Slope Catholic school principal turns critics into converts

Slope Catholic school principal turns critics into converts
Photo by Tom Callan

The Park Slope principal who got caught in the crossfire of a Catholic school controversy has silenced the critics and won the hearts of parents — even while advocating forward-thinking philosophies with which they disagree.

Maura Lorenzen, who replaced a beloved administrator at St. Saviour Elementary School on Eighth Avenue and Seventh Street, has brought openness to the traditional learning environment — while championing the benefits of technology and yoga, which the Pope himself has publicly poo-pooed.

Lorenzen initially came under fire amid allegations that she got hired simply because she was pals with Rev. Daniel Murphy. But now parents, many of whom initially complained that Lorenzen was not suited for the position, now support her collaborative classroom settings, appreciation for secular diversity and out-of-the-box approach to art instruction.

“The transition was hard at first,” she said. “But complacency is the enemy: We are taking a good school and making it great.”

Indeed, over two years, enrollment has grown from 366 to 400 students — even as most Catholic schools in the city have shrunk.

Much of that can be attributed to Lorenzen, who has implemented a shift away from stodgy classroom traditions — like moving desks out of rows and into group seating — in order to encourage teamwork and “cooperative learning.”

The philosophical revamp comes after Murphy’s controversial 2009 decision not renew the contract of Principal James Flanagan, a popular administrator who had been in charge for 25 years. Parents repeatedly protested, saying things worked the way they were. After Lorenzen was hired, they directed their venom at her, claiming she got the job through connections.

But now parents — even those who initially bashed her — say she deserves some credit, even if they don’t always agree with her vision.

“You can talk to her; parents e-mail her all the time — and that’s unburdening for them,” said parent Cindy Brolsma, who initially said she complained of cronyism. “She’s also very good at bringing money to the school, which is important.”

Lorenzen — a former director at Congregation Beth Elohim Early Childhood Center — tread lightly during her first year, sometimes “holding [her] tongue” and doing a lot of listening.

She initially took issue with a couple of the administration’s ideas about “product versus process”–based art — the difference between handing a kid a paintbrush and saying, “Paint winter!” which encourages creative thinking, as opposed to teaching him, step by step, how to make a snowflake, which encourages structured thinking.

She initially believed that art was meant just to encourage creativity, but has since discovered both styles of teaching are of value.

She’s also done some housekeeping to brighten the colors of walls and has taken advantage of previously unused outdoor space, along with offering extended school programs like cooking, yoga and music.

It’s all meant to show that her now-more-modern school is a place where everyone should feel comfortable asking questions and speaking openly.

“There has absolutely been a shift,” she said. “One big thing is my approach to communication: I want children to feel like they have a voice and that they’re considered.”

Plenty of parents are hailing that idea.

“She’s done many things to make the school shine,” said another mother who criticized Lorenzen initially — and who asked not to be named now. “She’s taken good steps forward.”

Maura Lorenzen took over St. Saviour’s School under fire two years ago. Now, she’s made converts.
Photo by Tom Callan