Retiring principal made positive impact in short time at St. Sebastian

| Wednesday, Aug. 13, 2014, 9:01 p.m.

Kathleen Roppa has been a principal whom students look forward to encountering each morning at St. Sebastian School in Ross Township.

“I greet every child by name as they come in the door. They come up and hug and kiss me as I walk the halls,” said Roppa, 57, of McCandless. “I'm gonna really miss this place.”

Roppa officially retired July 31 as principal to attend to family obligations, but has been helping out at the school this month. She served at the school for two years.

The Rev. John Rushofsky, pastor of St. Sebastian Parish, said Aug. 7 a new principal has been selected, but he could not identify the person because he was waiting for final approvals from the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh.

“We wanted someone who cares for children and who can relate to them. Many educators and administrators have lots of certifications and credentials, but we wanted someone who can relate to the kids,” Rushofsky said.

“We also wanted someone of deep faith who is not afraid to pass that along to students and faculty, also someone who can have flexibility — 40 percent of our students come from outside our parish — we wanted someone who can understand that and be OK with it.”

St. Sebastian enrolls nearly 450 students in preschool through the eighth grade. In the northern suburbs, only St. Kilian Parish School in Cranberry Township has a larger enrollment, according to the diocese.

During Roppa's tenure, she helped develop a plan to upgrade technology and helped raise more than $100,000 to increase the number of computers and interactive whiteboards at the school, create more computer labs and wireless connectivity, and provide training for teachers.

Roppa also implemented an accelerated reading program, hired a full-time librarian and started full-day preschool for 4-year-olds.

She even enhanced the school playground with the installation of five commercial-grade swings, which she purchased with her own money.

“She made student and staff safety a priority by putting in a new entrance that all visitors must use to gain access to the school. She made the school handicap-accessible by finding a way to get a much-needed elevator installed. The list could go on and on,” said Andrea Kunsak, whose four children attend St. Sebastian.

Perhaps Roppa is most proud, however, of starting a “blended-schools program” that provides additional one-on-one and small-group tutoring to struggling students through a partnership with Total Learning Centers in Pine Township.

“They'd spend time there and spend time here, as well,” Roppa said.

She said test scores increased across every grade level since she started.

“We will miss her genuine love for the students and the passion and enthusiasm she has for their learning,” said Kunsak, 36, of Cranberry Township.

“She made reading more fun by challenging us to reach our reading goals with fun rewards like throwing paint sponges at her. She liked having fun with us, and we all reached all goals,” said Kunsak's son, Timothy, 12.

“(Roppa) was visible and unapologetic in her determination to see the kids at St. Sebastian School receive the best,” said Mary Zilaitis of Shaler Township, whose daughter will be entering third grade at the school.

Roppa arrived at St. Sebastian with more than 30 years of experience in public education, including administrative positions in the North Allegheny School District.

She retired in 2012 after serving as an assistant superintendent in the Neshannock Township School District in Lawrence County.

She had been retired for only two months when she heard St. Sebastian needed a new principal.

“I told Father John Rushofsky that I could help with the search,” said Roppa, who had been going to Mass at St. Sebastian Catholic Church.

She ended up taking the job herself.

Her goal was to make St. Sebastian the No. 1 Catholic elementary school in the area, and she thinks she has succeeded.

“This is a fantastic school. It offers the best,” said Roppa, who plans to continue attending Mass at St. Sebastian.

Laurie Rees is a freelance writer for Trib Total Media.

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