Principal Catherine Bricelj taught for 13 years before moving into a leadership role in 2013 at a French and Montessori school in New Orleans, Louisiana. She rose up the ranks quickly, moving from the Director of the French program to principal at that school. When the opportunity to apply for principalship of Myrtle Place Elementary came her way in 2017, she jumped at the opportunity and has been serving as principal ever since.
When Principal Bricelj arrived at Myrtle Place, the school was rated a “C-“ school. Under her leadership, the school moved to become an “A” school. While many programs and services contributed to the school’s academic success, Principal Bricelj believes deeply that creating a school culture that emphasizes strong relationships, building trust, and focusing on what is needed to support everyone is the secret. She believes the best way to create this culture is to first take a step back, listen and observe.
Principal Bricelj created a culture of trust by what she refers to as “nurturing a positive environment.” She understands that different stakeholder groups come with a different lens and that it is important to begin with that in mind. As one teacher explained, Principal Bricelj’s “deep-seated empathy, phenomenal intelligence and inherent kindness” has created an open-minded school community that is focused on finding solutions. This includes an anonymous survey that goes to staff each year to evaluate her leadership in supporting school climate, culture, and school policies. Principal Bricelj uses the information from this survey to report out during community meetings so that the whole community can collaborate on solutions.
She recognized that in addition to strengthening the school culture, she needed to bring in an educational philosophy that would be shared by all. Principal Bricelj instilled her philosophy, which is based on basic principles she learned early in her career as a teacher and leader at the Montessori school in New Orleans. She believes strongly in the principles of respecting children and meeting them where they are. Principal Bricelj used this foundational belief to create a school program that uses data and observation that tells a story about each individual child so that teachers can tailor instruction to meet their needs. This notion of listening and observing is infused into daily life at the school, including when children arrive at school. The entire staff has a routine of observing children as they arrive to see if anyone needs additional support to be ready for the school day. A staff member will take the time to provide extra attention and comfort, so they know they are loved and cared for at school. This general approach served the school well during school closures when the entire school community was feeling anxious. Principal Bricelj’s steadfastness and positivity led the school to not only maintain the “A” rating but situated Myrtle Place as a top performing school in the state.
Parents know that Principal Bricelj is interested in a variety of perspectives and ideas for making the school a positive and successful place for all children. Parents feel comfortable contacting her for any reason due to the strong relationships she’s created. In addition to the open-door policy, she also strategically collects feedback from all stakeholders through surveys so that she can be sure to hear from all parents and school community members. One parent noted that Principal Bricelj consistently seeks input and collaboration from families, teachers, staff, and the community at-large with a “genuine spirit of kindness and a desire to demonstrate mutual respect.” She incorporates Myrtle Places values of “caring for ourselves and others, using good manners, believing in ourselves, and showing school spirit,” by demonstrating how it’s done and focusing on positivity. Through Kindness Mailboxes, positive office referrals, mind and body exercise, listening and observing, Principal Bricelj has significantly reduced the need for disciplinary actions.
Through her deep-seated belief in positively and kindness, Principal Bricelj has cultivated a positive environment for children to flourish, staff to grow, and families to engage.