Denise Troutman wakes up at 4:15 a.m. each school day, pours herself a cup of coffee and prays the rosary.
“I have to pray before I come,” she said with a laugh, knowing that with each “Hail Mary” she’s asking God to help her give all she can to the almost 200 students at North Little Rock Catholic Academy, where she’s served 57 years, 22 as principal.
Troutman and the handful of other small school Catholic principals in Arkansas cannot merely be defined as “principals.” They are janitors, food servers, substitute teachers, event coordinators, athletic directors, liturgists, finance, marketing and fundraising directors, nurses and counselors.
With minimal resources at their fingertips, their responsibilities go above and beyond leading a school each day. Even though it’s a struggle at times, God gave them a heart for it.
“It’s awesome; I thoroughly love and enjoy all I do. The children are just a total gift to our school, to me personally,” Troutman said.
Sharon Warren has served as principal at St. Mary School in Paragould for 11 years. In the past, she has taught religion and often finds herself answering the door or phone and making copies, as the school secretary is only there four hours a day. She’s also the preschool director.
“I substitute a lot. I’m like the No. 1 substitute,” she laughed, adding she’s even subbed as a cafeteria cook. “I’ve cleaned up children who are sick, I’ve unplugged stopped toilets … I was just pulling weeds from the flower beds in front of the school.”
Warren admits, “it probably wouldn’t be possible if I didn’t have a very dedicated staff that are willing to pitch in and help when necessary,” adding parishioners, parents, her six fulltime teachers for the roughly 75 students in pre-k 3-sixth grade also go beyond the call of duty.
For most small school principals, the simple question “what do you do?” elicits a hearty laugh. Christy Koprovic, principal for two years at St. Joseph Church in Paris, said she’ll do anything for the children, even gallop across the parking lot with her preschool art class, taking them from one building to another.
“The students and I would walk outside and then we’d decide on our mode of transportation. Sometimes we were jets. Sometimes we rode horses or unicorns. Sometimes we’d hop on our motorbikes,” she said. “I’m sure visitors were curious as to why the principal was galloping through the parking lot with 12 small children in tow.”
Aside from imaginary horse rider, she is in charge of marketing
and development, social media and the school website, technology coordinator, school nurse and maintenance. Koprovic and her secretary Sharon Pohlmeier, “make sure the trash gets taken out, the recycling is taken care of, paper towels replaced in the bathrooms.” At lunchtime, “I go down, I put on my apron and serve out the food,” she said.
But despite the constant work, Koprovic said she’s never seen it as a “burden.”
“It takes a lot of time and a lot of patience you don’t think about it you just do it,” she said.
The extra responsibility is sometimes just another way to do what they love. Dan Smith, principal at Immaculate Heart of Mary in North Little Rock for the past eight years, previously taught at Subiaco Academy and Catholic High School in Little Rock. At IHM School, he teaches library for all grades, seventh- and eighth-grade religion and eighth-grade algebra. The school has about 135 students.
“My personality is one that I love challenges, and I love dealing with the kids, so that’s why you see me in the classroom as much as I can,” he said. “Every time I get the opportunity to sub, I’m subbing.”
Smith said he’s the primary coordinator for every school function and fundraiser, budgeting, social media and website updates and giving school tours.
“It’s nice when you have the backing of your pastor, and the pastor and principal are aligned to the mission of parish,” Smith said.
For 19 years, Kathy Lorince has been at the helm of Holy Rosary School in Stuttgart, which has 54 students from pre-k 3 to sixth grade.
“In a small school you just have to do all that stuff,” she said, adding she’s the only kindergarten/first grade teacher.
“I have a personal relationship with all of my families,” she said, adding her parents and staff make all the difference.
When two teachers are out sick it may not seem like much, but it is when there are four total, including Lorince.
“We managed; it’s hard to find subs at 7 a.m. in the morning. Long story short, it all worked out, we got everybody in two classrooms,” while quickly brainstorming lesson plans and having parents come in to assist. “Even in the crisis, we still had school. Those kids still learned something that day.”
Jan Cash, principal at Our Lady of Fatima at Benton, said she’s been there “forever,” teaching before serving as principal for the past 13 years. She still teaches seventh- and eighth-grade literature class and all the music classes, as she plays the piano and flute. Cash works with children to plan the liturgy and music for the school Masses three times a week for the roughly 70 students.
“People make fun of me because I have a lot of lists. I always have a list going somewhere,” prioritizing everything, she said.
Troutman, who arrives at NLRCA at 5:45 a.m. each day and does not leave until after 5 p.m., prepares the liturgy for the children’s Masses, teaches sixth through eighth-grade religion, seventh-grade vocabulary, helps with sacramental prep, leads study hall after school and directs the summer-care program.
“We’re a year-long school really,” Troutman said.
She’s not afraid to get a little goofy, performing in the annual school talent show.
“The children love when I dress up as Elvis Presley, I sang ‘Let Me be Your Teddy Bear,’ everybody got a big kick out of it,” she said. “They love when I get out of the normal principal attire.”
Small school principals need a special kind of mentality to keep their sanity, but there are tough days.
“I think the biggest struggle I have is the shut off. At the end of the day when most people get to go home whether you’re a classroom teacher or anything else. Last night I had school board to 8:30 p.m.,” Smith said. “I’m also opening and closing the gym during basketball season. It’s difficult to get away.”
Even while at Mass, inevitably, principals will often get bombarded with school questions.
“There needs to be a healthy separation at times,” Smith said.
Cash said she always asks God for help.
“I pray for the strength to handle those things that come up that day,” she said. “Trying to be in a couple places at once, I feel torn sometimes.”
Despite real struggles, every principal keeps coming back because their love for the children is a religious calling.
“Oh my gosh, it’s all about my faith. These kids, that’s why I teach religion, it builds my faith by seeing Christ in them,” Troutman said. “I feel like they need my presence. I still remember the nuns teaching me. Sorry, I’m getting all emotional,” she said, trying to hold back tears. “That’s what my whole being is about, bringing Christ to these children.”
Koprovic and Warren said every time a child runs up to hug them, it keeps them going.
“I’ve definitely spent more time in prayer and in trying to grow my relationship with Christ so I can benefit my students,” Koprovic said. “It’s hard to minister from an empty cup.”
Warren said, “When I go to Mass and I’m walking out the door and they hug me and kiss me and say ‘Miss Warren, how are you? You say, ‘OK, that’s why I’m here.’”
Lorince said she’s had several moments that touch her heart, from a former student who moved to Little Rock who asked her to be his confirmation sponsor to her alumni showing up at Holy Rosary in their cap and gowns before their senior high graduation.
“I’m here for a reason, that’s always good to know,” she said.
Through hard times, there are tears of joy seeing kids “blossom.”
“You’re going to make me cry here,” Cash said. “I love seeing them serve at church and to learn how to do community service and to see how that makes them feel good about themselves. That increases my faith. That’s what we’re here for, I tell the kids, to be Christ’s hands and heart.”
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