Christina Vierra-McGill began July 1st as principal at St. Joseph Elementary and Middle School in Missoula. Her 29 years in education include 11 as an administrator, most recently as Principal at Assumption St. Bridget Elementary (K-8) in Seattle, Wash. Prior to that as teacher and then Principal at Madeleine Choir School (K-8) in Salt Lake City, Utah.
Christina, and husband David, already had hopes to move to Montana when she saw the position opening in June. Their ties to Big Sky Country include David’s parents hailing from Havre and Chinook and their son, Elliott, playing Football at Carroll College before starting at Alexander Blewett III School of Law at the University of Montana. The opening at St. Joseph prompted David to inquire and find work locally even before Christina was hired as Principal. “We knew we wanted to move to Montana for the past 5 years and when I saw the job opening in the one Catholic School (in Missoula), I went for it,” she said. “It wasn’t really our time table, but we’re definitely excited.” Transitioning from Seattle to Missoula for her is a welcome change. “We have some acreage and some animals. We’re embracing it. We love the outdoors and the pace is healthier for us, we call it a quality of life move.”
Of St. Joseph School, she said, “We are blessed to be part of such a rich legacy, celebrating 144 years and pre-dating Montana’s Statehood, it’s unique in our country. I’m also just impressed with the dedication and eagerness of the faculty.” McGill is looking forward to engaging an energetic faculty this year, including in-house professional development in conjunction with the University of Montana. “We’ll continue to build skills to meet the needs of our diverse student body. We have students with varying socio-economic backgrounds, different cultural backgrounds and students with learning exceptionalities.”
She explained that having strong programs in Art, Music, P.E. and Technology are unique to a small school, but academic performance doesn’t suffer. “St. Joseph students consistently perform above state and national average on the MAP (Measure of Academic Progress) test. I do feel the rigor begins at St. Joseph and continues at Sacred Heart. The priorities are right and the performance shows it’s working.”
As far as challenges, St. Joseph is looking for more students. “Like many Catholic Schools, it’s no secret we need to build enrollment,” she said, “but I’m optimistic. We’ve been around and will be proactive with visible and deliberate marketing.” She cites the growth in Missoula’s overall population as a positive as well as open house gatherings and tuition assistance. “This year, we’re doing things differently.”
Open House tours will be led by student and parent ambassadors who will highlight features of the school. Student ambassadors are identified by their teachers as confident and willing leaders while parent ambassadors include parents and some school board members who have children enrolled. Tours will take place while classes and activities proceed as usual. McGill hopes it will give people a look at the school in action. Attendees will then gather while she gives a general overview of the school mission, its curriculum and what makes the school unique. McGill hopes to make a strong connection through personalized follow up with each family that attends. Open houses are advertised on social media and yard signs throughout the valley and will take place Oct. 5th, Nov. 9th and Feb. 1st. from 9:30 to 11:00 a.m.
Along with open house gatherings McGill cited the Companion Program that aids in tuition costs for families as a help for enrollment. She said, “Over 50% of families get some form of tuition assistance through the work of the (Loyola Sacred Heart) foundation. It’s where our priorities should be. When I attended Catholic School, parishes helped my mom with tuition. It’s nice to be part of a system with that same priority. By marketing the Companions Program we’ll help squash the myth that it’s too expensive.”
Her oldest Malorie, a Gonzaga graduate, attends the University of Washington School of Law while youngest, Abbie, is at St. Mary’s College of California. A product of, advocate for, and catalyst within Catholic Education, she contends, “Catholic school is the best investment we ever made.”