The sun has yet to rise over Epiphany Catholic School in Coon Rapids, Minnesota. On this January day, the windchill is minus-20 degrees.
Shortly before 7 a.m., Kari Marsh layers up, dons a neon-yellow safety vest and stands in the parking lot, allowing preschool students to cross safely while their older peers get dropped off by mom or dad.
This is a daily part of the routine for Marsh, Epiphany’s elementary administrator and one of the Twin Cities’ rising Catholic school principal candidates. She’s often joined by principal Anne Coon or other administrators. They greet students and parents by name as they shuffle their children through the doors.
It’s only a half hour of a jam-packed day of teaching classes, meeting with teachers, dealing with COVID-19 restrictions and helping create curricula. But it’s the kind of servant leadership in action Marsh says she’s come to embrace in almost three decades as a Catholic school teacher and administrator.
“Catholic schools have always been a part of who I am,” the former Saint Paul Seminary School of Divinity lay student says.
But only within the past few years did she begin seeing herself as a potential leader in Catholic education.
Marsh, the youngest of seven children in a devout Catholic family, grew up in Fargo, North Dakota. After earning her bachelor’s degree in elementary education with a minor in math from Moorhead State, she moved to the Twin Cities “because that’s where the jobs were.”
She spent 25 years teaching math at St. Raphael’s in Crystal, Minnesota . She also held several administrative roles, including starting and St. Raphael’s after-school program.
When that school’s principal job came open, many within the community asked her to apply. “I don’t think that’s a good idea,” she’d tell them.
A few years later, she joined Coon at Epiphany. And right away, the long-time principal began pushing her to sign up for the seminary’s Institute for Catholic School Leadership.
After some initial reluctance – and subsequent prodding from her husband — Marsh dove in. After earning her Certificate in Catholic School Leadership, she applied credits from that program toward a Master’s of Arts in Pastoral Leadership (MAPL). Marsh received her diploma this past December.
“I always had this little idea in the back of my head that it’d be so cool to do less teaching and more admin work,” Marsh said. “But when I finally got started (at the seminary), it really gave me the confidence I needed.”
The landscape has certainly changed from Marsh joined the professional ranks. She worked a few years in daycare before landing her first teaching gig, applying everywhere from Alaska to Florida.
Now, the words “teacher shortage” have become part of the United States educational lexicon.
According to the Washington-based Learning Policy Institute, teacher demand exceeded supply for grades K-12 nationally by 100,000 in 2019. And that was before COVID-19.
Catholic schools have seen slightly less of a downturn but have been far from immune. Those who have stayed commonly work 60-plus hours a week between teaching, lesson planning and covering for classes whose teachers have left.
“It’s just so hard because I’m so empathetic to those teachers,” said Marsh, whose current school has been able to retain most of its teachers during the pandemic. “Teaching remotely, having to figure out policies on the fly, present to parents how we’re going to do school when regulations are constantly morphing. It’s a lot but we’ve been able to manage through it.”
For private schools seeking to be authentically rooted in the faith, the current state necessitates principals who are ready to lead through challenges while maintaining a commitment to orthodoxy and authenticity. Those are central tenets of both the Certificate in Catholic School Leadership and MAPL programs.
Marsh applied what she learned from both as she helped Epiphany launch a classical-education curriculum and navigate COVID.
And while the school would miss her if and when she gets her first principal job, Marsh will have left an impact while preparing for the next step in her journey as a Catholic school leader.
“I feel like I know so much more now,” Marsh said. “I’m developing more of a connection to the teachers and helping them. Teachers [at Epiphany] know I was in the program, and they’d tell me ‘I would work for you as a principal.’ Little things like that would give me more and more confidence that ‘OK, I can do this.’”