St. Al sends guidance counselor to principal’s office|[7/12/05]

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Michele Townsend, 31, has been named principal at St. Aloysius High School after serving as the school’s guidance counselor for six years.

Townsend replaces Peter Pikul as principal of the high school, who retired in May after three years as principal and 34 years in public and private education.

She is the first non-Catholic to be principal at St. Al and believed to be the youngest principal there in at least 50 years.

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“We felt like she was the best candidate and a natural choice because she’s already a leader among the faculty,” said Jennifer Henry, chief administrator of Vicksburg Catholic School, principal of St. Francis Elementary and also new in her post. She was hired this year from Columbus and succeeds Ann Wheeless, who retired as St. Francis principal.

The move also completes a structural shift in the way the system is run, where Henry, the principal of the elementary school, will be the chief administrator for the system.

Previously, the school chief of Vicksburg Catholic School was the principal of the high school, while the principal of the elementary school was the assistant principal.

Henry made the hire after consulting with a selection committee composed of three St. Al faculty members and the Rev. Patrick Farrell, pastor of St. Paul Catholic Church.

Townsend, a Methodist, has a daughter, Sara, her only child, attending fourth grade at St. Francis.

“That shows her testament to her belief in Catholic education. You don’t have to be Catholic to do that,” Henry said.

The percentage of Catholic students at Vicksburg Catholic School has hovered between 50 and 55 percent for a decade, said Chad Sonnek, director of development at St. Francis since 1999.

Townsend has lived in Vicksburg since moving from her birthplace of Idaho Falls, Idaho, when she was 5. After graduating from Vicksburg High School in 1992, she earned a Bachelor of Science in psychology from Mississippi State University in 1995 and a master’s degree in counseling psychology from Mississippi College in Clinton in 1999.

She also interned at Warren County Children’s Shelter during college before becoming lead guidance counselor at St. Al.

Listening skills, organizational skills and an “excellent level of communication” are assets Townsend plans to take into her new job.

“It will be very beneficial to me to know many students already. We have wonderful children here who tend to find themselves and their direction in high school,” Townsend said.

Among Townsend’s desires for her inaugural school year is a review of the school’s curriculum and looking to see if and when a new advanced placement (AP) class can be included.

The current class schedule would not be augmented to accomplish this, Townsend said, but added the school “needs more AP classes than just math.”

Fellow counselor Holli McBrayer will replace Townsend in the guidance office, Henry said.

Vicksburg Catholic School consists of pre-K-6 at St. Francis Xavier Elementary and 7-12 at St. Aloysius High School. Coed since 1968-69, the schools are the successors of an all-male school established by the Brothers of the Sacred Heart here in 1879 and an elementary and all-female high school that dates to an 1860 founding by the Religious Sisters of Mercy.

Vicksburg Catholic School’s 2005-06 total enrollment will be 603, down from 627 in 2004-05. St. Al has 252 enrolled for 2005-06, down from 264 in 2004-05.