“I can come back from a meeting where I am completely encompassed in fundraising, or development, or looking for donations,” says Brenna Scanlon (’06). “And then there’s a little tiny first-grade hand knocking on my back door because he wants to recite the prayer of the month — for candy.”
Such is all part of a day’s work for Miss Scanlon, principal of Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish School in Oxnard, Calif., where she oversees a staff of 23 and more than 300 students, from pre-kindergarten through eighth grade. Elevated to principal after just two years as a classroom teacher, she has had to master a wide range of professional duties from finance, to facilities, to curriculum, to marketing, development, parent relations, human resources — and helping young children learn to say their prayers.
“We started a program here where each month the kids have a different prayer to memorize, and once they have memorized that prayer they get to come say it for me for a piece of candy,” she explains.
Video: Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish School.
“That has really helped, because then they come to my office for a positive reason. They are excited that they have learned this new prayer, and they promise that they will bring it home to their families.” This sweets-for-supplications program is just one small part of a larger effort to bolster the Catholic identity and spirituality of a century-old Archdiocesan school.
A Change of Plans
When she was 17 years old, Brenna had to be brought kicking and screaming to the Thomas Aquinas College High School Summer program.
A soccer standout at La Reina High School in Thousand Oaks, Calif., she had set her sights on playing at a Division I school, and the start of the College’s two-week program for rising high school seniors coincided with a major tournament at which a prospective coach was coming to watch her play. “I cried the entire way up to the campus,” Miss Scanlon recalls, repeatedly asking her mother, “How could you do this to me?”
Two weeks later, when her mother returned to pick her up at the end of the program, “I started crying again,” says Miss Scanlon, only it was “more like happy tears” this time. “I said, ‘I have to go there; I think I have to go there.’”
The sudden turnaround was brought about by a realization. The Summer Program marked “the first time I was ever introduced to the idea of knowledge for the sake of itself, and that was totally enlightening for me,” Miss Scanlon says. She also recalls the great sense of tranquility she experienced there. “I remember lying down at the end of the day and thinking, ‘I feel so at peace. My day was so properly ordered: I went to Mass; I participated in these great classes; I had great, meaningful conversations with the people in the program; we had rosary at night; there was benediction after the 5:30 Mass. I felt a sense of peace and order about my life that I had not experienced before.”
When word got out that Brenna was foregoing her dreams of Division I athletics for a Catholic liberal education, there was some confusion among her peers. “My soccer friends would say, ‘We heard you’re not playing next year; you’re entering the convent,’” Miss Scanlon laughs. “I said, ‘No — kind of — but not completely.”
Upon arriving on campus as a freshman that fall, Brenna discovered that while the College’s culture was not quite monastic, it was conducive to deepening her faith and cultivating virtue. “There was a lot of positive peer pressure to be good and to do your reading and to get to daily Mass and to get to confession regularly,” she recalls.
Inside the classroom, she was challenged and strengthened by the College’s classical curriculum. “It teaches you how to think, and to think clearly and to think logically,” says Miss Scanlon. Further, the classroom conversations “taught me to be collaborative, because even though you’re coming to truth on your own, it is with other people around you, so you are processing what you are learning and you are discussing it.”
Our Lady’s Call
Yet even by the time of her graduation in 2006, Miss Scanlon had not considered a career in education. She first entertained the prospect of law school, and then contemplated event planning, but changed her mind after a brief legal internship and a job with a caterer convinced her that neither was her calling. On the side, she had taken a coaching position with her high school soccer team and volunteered to administer an adult catechetical program through her parish. The net effect of these two activities — the time with young people and helping believers come to better understand their faith — made her seriously think, for the first time, about the possibility of teaching.
“I really feel strongly that I am where I am today as a result of my education at Thomas Aquinas College. That experience has helped me step into a leadership position, knowing how to be collaborative and to look to those around me to help make good decisions for the school.”
After taking a few teaching courses at a local university, in 2007 she sent out applications to Catholic high schools, promptly finding employment with Santa Clara High School in Oxnard as a religion and math teacher.
At the same time she enrolled in a series of weekend courses for working teachers through Loyola Marymount University. Within two years, she had earned a master’s degree in secondary education and an offer to become the chair of her school’s religion department.
A promising career as a high school teacher was in the making — until God intervened with another plan. Because of her success in her first two years at Santa Clara, when the principal’s position became available at one of the high school’s feeder schools, Our Lady of Guadalupe, officials encouraged Miss Scanlon — then only 25 years old — to apply. “I was very reluctant because I loved — I absolutely loved — my teaching position,” she recalls. “I was very torn, but I thought, ‘This is Our Lady’s school. At the College there is such devotion to Our Blessed Mother, and I think the College helped me grow closer to her. So I thought, ‘How can I say no when her school is asking?’”
Miss Scanlon has answered that invitation, taking on whatever challenges it entails.
Among her top priorities since coming to Our Lady of Guadalupe has been solidifying the school’s Catholic identity. “There has been a real need to make sure that our schools are Catholic, first and foremost, and working on moving these children and their families toward holiness,” she says.
To that end she has incorporated monthly, school-wide rosaries, as well as weekly Mass and adoration, and she begins each day with two prayer sessions — one with the faculty, the next with the student body. Each month, the students focus on developing a different virtue as well as learning a new prayer, for which they earn their triumphant visit to the principal’s office. “Society really affects our families and can impede children from growing in their faith,” Miss Scanlon observes. “So we try to keep this environment as a kind of safe haven for families who are trying to raise their children Catholic.”
It is this commitment to nurturing the spirituality of the school community that most impresses Rev. Roberto Saldivar, M.Sp.S., the pastor at Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish. “Most principals are concerned with the administrative and academic aspects of a school — which Miss Scanlon is — but she is also very concerned with the spiritual aspect, and that makes her even more valuable,” he says. “She is a fast learner, she is very enthusiastic in what she does, and she is very committed.”
Blessings of Collaboration
Running a school, Miss Scanlon points out, is a team effort. To succeed, she must work cooperatively with her pastor, her teachers, her administrative staff, and her students’ parents. These busy, fruitful interactions cause her to think back to her Socratic conversations at the College.
“Those four years of sitting around those tables have helped me feel so comfortable in faculty meetings, in any type of meeting forum, because you get completely used to setting out a goal or objective and communicating and working through it and trying to arrive at truth together,” she says. “I really feel strongly that I am where I am today as a result of my education at Thomas Aquinas College. That experience has helped me step into a leadership position, knowing how to be collaborative and to look to those around me to help make good decisions for the school.”
Making good decisions for the school, in turn, means making good decisions for the education, welfare, and spiritual health of the 300 young souls entrusted to her care each day. For this privilege and responsibility, vividly brought to life with each small visitor to her door, Miss Scanlon is both humbled and grateful.
“When I pull myself away from the administrative sense of the job and interface with innocent, holy young children, they remind me of charity and what we are really here for,” she says. “It is a huge blessing to constantly be surrounded with little children who say the funniest things and who are so joyful.”
Brenna Scanlon (’06) leads students in their morning prayers outside Our Lady of Guadalupe School in Oxnard, Calif.
“In our classroom discussions, we are not only given free rein to speak, but free rein to think. No question is off the table. Anything that can bring a more full understanding of the truth is welcomed and encouraged.”
– Christopher Sebastian (’13)
“Thomas Aquinas is already the preeminent Catholic college in the country.”
– John Cardinal O’Connor (†)
Archbishop of New York