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On a new stage, Leonor Ponzio serves as principal at her alma mater, Georgetown Visitation

Leonor Limarzi Ponzio, the new principal of Georgetown Visitation Preparatory School, is a 1997 graduate of Visitation (right photo) and taught English and served as director of educational technology there. (Photos courtesy of Georgetown Visitation)

The theater program at Georgetown Visitation Preparatory School in Washington drew Leonor Limarzi Ponzio to the school, after she watched her older brothers who were Gonzaga students performing on stage with Visitation girls.

“My brothers were in the plays, and I started watching the plays and meeting the girls,” she said. “It was one of those awe-inspiring places, where you’d come downtown and be transported into another world, where it was a combination of academics, fun and faith, and it was the only high school I ever wanted to go to, from the moment I was introduced to Visitation.”

That began her educational journey at Georgetown Visitation, where she graduated as a member of the class of 1997 and played soccer and was active in the theater program, and where she returned in 2005 as an English teacher and later served as director of educational technology. And in the 2021-22 school year, Ponzio began serving on a different stage there, as Visitation’s principal.

“It was humbling, but exciting all at the same time,” Ponzio said.

In a Jan. 11 interview, Ponzio reflected on her roots in Catholic education, often mentioning her Italian-American family. She and her husband Gioacchino Ponzio, a native of Italy, live in Silver Spring with their three children, 8-year-old twins Giuseppe and Leonor, and Gabe, who is 6. They live next door to her parents, who still live in the house where she and her four brothers grew up as members of St. Andrew Apostle Parish. Her father Adolfo Limarzi is a native of Italy, and her mother Leonor Limarzi has the same first name as she does. 

“They made Catholic education a priority for us. They were always incredibly involved in school life, the school board, athletics, which is why I was always drawn to Catholic education when I was looking for a career. I went to Catholic school from kindergarten through college,” said Ponzio, who graduated from St. Andrew Apostle School before attending Visitation, and after graduating from there, studied language and linguistics at Georgetown University with a double major in Italian and Spanish.

She noted that, “Georgetown was my dream school, because that’s where everybody else in my family went. My parents went there, that’s where they met. All four of my brothers went there.”

When she was attending Georgetown Visitation next door, Ponzio followed in her older brothers’ path by participating in the school’s theater program.

During her freshman year, she was in the stage crew for the musical ‘Into the Woods,’ when the student actors included her brother Tony and her future sister-in-law Meg. Ponzio  was also in the stage crew for her school’s production of “Brigadoon.” When she was a senior, she had a small part in Visitation’s staging of “The Music Man.”

“In that particular play, my two younger brothers were in it with me, so it was a whole little family affair, Mike and Johnny. The other brother is Joe. He was the first one to be in a Visitation play. He met his (future) wife on stage… Three of my brothers married Visitation girls that they met on stage,” she said. “Joe married Kristen of ’92, Tony married Meg who was (in Visitation’s class of) ’95, and Mike married Elizabeth who was (in Visitation’s class of) 2002. So only my youngest brother Johnny and I went rogue.”

Reflecting on her years as a Visitation student, she  said, “Visitation provided me with a great education, but thinking back, the most rewarding experiences were really the relationships I formed, whether it was on the field with teammates, or on stage with the whole crew and cast, and even with teachers. When I think back, it’s not about a grade that I got, it was about how teachers and people really formed me.”

In 2002, Ponzio began her teaching career at her first alma mater, St. Andrew Apostle School in Silver Spring.

‘When I wanted to start teaching, I wanted it to be in a place where I could talk about my faith and my experiences and share how impactful my own Catholic education has been with the students in front of me,” she said.

At St. Andrew’s, Ponzio taught religion, social studies, English and math in the middle school. “I taught a little of everything, that’s what you do at a Catholic elementary school.”

And Ponzio knew she had found her life’s work as an educator.

“It just felt right, the interaction with students, seeing them getting excited, whether it was ancient history or a novel, seeing them really wrestle with what they were reading or studying, and watching that ‘ah-ha’ moment where they get how to do the math problem. (And I thought) What could be better than this?... It was really a perfect world,” she said.

Ready to take the next step in her career, she reached out to Dan Kerns, who had been Visitation’s headmaster and soccer coach when she attended there and later served as its longtime head of school. He arranged for her to serve at Visitation as a teacher’s aide to Christine Murphy, who had been her senior English teacher.

“That year that we spent together was the most pivotal year in my professional growth,” said Ponzio, who said she learned a lot from how Murphy taught and treated her students.

“It was her approach to education, and her approach to the dignity of her students as well,” she said. “It became more than just read these pages and write a paper on it. It was about dialogue. It was about making connections. It was about treating the students in front of you as adults and then giving them time and space to disagree and to push back.”

In 2005, Ponzio was hired as an English teacher at Georgetown Visitation, and her former teachers became her colleagues.

“These had been my teachers, people I looked up to, and all of a sudden, they were my peers. But they continued to teach me. They still do,” she said.

Ponzio noted that she taught English 1 to Visitation freshmen and honors English 4  to seniors, “so I taught at the beginning and the end, which was really nice to be able to see them coming in and start to build their skills and then to have them come back into the classroom as seniors, and (to see) how much they had grown as people, as writers, as thinkers, and that was probably my favorite part of being in the English classroom, seeing the depth of conversation that you could have with seniors, about things like ‘1984’ and ‘A Brave New World’… classic pieces of literature through the eyes of a modern 17- or 18-year-old is just fascinating.”

Kerns encouraged Ponzio to be active at Visitation outside the classroom, and she directed the Saturday School Program, which provides educational enrichment and fun activities for girls attending inner-city Catholic elementary schools, and she also served as an assistant varsity soccer coach, working with Coach Zeff Yusof as the team won league championships in 2007, 2008 and 2009.

“It was phenomenal to see the same kids I saw in class, through a different lens,” she said. “Students who were quiet in the classroom but then became the leaders on the field as student athletes, encouraging each other, not even their own peers on the same grade level, but the younger kids, encouraging them. It just felt like an extension of a family. The whole program, everyone’s looking out for everybody else.”

Ponzio was named Visitation’s New Teacher of the Year in 2008, and while teaching there, she earned a masters of science degree in educational studies at Johns Hopkins University with dual certification in technology for educators and administration and supervision.

“I’d always been interested in technology. It’s probably the product of growing up with four brothers. It just seemed like a natural way to engage with students when I started teaching,” she said, noting that she tried to incorporate technology in her teaching at St. Andrew’s and continued that at Visitation. “…It felt like a fresh way to look at a novel, or to look at engaging with students, to incorporate some creativity.”

When freshmen in her class read “Romeo and Juliet,” Ponzio gave them a musical lyrics quiz, playing different modern songs and projecting the lyrics on screen, and students would have to identify which song reflected one of the characters in that Shakespeare play. 

In 2016, Ponzio was named as Georgetown Visitation’s director of educational technology. She said the most important thing that happened in her first year in that role was ‘we redid the entire infrastructure of the campus. We replaced all the fiber optics, all of the wiring, so we had redundancy for the first time on campus to such a degree, and we had the capacity of bandwidth, so that any teacher and any student at any time could access anything they needed on the internet.”

She added, “It really laid the groundwork, so that when Covid came, we were really in a good place. It was just divine intervention that was the first project we did, without having any idea that three years later, we would be relying on that bandwidth every single day.”

Ponzio praised how Visitation students and teachers have continued their work during the pandemic.

“I think that their positive attitude is what saves us on an everyday basis, the optimism that tomorrow is another day, and it’s going to get better. We really are doing a pretty good job with this,” she said. “It’s brought a unity to the classes, and in my being able to get into classes and meet with teachers, there is a sense of togetherness and forging ahead, because we’ve done it now for awhile. We can keep doing it and we’re going to keep getting better, and it gives us the confidence that whatever the next challenge, whatever it is, we’re going to be able to face that, too.”

Leonor Limarzi Ponzio, Georgetown Visitation’s new principal, joins students at a Founders Day gathering there in October 2021, where they honored the legacy of the Visitation Sisters who founded the school. (Photo courtesy of Georgetown Visitation)

Each October at Visitation’s Founders Day, students, teachers and staff members go to the cemetery on the school grounds to honor the faith and legacy of the Visitation Sisters who founded the school in 1799 as one of the first Catholic girls’ schools in the nation, and who continue to live in the monastery adjoining the academic building there. Ponzio said that day, and the daily presence of the sisters, offers a reminder that the sisters “are always with us, and that their contributions to this place are alive.”

Asked about what it’s meant to her to now serve as principal at Georgetown Visitation Preparatory School, Ponzio said, “So much of who I am as a person and as an educator is because of my time as a student and a teacher at Visitation. It just felt like now it was my opportunity to give back to the place that had given me so much.”