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First day of school is also first day for new principals

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This week students across the diocese returned to school ready to face a year of “normal” education without masks or distance learning. Many Catholic schools saw new principals ready to roll out the traditions and moral teachings that make them so special.

Principal Johanna Richards of Catholic Academy of Niagara Falls gears up for a new school year with the help of Maririk Curtis AKA The Wolf. (Photo by Patrick J. Buechi)

“Welcome” serves as the theme for Catholic Academy of Niagara Falls this month. The last Catholic school in Niagara Falls really opened the doors for the new school year on Sept. 6.

“We had a rainbow balloon arch outside the school that welcomes all the students to start the school year. Many parents took pictures with their children,” said Johanna Richards, the new principal for the pre-K through 8 school.

Richards has a long history with Catholic schools, starting with her own education at St. Stephen’s in Grand Island, then Holy Angels Academy and Canisius College in Buffalo.

She recalls St. Stephen’s as a “atmosphere of loving, caring, family environment.”

“I remember a lot of the events that we had. We had indoor soccer. That carried me through when I came to become a teacher,” she said. “That’s why I chose Catholic schools, because of my background, and I have chosen to stay because of the love of Catholic schools and the values that were instilled by my teachers.”

As principal, Richards plans to continue the work started by her predecessor Jeannine Fortunate, who retired last spring.

“I have been working with Jeannine for the past seven years. Last year, I was assistant principal, so I am excited to finally start my journey as principal of the school,” Richards said.

Many of the school’s religious traditions such as the May Crowing will remain, while new traditions will begin under Richards’ reign.

Catholic Academy was created in 2009 from a merger of Our Lady of Mount Carmel and Prince of Peace Schools. In the tradition of the Niagara Falls schools that came before it, Catholic Academy of Niagara Falls continues to provide students with moral and religious development along with their education.

Enrollment is down a little from last year, 164 students are currently registered. Richards estimates that half are not Catholic.

“That does not mean we are not teaching the values and about Jesus and about our faith,” she explained. “The families that come here are our best advertisement. They share what a wonderful school we are, what a wonderful school family we are and the many fun exciting things that we do have to offer, both academically and event-wise.”

Principal Johanna Richards of Catholic Academy of Niagara Falls talks with Chris Riso, Kari Buchinger and Tim Uhl from the diocesan Department of Catholic Schools. The team visited several schools on the first day of class. (Photo by Patrick J. Buechi)

A little farther southeast, Nicole Richard is starting her first year as principal of Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary School in Harris Hill. The school draws students from Williamsville, Clarence, Alden and Akron.

What’s the attraction?

“I would say the family feeling here is what makes us truly so special,” said Richard. “Our tagline is, ‘We’re different where it matters most.’ That’s true. We embody that. We go above and beyond for every family. Every day I’m out here with my team. We know every student and greet them. This is a welcoming place where every kid feels part of a huge family.”

Richard attended St. Christopher School in Tonawanda, which she said shaped her as an educator by teaching her morals.

“What I want to do is really shape young students – their minds, their morals and their hearts,” she said.

Richard is updating the school’s Standards Plus curriculum which prepares students for high school and beyond with a real focus on career readiness. The goal is for every student to be in an advanced class by sixth grade, so they start preparing students in pre-school.

“We follow the Common Core standards, but we go above and beyond that,” explained Amy Connolly, director of Development. “We teach more than those standards, which nudges each grade. So, when you get into middle school, they’re all going to be in those advanced courses. That is our long-term goal.”

Nativity welcomed 210 students in its pre-k through eighth-grade classes on Sept. 7. Like many parochial schools, a fair amount, about half in this case, are not Catholic.

Every student who tries their best is a superhero at Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary School in Harris Hill. (Photo by Patrick J. Buechi)

“The appeal that I’ve heard when I tour people is family, close-knit environment, and the fact that we teach them morals and standards in the Catholic faith,” Connolly explained. “Even if you’re not Catholic, I think those apply all across the board to all religions. It’s about being a good person and kindness and a lot of individualized attention that we offer and public schools can’t. That’s a big draw for anybody regardless of what religion they are.”

The Diocese of Buffalo supports 38 elementary schools in six counties.

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