A local elementary school administrator was recently presented with two national awards to recognize her outstanding leadership as a principal, one particularly within the Catholic education system.
St. Mary Catholic School Principal Deborah Ollis, who started her career at St. Mary as assistant principal in 2001 before becoming principal in 2002, was first honored with the National Catholic Education Association’s (NCEA) Distinguished Principal Award in June followed by the National Association of Elementary School Principals (NAESP) Distinguished Principal Award in October.
“This is certainly a first for St. Mary, and I believe in our Archdiocesan School System, for these awards that Debbie has received. We are so excited for her,” said Marcelle Naman, director of development for St. Mary Parish.
According to Naman, Ollis was one of 12 principals nationwide to receive the NCEA award. Additionally, Ollis was one of 61 principals, representing public, private and Catholic schools in all 50 states, to receive the NAESP award. Of the 61 educators honored, only three principals were from Catholic schools and only two were from private schools.
The fruition of Ollis’ contributions to the wellbeing of the education community earned her the prestigious, nationally recognized awards, Naman said.
“Her leadership has benefited curriculum, staff morale, community support, student interest and the learning environment,” Naman wrote of Ollis in a school newsletter. “She continually provides creative leadership to inspire teachers to achieve and contribute to the school environment.”
In October, Ollis traveled to Washington D.C. to participate in festivities honoring all NAESP award recipients.
“It was kind of a whirlwind of two days,” she said. “It was great.”
Additionally, honorees were presented with an old-fashioned bell, traditionally given to each National Distinguished Principal, engraved with his or her name, Ollis said.
At the end of the event, organizers asked participants to stand and ring their bells. With thousands of bells ringing simultaneously, Ollis said camaraderie between educators was at an all-time high and the moment was very moving.
Furthermore, Ollis said a highlight of the trip was spending time with the principal-at-large, who speaks on behalf of other principals and works in Washington D.C. with Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.
During the conference, all honored principals were given a pink card and asked to write down what they would want to say to Duncan in 30 seconds or less, Ollis said.
Later that night at the weekend’s big ceremony, Duncan was introduced as the guest speaker and discussed some of the items educators had written down on their cards.
“Testing is not teaching, and that is great to assess children, but there needs to be a more time spent on actually instructing them and being with them in the classrooms as opposed to always assessing them,” Ollis said, recalling what she wrote on her card.
While testing is important, Ollis said public school teachers she spoke with at the conference said they oftentimes feel pinned in by testing and assessments.
“As far as our curriculum goes, we still meet standards and we still have our goals, but we do have the flexibility to work with each student the way we need to work with each student,” she said. “We need to meet them where they are, and not where they think they should be.”
During her tenure at St. Mary, Ollis has created an abundance of creative academic and extracurricular programs for students including elementary and middle school level science labs, a full-time resource program and a performing arts and robotics program, Naman said.
Ollis particularly noted the “strong addition” of the new performing arts program, which debuted its first ever production of “Willy Wonka” just before Thanksgiving, where students were able to step out of the box and come out of their shells.
“It really brought kids out that you wouldn’t have otherwise expected,” she said.
Additionally, Ollis brought the parish’s preschool into the actual school, ultimately adding the K-3 preschool program to St. Mary, which has since allowed for families to be a part of the school with their children beginning at an early age, Naman said.
According to Naman, Ollis has also brought in extracurricular activities including St. Mary’s Pride Club, the Pro-Life Club, Computer Club, Green-Apple Club and the Alabama High School Athletic Program.
“I call Debbie the magic maker,” Naman said. “She comes up with an idea and makes it happen and it is always an idea that is innovative and makes programs better for our students.”
Further, Ollis praised all of the St. Mary staff, citing the development of new programs by her leadership team who embraces academic diversity.
“I think I have a great team of people who are willing to take risks with programs and their education just to meet their needs,” she said. “My faculty has so embraced it, and they really do try to meet the needs of each and every child and that’s not an easy thing to do.”
Ollis also placed importance on service projects, having started the “Something Beautiful for God” service program at the school where students can reach out in their community and serve individuals and organizations through fundraising and special projects, according to Naman. Ollis participates in other civic organizations including Keep Mobile Beautiful and Mobile United among many others.
According to Naman, Ollis’ past and present professional affiliations include the National Catholic Education Association, National Association of Secondary School Principals, Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Peer Review Team, Spring Hill College Teacher Education Advisory Committee and the Archdiocese of Mobile Catholic Schools Study Committee.
Ollis is a graduate of Corpus Christi, McGill Toolen, Spring Hill College and the University of South Alabama and holds bachelor’s degrees in psychology and elementary education and a master’s degree in education and administration.
In honor of her achievement, the city of Mobile declared June 17 Debbie Ollis Day.
“It was pretty amazing to be able to represent [St. Mary] and I think people were impressed with what we do,” Ollis said.