Four of the nine high school principals at archdiocesan high schools are alums of their schools, which brings them both pride and gratitude. Here, they reflect on their return to “home.”
Pam Tholen is thankful she was a well-behaved student at St. Francis Borgia Regional High School in Washington.
However, she recalled a detention she received for being tardy from science teacher Rob Struckhoff, who served as vice principal when she arrived as principal. “I got the last laugh and got to be his boss,” Tholen said with a chuckle.
“I didn’t burn a lot of bridges or anything like that,” Tholen said of her days as a student. She had good relationships with all her teachers in high school, so that made having some of them as her employees a lot easier. “It was probably way weirder for my teachers than it was for me. I went away, grew up, had teaching jobs and became an adult. In their eyes, some of them probably remembered me as an 18-year-old.”
She quickly counted 15 teachers on the staff who taught at Borgia when she was a student, about a third of the faculty. Tholen became principal of the school two years ago, just 15 years after she was a student there.
A lot changed — there are tablets in the classroom and new sports teams, for example — but “its’s still the exact same Borgia family that I remember, people taking care of each other, putting faith first and teachers wanting what’s best for their students,” Tholen said.
As principal, she’s now “part of a team that I feel made me into the person who I am,” Tholen said.
Last month, Tholen attended the funeral Mass of one of her former teachers, Sandy Siess, a longtime German teacher who inspired Tholen to become an educator.
Borgia’s faith foundation adds an important element to the Borgia family she said. “We eat together, play together, learn together and also get to go to Mass and celebrate sacraments together. It serves to make us feel like a stronger family,” Tholen said.
Faith assists in helping students with grieving or other struggles, she said. “It lends to really strong relationships with students and people you work with.”
Returning to St. Pius X High School as a teacher in 1998, Karen DeCosty reconnected with teachers that she had developed good relationships with when she was a student. “They instantly took on a mentoring role and really helped me through the experience of being a first-year teacher,” DeCosty said.
Coming back to teach at your alma mater relieves some of the stress because of the familiar environment, she said. “And when you’re in an environment where you’re supported and welcomed by people who’ve known you, it makes it that much easier and enjoyable.”
DeCosty said she had a good time and had a good education as a student at St. Pius. “I was ready to take the next step in life and felt very well-rounded,” she said. “Coming back here made me realize I was given so much more than I realized as a student. I want that same thing for our students now. I want them to graduate feeling like they got the education they needed, that they’ve been challenged and assisted in building their relationship with God and that they feel like they’ve developed skills that will help them not just in the next phase of life but in the rest of their life.”
She was a cheerleader as a student. When she returned as a teacher, she coached the cheerleaders and started a dance team. She doesn’t have as much time to devote to it anymore, but she still is involved with cheer practices. And once in a while she subs in a class. “I like it because I can interact with the kids,” the school principal said. “It’s enjoyable being around the kids.”
It’s a blessing to come full circle and help lead the school that helped develop his talents as a student, Shante Lyons said. He’s also a former teacher and coach and a parent of a student at Cardinal Ritter College Preparatory High School, which makes the return as principal even sweeter for him.
Education is a second career for him, since he worked in human resources after college. But both of his parents were educators who advocated for him to be an educator.
Eventually he realized that getting into the classroom would help shape the minds of another generation.
In his return as principal last year, 19 years after high school, he used what was taught to him in a leadership program for all students at Cardinal Ritter. The faculty at Cardinal Ritter when he was a student stressed that “great leadership is about creating leaders,” and he’s followed that philosophy.
As a teacher at Cardinal Ritter, he interacted with three colleagues who taught him, but now only one of those teachers remains. The late Leon Henderson, former president at Cardinal Ritter, was a mentor to him in school and later in his life, Lyons said.
Pull of pillars
Stacy Stewart is overjoyed to be at St. Dominic High School, where she has many family connections. Stewart is beginning her first year as principal after being a teacher and administrator in the public school system.
The four pillars of the school — prayer, study, community and service — formed Stewart as a student. That was reinforced as a parent of a recent graduate and a current freshman, and now “to be the lead captain of those pillars for 750 children is challenging and rewarding all at the same time,” she said.
Several years ago, with a lot of prayer, Stewart felt a pull toward serving in administration at a Catholic school. “You get to see it firsthand when your own children reap the benefits of Catholic education, and that weighed heavy in my heart,” she said.
No one on the faculty was at the school when she was a student, but she’s never lost touch with the school, where she previously was a volunteer. Her parents are graduates of the class of 1961, and all but one of her six siblings are graduates.
Karen (Foley) DeCosty ’93, St. Pius X
graduated from St. Pius X High School in Festus in 1993, earned an
associate degree from Jefferson College in 1995, a bachelor’s degree in
secondary education from Harris-Stowe State University in 1997 and a
master’s degree in educational administration from Southwest Baptist
University in 2007. DeCosty began teaching at St. Pius X High School in
1998 and became principal in 2007. At one time she served as both
principal and president when the school was without a president.
Shante Lyons, ‘00, Cardinal Ritter
was selected as the new principal of Cardinal Ritter College Prep in
St. Louis in 2018. He was an assistant principal at Ladue Horton Watkins
High School and served as a U.S. history and African-American studies
teacher there. He served as a leadership teacher and football coach at
Cardinal Ritter from 2010-14.
Lyons has a bachelor’s degree in
English with a minor in Black American studies and political science
from Southern Illinois University-Carbondale, a master’s in human
resource management from Webster University, a master’s in educational
administration from Missouri Baptist University and a doctorate of
philosophy in educational leadership and policy studies from the
University of Missouri-St. Louis.
“Cardinal Ritter College Prep
has always been an institution that emboldens its students to become the
best version of themselves, to empower others, and to make an impact
through collective responsibility,” Lyons said in a statement upon his
appointment as principal. “Cardinal Ritter made a profound impact on my
life, and empowered me to serve through leadership nearly two decades
Stacy (Schwendeman) Stewart, ‘89, St. Dominic
began work July 1 as principal of St. Dominic High School in O’Fallon.
She was a high school biology teacher and department chair in the Fort
Zumwalt School District for seven years before becoming assistant
principal at Fort Zumwalt West High School in 2002. She holds master’s
and specialist degrees in educational administration from Lindenwood
University. A 1989 graduate of St. Dominic High School, Stewart is the
school’s first alumni principal. Her St. Dominic legacy extends across
generations, including her parents (both 1961 graduates of St. Dominic’s
predecessor, Assumption High School) and siblings (including five St.
Dominic graduates from 1985 to 1996).
Pam (Ruether) Tholen, ‘02, Borgia
a 2002 St. Francis Borgia graduate, was named principal of the school
in Washington in 2017. She taught at Union High School from 2006-10 and
in the Liberty Public School system in Liberty, Mo., the next seven
earned a bachelor’s degree in secondary education, with a
minor in German, from St. Louis University in 2006. She earned a
master’s degree in educational administration from Missouri Baptist
University in 2011.