Jennifer Bigelow, the
new superintendent of schools for the Arlington Diocese,
used to think she wanted a career in politics.
An experience with her mother's second-graders changed her
Bigelow was working on a congressional campaign in 1994, and
her mother, who taught at Corpus Christi School in Temple
Terrace, Fla., asked her to visit her class and explain the
election to her pupils.
"I said, 'Mom, they're second-graders. I'm not quite sure I
can get it to their level.' She said, 'They'll love you, and
they'll eat it up.' So I thought, do I do a 'Schoolhouse
Rock' type of thing?'
"So I did my best to kind of explain the election process for
them, and they may not have learned anything, but I learned
so much. It was so rewarding being in front of them and
answering their questions, and seeing their youthful
exuberance in learning. And I said, 'This is what I need to
The Florida native succeeds
Sister Bernadette McManigal, B.V.M., who was appointed
interim superintendent in September 2008 and took over
permanently seven months later.
Bigelow was the principal at The Franciscan School in
Raleigh, N.C., which has an enrollment of 700 in grades K-8.
Now she'll lead a school system with more than 17,000
students spread across 48 schools and her own staff of 12.
That's a big jump.
She laughs. "That's right. And they're all mine."
A sense of humor, she says, is essential for her job. "It's
an amazing staff here, and they've been so welcoming. They
know what they're doing and I'm pleased to be part of them."
Living in Manassas, Bigelow is new to Washington traffic but
fortunately she loves to drive. She plans to visit every
school from Winchester to Fredericksburg to Fairfax this
fall. In case she falls short, she also asked principals to
produce informational podcasts so she can quickly familiarize
herself with the schools that aren't within easy driving
She's been busy meeting with teachers and principals prior to
opening convocation Aug. 23 at All Saints Church in
Manassas, where the speaker was Bridgeport Bishop Frank
"The Diocese of Arlington is a growing diocese, and so I'm
sure on the horizon we'll be looking at what can we do to
support not only a growing diocese, but a growing Catholic
education population as well," she said.
The fastest-growing segment is Hispanic. In the school
year just completed, Hispanic students represented 12 percent
of enrollment, up from 10 percent in 2013-14.
She's discussed Hispanic outreach with Renee White, diocesan
school enrollment coordinator, and with the media-relations
staff about "how we can do a better job with Spanish-language
radio and television, and how do we reach more families."
Finding donors to increase the availability of financial aid
and making families aware of their options for financial
assistance is another priority. The average yearly tuition
for an elementary school in the diocese is $5,000, and for
high schools, it's as high as $14,000. Many families, Bigelow
says, "may not be aware of all the opportunities."
Sister Bernadette "did a wonderful job working with the
Virginia General Assembly over its tax-credit program (the
Virginia Education Improvement Tax Credit, passed in 2012),
not just for Catholic schools, but people who are interested
in attending private school. I think we can continue to grow
that program in ways we can help more people get a Catholic
education and make it more affordable," Bigelow said.
Diocesan schools began awarding scholarships from that
program in 2013.
A graduate of the University of Florida, Bigelow has taught
at a public middle school and at her Florida alma mater,
Academy of the Holy Names in Tampa. She has a master's degree
in history and educational leadership from the University of
South Florida, and is completing her doctorate at North
Carolina State University.
This fall, she'll defend her dissertation on attrition
factors affecting Catholic school elementary principals - a
topic she knows all too well.
"In general, people are not taking the principalship. It's
even more of an issue in Catholic schools, and so I think
it's imperative for diocesan leaders and pastors to
understand why principals might leave, and subsequently what
programs or initiatives or support we can put together to
The most critical factor, she explained, "is the
pastor-principal relationship and whether or not the
principal has received clear guidelines and expectations for
their role, vis-a-vis the pastor's role."
Her message to parents: "Number one is that I'm here to serve
Jensen is a freelance writer.