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Sacred Heart teacher encourages students at his bilingual school to help make the world a better place

Greg Landrigan works with a student at Sacred Heart School in Washington, D.C., where he has taught for the past seven years. He is one of 10 Golden Apple Award winning teachers from across the Archdiocese of Washington for 2020. (Courtesy photo)

For Greg Landrigan, the greatest blessing of teaching at Sacred Heart School in Washington, D.C., which offers an innovative bilingual education program in Spanish and English, is encouraging his students to make the world a better place.

“The greatest blessing is seeing my students succeed in their understanding of who they are and how they want to fit into changing the world around them,” he said.

Landrigan’s life journey, including a stint in the Peace Corps in Panama, has led him to a career in bilingual education and being at home at Sacred Heart School, where he just completed his seventh year teaching, most recently as a middle school global studies teacher and as a language acquisition coach.

“One of the beautiful things about Sacred Heart is that we’re like a family together,” he said. “For me, we literally are a family, because my daughters are a part of the community.”

His identical twin daughters, Lyda and Magnolia, are 8 years old and just finished the second grade at Sacred Heart School. Like their fellow students, they finished their schoolwork at home this spring, after Catholic school campuses closed as a precaution against the spread of the coronavirus. During the shutdown, Landrigan has taught from the dining room table at home, while his wife and the girls’ mother, Penny Robinson Landrigan – who works for the Department of Agriculture – had a basement office, and the twins tackled their online classes in the living room.

And Sacred Heart School came home to the Landrigans recently. During a morning Zoom call with fellow faculty members, Landrigan learned he was one of 10 Catholic school teachers from across the Archdiocese of Washington to be named as 2020 Golden Apple Award winners. The award for teaching excellence, sponsored by the Donahue Family Foundation, includes a $5,000 prize, a golden apple and a certificate.

Later that day, Landrigan heard a knock on his front door. It was his father, Michael Landrigan, who said, “You guys have visitors.” There in his yard and on the street in front of his house, in addition to his dad, were his mom, Julie Atkins, and his colleagues from Sacred Heart School, who were wearing masks, waving pompoms and cheering for him.

“It was just fantastic. One of the things that struck me, was they had all driven across the river,” Landrigan said, joking about how people crossing the Potomac River into Virginia from Washington, D.C., and Maryland often seem to get lost.

Greg Landrigan, at center in background, waves as his colleagues from Sacred Heart School surprise him at his Arlington home to congratulate him for being named as a 2020 Golden Apple Award winning teacher. (Photo by Christopher Gunty)

Landrigan lives with his family in Arlington. After living, studying and working in New York – where he and his wife were married, where his wife became Catholic, and where their twin girls were baptized – his parents, who were then retired, invited him to come home to live at the house where he grew up, while they moved to an apartment nearby.

“There’s something magical about watching the girls play in the same places I played,” Landrigan said.

He grew up attending St. Agnes School and Bishop O’Connell High School in Arlington, and now his family attends St. Ann’s Parish there, where he plays guitar, mandolin and bass and sings with his wife in the contemporary choir.

Landrigan majored in English and minored in art and history at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia. After earning his undergraduate degree, he worked for a year as a substitute teacher for the public school system in Winooski, Vermont.

“I got a taste of everything, from preschool to high school,” said Landrigan, who also assisted with special needs education. “That job set the tone for me, that education was what I wanted to do.”

Then he returned to Washington, D.C., and worked as an editorial assistant for the Aspen Institute, a research non-profit.

After that, Landrigan volunteered with the Peace Corps, serving in a sustainable agriculture program that helped coffee farmers in a mountainous region of Panama. That’s where he met his future wife, who was also volunteering with that program.

The farmers spoke an indigenous language, and their children attended a Spanish language school. Seeing the challenges they faced got Landrigan interested in working in bilingual education.

“When we talk about bilingual education, we also talk about building bicultural education,” he said, noting that those indigenous children faced the challenge of navigating between their language and culture at home and another language and culture at school, like the children at Sacred Heart School do whose parents are immigrants.

Greg Landrigan teaches a class at Sacred Heart School in Washington. (Courtesy photo)

Landrigan said he was also drawn to bilingual education because of his family heritage. He noted that his maternal grandmother, his Nana, had grown up in Florida speaking Spanish. Her father was an immigrant from Mexico, and her mother was from the Canary Islands.

“I feel it’s an important to have that connection to your own family heritage, and one of the ways to get that connection is through language,” Landrigan said.

Then as part of a Peace Corps fellowship program, Landrigan returned to the United States, where he earned a master’s degree in bilingual education at Teacher’s College at Columbia University in New York. He and his wife got married and started their family there, and while earning that degree, he taught language arts in English and Spanish at Amistad Dual Language School in New York City.

In 2013, their family moved back home to Arlington, and Landrigan said that for his job, “the goal was to find a school that I was excited about, that was bilingual.”

During his earlier time working in Washington, he had lived in the Adams Morgan neighborhood and would go to Mass at the Shrine of the Sacred Heart, and he remembered an Easter Vigil there that lasted more than four hours, and included the four languages that Masses are celebrated in at that church – English, Spanish, Vietnamese and Haitian Creole.

“People from different cultural backgrounds were all united in the celebration of the Resurrection,” he said.

That memory helped cement his desire to teach at Sacred Heart School beginning in the 2013-14 school year, when he taught all the subjects for third and fourth graders. Later he taught fifth graders at the bilingual school, and in recent years he has been a middle school teacher. As a language acquisition coach, he assists teachers in instructional methods and he also helps some students learn English as a second language. In addition to teaching global studies in Spanish, he also teaches religion to seventh graders.

Elise Heil, the principal of Sacred Heart School, said Landrigan “understands that teaching in a Catholic school is a vocation that extends beyond the four walls of the classroom,” and she noted that he takes students on hiking club trips through Rock Creek Park.

She said that he and his fellow teachers offer hope to students, with daily interactions that show “the love of Christ is not a distant promise, but something that we can bring to fruition in the here and now.”

Sacred Heart teacher Greg Landrigan, at left, poses with students during one of the school's hiking club outings. (Courtesy photo)

Landrigan noted that in his estudios globales (global studies) class for middle school students at Sacred Heart School, the students look at current immigration issues, and how historical events like civil wars in the Central American countries where many of their families immigrated from shaped the influx of newcomers to the Sacred Heart neighborhood in recent decades.

The teacher praised the work of Sacred Heart School and the other schools in the Archdiocese of Washington’s Consortium of Catholic Academies – which also include St. Thomas More Catholic Academy, St. Francis Xavier Academy, and St. Anthony Catholic School in Washington, D.C.

“I really see Sacred Heart School as being the future of Catholic education and education in general,” he said. “We can configure schools that enable our students and teachers to embrace a diversity of cultures… That is the future of education, if we create a world we’re striving for. It’s a world that puts value on people’s stories, on the variety of perspectives and cultures and embraces them.”

For Landrigan, those lessons are crucial now, for student to learn about the importance of racial justice as that movement is sweeping the nation, and to engage students in other real-world issues, like how communities like Sacred Heart have been hard hit by the health and economic impacts of the coronavirus pandemic because of societal disparities.

“As Catholics, we’re called not to be complacent. We’re called to make the world a better place,” the Catholic school teacher said.