Catholic Standard El Pregonero
Classifieds Buy Photos

Sacred Heart School’s Elise Heil named Principal of the Year for Archdiocese of Washington

At center, Elise Heil, the principal of Sacred Heart School in Washington, acknowledges the people gathered to congratulate her at a surprise assembly on Feb.  5, when it was announced that she is the Archdiocese of Washington's Distinguished Principal of the Year for the 2020-21 school year. At left is Melissa Mazzini, an education specialist at Sacred Heart School, and at right is Vincent Spadoni, the president of the archdiocese's Consortium of Catholic Academies. (Archdiocese of Washington photo/Gaillard Stohlman)

Maybe Elise Heil, the principal of Sacred Heart School in Washington, D.C., always was destined to be an educator.

Her mom, Donna Heil, noted, “As a child, she’d line up her stuffed animals in the hallway and teach them. She was always going to be a teacher.”

Elise Heil’s mom taught in Catholic school, as did her grandmother, some aunts and a cousin. After Elise Heil earned a bachelor’s degree in math education at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, she taught in a public school in Washington, but then she started having second thoughts about the profession.

“There was never a doubt in my mind until I started teaching and realized how hard this was!” she said.

One day she was walking in her Columbia Heights neighborhood with her mom, who noted there was a Catholic school nearby, Sacred Heart School, and suggested maybe her daughter would be happier teaching there. Elise said they stopped by what they thought was Sacred Heart School, and her mom said, “Let’s just say a little prayer this will all come together for you.”

Remembering that moment, Elise Heil laughed and said they realized they were praying in front of the wrong building, but she joined Sacred Heart School in 2010 as the middle school math teacher, later serving as an instructional coach before she became principal there in 2014.

“My journey to Sacred Heart started with my mother!” Elise Heil said.

And that journey took a joyful turn on Feb. 5, as Kelly Branaman, the Superintendent of Schools and Secretary for Catholic Schools for the Archdiocese of Washington, surprised Heil at a school assembly, saying, “Today on the last day of Catholic Schools Week, it’s a very special day,” and she announced Sacred Heart’s principal  had been selected as the recipient of the archdiocese’s Distinguished Principal of the Year honor for the 2020-21 school year.

Standing behind a banner congratulating Elise Heil as the archdiocese's Principal of the Year are, from left to right, Kelly Branaman, Superintendent of Schools and Secretary for Catholic Schools; Elise Heil, the principal of Sacred Heart School; Wendy Anderson, associate superintendent; and Vincent Spadoni, president of the Consortium of Catholic Academies. (Archdiocese of Washington photo/Gaillard Stohlman)

The gathering in Sacred Heart School’s theater included Heil’s parents, Donna and Jack Heil, and her brother Eric and sister Gretchen who had traveled from Charlotte, North Carolina, where she attended St. Gabriel School and Charlotte Catholic High School. Also cheering Heil on, waving pompoms of golden tinsel, were Sacred Heart faculty members, students and parents, along with archdiocesan school officials and fellow principals, seated in socially distanced chairs and wearing face masks in accord with coronavirus safety precautions at local Catholic schools.

Young schoolchildren on the stage held a banner congratulating their principal on the award, and bunches of gold and white colored balloons were strung throughout the room.

Sacred Heart School, the only dual language immersion school in the Archdiocese of Washington, offers a bilingual education in Spanish and English to its 215 students in pre-kindergarten through the eighth grade, with students in early childhood education taught in Spanish, students in the first through fourth grade having one day of classes in all subjects in English and the next day in Spanish, and starting in fifth grade, certain classes are taught to students in Spanish, including global studies and Spanish language arts, where students read chapter books and write essays in Spanish.

Elise Heil joked to the assembly that when she came to Sacred Heart School, she at first didn’t know it was a bilingual school, and she didn’t speak Spanish.

In an interview, she said, “Every word of Spanish (I speak now), I learned in this school!”

Reflecting on the award, Heil said, “This honor is an honor for the community. This place is family for me. This is my home here in Washington.”

She noted that St. Oscar Romero of El Salvador -- a special patron to the Shrine of the Sacred Heart and to Sacred Heart School, which has many families who immigrated from that country – once said that it is easy to be a good shepherd when one’s flock is so good, and she said that is how she feels about being a principal there. “When you work at Sacred Heart, it’s easy to be a good principal,” she said.

Heil said the greatest blessing of her work at Sacred Heart School is “the daily encounter with Christ, day to day, when you see children and colleagues you love, and you see incredible work unfolding in front of you. I feel very blessed to have a window into the classrooms here. Every time I walk through the hallways, I’m filled with joy.”

Elise Heil, principal of Sacred Heart School, speaks at the assembly where it was announced that she is the 2020-21 Principal of the Year for the Archdiocese of Washington. At left is Beverly Bonilla, the dean of students at Sacred Heart School. (Archdiocese of Washington photo/Gaillard Stohlman)

Sacred Heart School serves predominantly Hispanic children in its neighborhood, and the school is part of the Archdiocese of Washington’s Consortium of Catholic Academies, four Catholic elementary schools in the city of Washington that also include St. Anthony Catholic School, St. Francis Xavier Catholic Academy and St. Thomas More Catholic Academy.

Vincent Spadoni, the president of the Consortium of Catholic Academies, praised Heil as a visionary leader whose school provides a firm foundation for its students. Sacred Heart’s principal has a master’s degree in math leadership from Notre Dame of Maryland University and has launched a Justice by Design project at her school, that encourages students to think about what they can do to make the world a better place.

“She wants what happens here to transform the world around us,” Spadoni said.

Branaman, who was joined at the gathering by Wendy Anderson, an associate superintendent for the archdiocese, said Heil “is a champion for her entire school community”  and “exhibits the excellence and servant leadership we see in all our Catholic school leaders.” She noted that the educational leader “is an expert in culturally responsive instruction and is sought out by other educators for her expertise.”

Heil is a faculty member at the Project Zero Classroom Institute hosted by Harvard University, which promotes the latest research and ideas related to critical thinking, curiosity and creativity in schools. This past summer, the Consortium of Catholic Academies sent 15 of its teachers to participate in the institute.

Capuchin Franciscan Father Emilio Biosca Aguero, the pastor of the Shrine of the Sacred Heart, also spoke at the assembly, saying the Sacred Heart School and parish communities know who special Heil is, and when he heard that the archdiocese was naming her as the Principal of the Year, he said the reaction there was “Of course!”

Her fellow principals at the consortium schools likewise praised Heil.

“There’s not a principal more deserving of this recognition,” said Harold Thomas Jr., the principal of St. Francis Xavier Catholic Academy.

That point was echoed by Gerald Smith Jr., the principal of St. Thomas More Catholic Academy, who said, “Elise is really an advocate for all students. No matter their race or academic ability, she believes all students can access education, and they have a right to.”

Sacred Heart School students place colorful tiles they created on a mosaic depicting the Sacred Heart of Jesus outside the school's entrance in October 2017. (CS photo/Jaclyn Lippelmann)

Michael Thomasian, the principal of St. Anthony Catholic School, nominated Heil for the award. He noted how the glimmering mosaic on the wall adjoining the stairs leading to the school’s main entrance reflects the educator. School students, parents and teachers created and placed the colorful tiles on the large mosaic in 2017, which has as its center the Sacred Heart of Jesus. The project was led by Ellen Lafferty, the school’s visual arts teacher. Heil was sold on the idea after traveling to El Salvador over a spring break with several teachers and seeing a mosaic near the spot where St. Oscar Romero was martyred in 1980.

“Those mosaics are Elise to me,” Thomasian said. “It’s how she brings together people of all backgrounds to make something beautiful.”

The school’s office and the walls along its interior stairwells are likewise decorated with groupings of colorful ceramic doves made by students, inspired by the message of Mattie Stepanek, a Catholic and noted poet and peace advocate who died in 2004 at the age of 13.

“The feeling when you walk in this school is love,” said Elise Heil’s mother Donna. She noted how when Elise was young, the two watched the Oprah Winfrey show together, and her daughter was so inspired by Oprah’s founding of a school for girls in South Africa, that she taught at a Catholic school in Ghana one summer while attending the University of North Carolina.

Elise Heil, the principal of Sacred Heart School and the 2020-21 Principal of the Year for the Archdiocese of Washington, is embraced by Maria Joya, a longtime teacher's assistant at the school, during the Feb. 5 assembly announcing Heil's honor. (Archdiocese of Washington photo/Gaillard Stohlman)

Greg Landrigan, who teaches middle school global studies and is a language acquisition coach at Sacred Heart School, was recognized as one of the Archdiocese of Washington’s Golden Apple Award winning teachers last year. He said Heil helps make Sacred Heart School a place where spirituality, academics and community are intertwined, and she cultivates “the joy of being in a school where the students feel loved.”

The teacher also spoke from the perspective as a school parent -- his identical twin daughters Lyda and Magnolia are third graders at Sacred Heart School and helped hold up the banner congratulating their principal.

Elise Heil said she hopes students leave Sacred Heart School “with a deep sense within them that they’re loved and meant to be there, and they have a purpose in the world.”

Reflecting on her leadership of the school during this past challenging year, when the school adapted to moving all its instruction to virtual platforms during the initial coronavirus shutdown, and now is providing students with a hybrid model of in-person and virtual learning, Landrigan said, “She’s done a fantastic job of trusting the teachers. Really the pandemic has meant re-inventing how we teach. Elise has known how to introduce us to new ideas and concepts, and also trusts us to implement them.”

Beverly Bonilla, the dean of students at Sacred Heart School, said Heil is dedicated to making everyone in the Sacred Heart community feel they are part of one family, and to know she loves each of them.

“She makes sure she’s outside the school to greet students, and she knows everyone’s name,” Bonilla said, adding that Heil “has a very good heart. She definitely reflects the name of the school,” Sacred Heart School.