New principals start the year in Southeast Kansas

Angela Renfro of St. Andrew School in Independence.

Kristen O’Brien of St. Mary’s Elementary School in Pittsburg.

Kristen O’Brien began student teaching over 25 years ago at St. Mary’s Elementary School in Pittsburg. Today she is the principal.

O’Brien is one of three women in Southeast Kansas who this fall is sitting for the first time behind the principal’s desk. The other new administrators are in Parsons and Independence.

O’Brien grew up in Altamont and graduated in 1995 from Pittsburg State University where she studied for a master’s degree and where she completed her building principal education.

“I was hired the year after I student taught,” she said. “I taught sixth grade my first three years and second grade for four years.”
O’Brien then taught Title I reading and math for 10 years while her children were young. “I wanted to spend more time with them and that gave me the opportunity. Then I went back to the regular classroom and taught first grade for eight years. So, my entire professional career has been here at the school.”

She said she is eager to work with all the wonderful families of the parish school. “I’m looking forward to helping the kids grow spiritually, academically, and socially. I’m also looking forward to working with an awesome staff of experienced and dedicated teachers that we have here at our school.”

She said she hopes her students can return to regular routines after all the challenges they had to overcome because of the pandemic.

“Another challenge is helping our kids to be in the world and not of the world; to be less interested in the things of the world, and to strive to be more like Jesus. I think that can be a challenge today.”

O’Brien and her husband, Ed, have three children, ages 14, 17, and 19. “My children are actually very excited that I’m principal and happy they’re not in elementary school anymore.”

St. Patrick School, Parsons

Autumn Carson St. Patrick School in Parsons.

Autumn Carson is a teacher and former coach who will be coaching students and staff this school year at St. Patrick School in Parsons.

“Switching roles and becoming an administrator at St. Patrick’s is giving me the opportunity to not only help children be successful in their academic careers but most importantly allowing me the opportunity to grow the whole child,” she said via email.

Carson, who graduated from Pittsburg State in 2002 with a bachelor’s degree and in 2008 with a master’s, spent most of her 18 years teaching at public schools. She formerly taught first and sixth grades and worked one-on-one with a kindergarten special needs child. In addition, she coached middle school girls volleyball and basketball. Her teaching career included schools in Galena, Spring Hill, Pittsburg, and Baxter Springs.

Working with children and leading others is her vocation, she said. “Being Catholic is at the core of my being. I have always valued the importance of a Catholic education and understand that it cannot be replicated. I feel that God has called me to work with others and share my love for him and my love of learning.”

Carson’s goals include setting high academic standards, instilling personal virtue, and fostering stewardship and service to help students find their calling and prepare them for their roles as future leaders.

“I also love the fact that I get to help the teachers grow in their craft and their faith. I like to think of myself as a teacher of teachers now,” she said.

Although Catholic schools are known for their academic achievements, Carson said, she is more focused on getting her students to heaven.

“That is my ultimate goal. The ability to share the teaching of the Catholic Church, the sacraments, and the liturgy with students is a blessing. Children learn what they live and live what they learn.”

Another goal, she said, is attempting to return the school day to as normal as possible after the disorientation caused by the pandemic.

“Today’s world can be challenging, making people feel hopeless – like there’s no solution,” Carson said. “My focus will be to share that with God there’s hope in every situation. Christ is the light that carries us through the dark times. We must always look for God in everything around us.”

St. Andrew School, Independence

Like the other two new SEK teachers, Angela Renfro attended Pittsburg State, graduating in 1993 with a bachelor’s degree and in 2020 with a master’s.

Originally from Altamont, she and her husband moved to Kansas City after she graduated from PSU where she taught special ed and first grade for eight years. Her husband, James, accepted a job offer in Independence 19 years ago so the family returned to Southeast Kansas. Soon after, Angela began teaching part-time at St. Andrew School in Independence.

“I told Becky Brown that I knew I was going to get my master’s in administration. I knew I wanted to do that someday. I was waiting for my girls to grow up a little bit and not need me quite so much,” she said.

“I told her you’re never going to retire from St. Andrews, so I’m going to have to go back to the public schools to get my foot in the door.”
So, in 2016 she took a job in nearby Cherryvale where she taught kindergarten and third grade.

Last year Brown proved Renfro wrong, when she announced she was retiring after 22 years at St. Andrew.

This year is Renfro’s 29th year in education but her first as a principal. Her administrative training will be put to good use.

Four of the teachers at St. Andrew are not only new to the school, the school is their first teaching post after college.

“St. Andrew’s is a coming home,” she said. “I love teaching and I always knew as a little girl I’d be a teacher someday.”

The year will be a new challenge, she said, because of her new role.

“I’m looking forward to being back here working with the new teachers and sharing the experiences that I have had in the classroom with them. It’s a big responsibility,” she said. “They bring a whole new level of excitement and dynamic to the ballgame.”

Renfro said she loves the Catholic school mentality.

“I love that we can share Christ’s love with all of the kids and that it’s the basis of everything we do.”

She added that teaching the faith is more important than any other subject. “To be a part of that is huge.”

Getting past the problems posed by the pandemic and maintaining St. Andrew’s high level of achievement are two of the challenges she and her teachers face, Renfro said.

She and James have three children, the youngest of whom is a freshman at Cherryvale High School where James is principal.