New Lowell principal fosters newfound joy, support in her classrooms

LOWELL — For more than 100 years, students at the Ste. Joan of Arc School have gathered for a morning prayer each day before class. That tradition is still alive at the Catholic institution, but now it’s gotten a little “jazzer,” thanks to the school’s new leadership.

This was Principal Mollie Williams’ first year running Ste. Jeanne d’Arc, and in that time, she’s made a few changes in an effort to foster a “happy place” for kids, teachers and families. Fridays now mean pizza and doing the “Fri-yay” dance, Mardi Gras celebrations are costume parties and end-of-year festivities include a schoolwide talent show.

While she hasn’t completely changed the spirit of the school, Williams said she is proud of the work she’s done and the smiles she’s brought to the students’ faces.

“The school is really about traditions… and you really have to keep things the way they are, you don’t want to disrupt too much,” Williams said. “You want your students to be happy, because it’s all about motivation and the kids wanting to enjoy and love being at our school. There’s nothing better than them wanting to run inside and be at school.”

Ste. Joan of Arc is a co-educational, independent and highly selective pre-K through eighth grade Catholic school in the Archdiocese of Boston that is known for its rigorous coursework and “service-oriented education,” according to its website.

Williams has worked in education for 17 years, starting as a fifth grade teacher at another Catholic school in Texas. She then jumped around different institutions in the Middle East, where her father was stationed as a Marine while she grew up.

After about eight years as both a teacher and department head, Williams moved back to the US and became a seventh grade teacher and then an assistant principal at Ste. Joan of Arc. But it took moving back to Texas for a year for Williams to realize SJA, as the school name is often abbreviated, which was her place to be.

In coming back, Williams had big shoes to fill. The previous principal, Sister Prescille Malo, served for 45 years before stepping down in 2021.

Before Malo left, Williams said she imparted some helpful advice: help those in need and give back to the community.

And since taking the reins, Williams said she has built upon Malo’s impressive foundation.

“Sister (Prescille) left this school in very good shape in terms of her curriculum, her academics, behavior, so walking into this school was easy in terms of the day-to-day stuff that happened because Sister left it so pristine,” Williams said. “Sister created that atmosphere of a family-like environment, and I knew that that’s what I wanted.”

Nicole Morrill, who has taught pre-K at SJA for nine years, said the transition between Malo and Williams couldn’t be better. Williams served as assistant principal under Malo two years ago, so Morrill said Williams understands the needs of the school and saw areas upon which to improve.

“(Williams has) done a great job coming up with new ideas, but also keeping the integrity of the school,” Morrill said. “Molly has brought lots of light. She’s younger and found younger, new ways of doing things.”

The main attraction of the school, Williams said, is its tough curriculum that prepares students for high school. With an accelerated program for fast learners, strong athletics programs and impressive standardized testing scores — according to admissions personnel — Ste. Joan of Arc sets a high bar for his students.

Williams does, too, but said she first sought ways to make SJA more fun and to relieve some of that pressure. That meant tackling one major aspect of education: homework.

Having her own two kids, Tim, 10, and Bob, 7, enrolled at SJA meant Williams was familiar with homework concerns and sought to do something about it.

“We are putting our kids in sports, they’re taking music lessons, and we’re doing this because we don’t want them to be on their devices, but when I walked in, I said, ‘Listen, we have got to respect the family life,’” Williams said. “I’ve had a lot of families come to me saying, ‘This is the first weekend I’ve been able to spend time with my kids, and they’re not doing homework,’ and I feel good about that.”

About 180 students currently attend SJA, said Admissions and Marketing Director Brenda Lyons, and the school is actively enrolling for the next school year. Increasing enrollment is a priority for Williams, and under her leadership, Lyons said she believes the school is poised to “take off” in the next few years.

“(Williams) hasn’t changed the way the school has been running,” Lyons said, noting the school remains selective. “She still holds true to the discipline and traditions.”

Kindergarten teacher Judith Covino has worked at Ste. Joan of Arc for 15 years and said Williams’ positive attitude and energy has made the hallways and classrooms much more inviting and welcoming.

“She’s so open and friendly and just a happy personality all the time. She’s always smiling, she’s always upbeat,” Covino said. “She knows all the children in the school. She can name them all by name. It’s incredible.”

Williams said the school year has already flown by and she’s looking ahead to taking the school into a post-pandemic world.

“What sets us apart from other schools is that we are genuine, and it’s a place where kids can really be kids,” Williams said. “I love the smell of our school, I love the school hallway, I like everything about school. It’s where I’m meant to be.”

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