Worldly travels lead principal to St. Thomas

Journal photo by Stephen Sears Mary Beth Cardenas, who taught English for 13 years in Mexico and for one year in Taiwan, is the new principal at Corry’s St. Thomas School. Fluent in Spanish, Cardenas said the school’s staff has welcomed her like family.

Mary Beth Cardenas’ journey to Corry’s St. Thomas School has taken her around the world.

Cardenas, who was named the Catholic elementary school’s new principal in August, formerly lived 13 years in Mexico, where she taught English to children and adults. She then spent another year in Taiwan, where she also taught English.

Earlier, the Olean, N.Y., native had spent a month in Europe as a high school senior. And as a languages major with a history minor at Thiel College, Cardenas also studied in Spain for a year. Cardenas then spent another year traveling through Europe.

Despite her worldly travels, Cardenas, who speaks Spanish fluently, is thrilled to land in small-town Corry.

“It’s exciting,” said Cardenas. “I fell in love with this community.”

She recently moved to Corry with her husband, Alejandro, who was born in Mexico, and one of the couple’s two grown sons. Another son lives in Dallas, Texas, and the couple’s daughter lives in Washington, D.C.

“It’s very beautiful here. I love the outdoors and my husband and I love the fresh air,” said Cardenas, who also lived in Texas and Colorado for several years. “And being a history buff, I love the environment here.”

The move to Corry also makes it easier for Cardenas to visit her parents, who live in Olean.

Cardenas takes over for former St. Thomas School Principal Karen Beer, who now is principal at St. Luke School in Erie.

A longtime teacher, Cardenas recently earned a master’s degree in education with a concentration in administration and supervision from the University of Phoenix. She now is working toward a doctoral degree in curriculum and instruction, also from the University of Phoenix.

She hopes to bring her love of languages — especially Spanish — to her new students.

“I hope to go into classrooms and give them mini-lessons in Spanish,” Cardenas said. “I also hope to teach them Spanish songs for Mass.”

Cardenas said a top priority is teaching students about the Catholic faith and maintaining the school’s Catholic identity. Still, students need to learn about the world at large.

“Kids must be able to appreciate other cultures and faiths. I’d like to see that happen at this school,” she said. “Corry is small but there is a big world out there. It’s good for children to learn about the big world, it helps them make sense of it.”

Corry’s St. Thomas Parish also has a sister parish in Mexico, and Cardenas hopes her experience can strengthen ties between the two parishes.

St. Thomas School now is in its 116th year and teaches students in prekindergarten through eighth grade. The Catholic school accepts students of all faiths — and those of no faith tradition.

The school utilizes the multiage format, in which class levels are combined, established by the Catholic Diocese of Erie several years ago.

The school has seven full-time teachers and two aides.

Cardenas said the school is off to a good start. St. Thomas School has 70 students enrolled, which marks a modest increase from the 2009-10 school year.

“I’d like to see enrollment go up,” she said. “I’d like to work on raising standards for students as high as possible. I’d also like to strengthen our social studies and science programs.”

The new principal has initiated one change this year. Classes start at 8 a.m. rather than 8:15 a.m. The extra time will be used for lunch and recess.

“I believe physical activity is an important part of the school day,” she said. “Students need physical activity to stimulate their brains.”

Cardenas said the St. Thomas community has welcomed her with open arms.

“The faculty and staff have been wonderful. I feel like I’m in a family,” she said. “I have a positive feeling and that makes me happy and enthusiastic. I hope to spread that enthusiasm to my students and staff.”

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