Last February, Principal David McKenzie was in the chapel at St. Thomas More Preparatory School in Magnolia, Del., organizing holy cards when he came across one of St. Vincent Pallotti.
The card stood out to McKenzie for two reasons: He had never heard of Pallotti before, and the odd image of Pallotti on the holy card was one of him holding, in turn, another holy card.
McKenzie took the card with him and returned to his office to a phone call from officials at St. Vincent Pallotti High School, in Laurel, asking if he knew of any of his faculty members interested in applying for an open principal position.
Off the top of his head, McKenzie could think of one.
"I took it as a sign," said the new principal at Pallotti High.
'Build upon what's been built'
The school announced in March that McKenzie would replace Stephen Edmonds, who worked at Pallotti for the past 36 years – the last 13 as principal. Edmonds continues to work at the school in his new role as president emeritus, but he is still missed in the hallways, McKenzie said.
"Simply put, he's a legend," McKenzie said. "He's beloved by everyone here, and the hardest part has been … well, I'll put it this way: You don't fill shoes like that. You stand on the shoulders, and build upon what's been built here."
McKenzie, 61, a native of Philadelphia, has worked in several academic positions within the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, and in the Secretariat for Catholic Education. In 1998, McKenzie was knighted into the Order of St. Gregory the Great by Pope John Paul II and served as principal at St. Thomas More Preparatory School before becoming principal and president at Pallotti.
Pallotti, a private, coeducational Catholic high school established in 1921, is a part of the Archdiocese of Washington and run by Pallotine Missionary Sisters. Over the school's nearly 100-year history, it has grown significantly, and McKenzie said that growth would continue over the next five to six years, as the student body expands along with the building.
"There's an immediate need to improve the fine arts," he said, and a project to do so is scheduled for this year. "We're improving the art facilities, moving them into the building with renovations."
The economy has affected the school's ability to fund such projects, McKenzie said, but resources for student financial aid has increased from last year – partly through the establishment of the Stephen Edmonds Scholarship Fund. The school has an operating budget of about $5.6 million, most of which comes from tuition, McKenzie said. Yearly tuition at the school is $12,995.
Still, there have been cuts. Several employees have been let go since McKenzie's tenure began July 1, a loss he described as unfortunate.
"It's called a 'reduction in force,' and it's awful. That's all you can say," he said. "None of it was done on performance. It was administrative positions; department by department we had to figure out where we could cut. I hope it's done now. Truthfully, I don't see it happening again. … Everybody thought this thing (the economy) would turn around by now."
Another challenge facing McKenzie, and all educators, is how to prepare students for an uncertain future.
"We've never been our students' ages," McKenzie said. "These freshmen, 40 percent of the them will have jobs when they graduate college that haven't even been thought of yet. We have to prepare them for an ever-changing world."
Pallotti, too, is changing. All students at the school already use laptops, and one-third of the academic courses don't implement a textbook. McKenzie said that number will rise to 50 percent next year, and 75 percent the year after, as teachers opt for e-books instead.
McKenzie said many things drew him to Pallotti, including the diversity of the student body.
"I loved that about this place, that it truly represents – economically and racially – the makeup of Prince George's, Anne Arundel and Howard counties," he said, adding that such diversity was lacking back in Delaware.
McKenzie and his wife still travel back to Delaware on the weekends. Currently living in Elkridge, they haven't been able to sell their house in Delaware yet because of the market, McKenzie said. He spends little time in the house in Elkridge, though, because he has been so busy preparing for the school year and the first day of school on Monday, Aug. 29.
"I'm just waiting for kids to get back into the building," he said. "I'm determined to know every student's name by the end of October."
There are about 500 students at Pallotti, and McKenzie spoke with 70 of them, as well as the entire faculty, last spring when it was announced he was Edmonds' replacement. One sentiment kept recurring.
"Everyone said, 'Pallotti is family,' " McKenzie said. "All but one said that. The one girl who didn't say it, at the very end of the interview, she turned back to me and said, 'Welcome to the family.' That's what really attracted me to here, and I'm honored that people are welcoming me into that family."