By ERIKA ANDERSON, Staff Writer | Published December 21, 2006
As she watched her students perform in their annual Christmas program, St. John the Evangelist principal Karen Vogtner had no idea a surprise awaited her.
But the superintendent of Catholic schools, Diane Starkovich, had been keeping the secret for over a week and was “about to burst” before she announced the news Dec. 15.
The National Catholic Educational Association had selected Vogtner as one of 12 distinguished Catholic school principals in the country.
Nominated at the beginning of the year by Starkovich, Vogtner was selected as the South Atlantic Region awardee for the 2006-2007 NCEA Dr. Robert J. Kealey Distinguished Principal Award.
Vogtner will be formally recognized for the prestigious award on April 10, 2007, the opening night of the NCEA convention in Baltimore.
In a letter, Nancy Genzel, South Atlantic area representative for the NCEA’s Department of Elementary Schools Executive Committee, praised Vogtner’s commitment to Catholic education.
“Your contributions to Catholic education over the last 18 years are truly impressive,” she wrote. “Your colleagues, parents and superintendent of schools attest to your outstanding service to them and your commitment to Catholic education. You have been an inspiration to all (in) your many years at St. John the Evangelist Catholic School.”
Vogtner, who has served at the school successively since 1988 as a teacher, technology coordinator, assistant principal, and then principal, is also a graduate of St. John School. She has been principal since 1998.
In order to nominate Vogtner for the award, Starkovich had to get her permission, a task that wasn’t easy, she said.
“When I asked her, the first thing she said was that there were so many other deserving principals,” Starkovich said. “And that’s just Karen. She’s so humble.”
The nomination packet included recommendation letters from Starkovich, from Father Ed Thein, pastor of St. John the Evangelist Church, and from a school parent. Peggy Warner, principal of Christ the King School in Atlanta, wrote a letter as a peer principal, and Hapeville Mayor Alan Hallman represented the larger community in a letter of recommendation.
Starkovich said that Vogtner was nominated not only for her deep commitment to the school, but also to the Hapeville community and to the archdiocese.
“She’s a quiet, humble person, but when she takes on a task, she does it to excellence,” she said. “This award brings great honor not only to Karen and to St. John the Evangelist, but it also brings great honor to this archdiocese. Karen is an example of the great leadership in this archdiocese.”
Starkovich, who has served as superintendent since May, was impressed when she first met Vogtner while touring the schools upon her arrival in Atlanta.
“They were having a school Mass. … Before Mass, Karen told the children, ‘This is the most important thing we do, celebrating the Eucharist.’ Catholic education is the teaching ministry of the church. Our role is to further the faith and the kingdom of God,” Starkovich said. “Karen just lives the message of Catholic education.”
Vogtner, for her part, remains humble and grateful for the honor.
“I always tell people that the school is not led by one person. I have a great team, a great faculty and staff that make my job easy,” she said. “But God is really the one leading the school. We’re just his instruments, and I truly believe that.”
The principal said she “gets so much more than (she gives)” and when she has a tough day, she turns to the students.
“When things get stressful in the office, all I have to do is go to the pre-K or kindergarten class and see the children putting their faith into action. You see the seeds planted and nurtured and growing, and that’s the reward,” she said. “That’s what makes you excited to get up and come to work every morning.”