said. There will be a lot of traveling back and forth between the Spring Hill and Lecanto campuses that will likely involve her being at one school three days a week and the other two days – and then switching the following week.
However, the opportunity allows her to focus on training assistant principals and others in school leadership, she said, which is similar to the experience she had when she began as an assistant principal.
The change in leadership comes at a time when Whitaker said both Catholic schools are recovering from losses in membership.
Although she doesn’t know the exact numbers for both schools, she said Pope John Paul II lost at least seven families in the past year or so due to them moving because of the lack of work in the area.
“Last year, I lost seven families – and some of those students were on full scholarships,” Whitaker said. “That’s another thing with this merger is that we have to combine resources so we can find ways to keep families here and ensure that any child who wants a Catholic education can receive one.”
She said Notre Dame has roughly 160 students enrolled while Pope John Paul II has about 200.
Catholic schools for years have been hit hard, Whitaker said, due to a decreasing number of men and women entering the priesthood and convents. That leaves laypeople to step up in leadership roles.
Whitaker began her education career as a physical education teacher in 1972 and rose through the ranks, having served as an assistant principal, principal and associate superintendent while in Wisconsin.
After moving to Florida in the late 1990s, she said she initially thought she would give up on being a school administrator. However, she said an offer in 2000 to help run Pope John Paul II won her over, and she’s been happy with that decision ever since.
And just as she faced down challenges and inner turmoil at her school about a decade ago, so too would she do so again, she said.
“It’s going to take some time to adjust, and it’s not going to be easy,” Whitaker said. “People are going to have to be strong – and the key is to stay focused on the children and keeping a Catholic identity.”

Love of education multiplied
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