Diane Simonaitis wasn’t given much of a learning curve when she was named principal at St. Mary School in Riverside in August. In fact, she had two days.

“She was hired on a Saturday, moved in on Sunday and had the opening Mass with teachers on Monday,” said Rev. Tom May, pastor of St. Mary Parish, who himself started in July.

“But she handled it like a pro,” said May. “It had to be very stressful for her.”

Simonaitis was hired after a quick search process, necessitated by the resignation of former Principal Frank Valderrama, who left to accept a co-principal position at St. Helena School in the Roseland neighborhood on Chicago’s far South Side. Valderrama had been principal since 2008.

“Late in the summer, Mr. Valderrama chose to go to a parish where the archdiocese felt his strengths were more closely aligned,” said St. Mary’s school board President Scott Schafer, adding that the archdiocese “presented a roster of candidates that was a surprisingly strong, deep roster.

“We were exceptionally fortunate,” he said. “We had four or five candidates who would have done a great job at St. Mary’s.”

What set Simonaitis apart, said Schafer, was her “vibrant, engaging personality.”

Taking on the new job was likely stressful in more ways than one. Not only did Simonaitis have to get acquainted with the school quickly, it was the first time she had been back in an elementary school setting since 1999.

From 1999 to 2009, Simonaitis was assistant principal of curriculum and development for the DuPage Area Occupational Education System, which provides vocational training to high school juniors and seniors. Since 2009, Simonaitis has been a consultant, training teachers in classroom management strategies.

“One of the reasons I left [DuPage] was because I recognized that [many] teachers leave teaching within the first five years because they don’t know how to manage their classrooms.

“When I started teaching, it was a different classroom than what we have today. We need to help teachers be better prepared.”

Despite being out of the elementary school loop for a while, Simonaitis’ roots go back to teaching in elementary classrooms, including those at Catholic schools. She taught for several years at Visitation School in Elmhurst before leaving to teach for a little over a year for Chicago Public Schools.

After that, she spent seven years as a fifth- and sixth-grade science teacher at Walsh School in Summit before heading to Thomas Jefferson Charter School in Des Plaines for a year. Simonaitis also serves as an adjunct professor, teaching an education administration certification class at Benedictine University in Lisle.

Simonaitis said she grappled with whether she wanted to return to the elementary school world, but quickly made up her mind after hearing late in the summer that St. Mary was hiring.

“It was exactly what I was looking for,” Simonaitis said. “It’s been a perfect fit for me.”

She’s still learning the ropes at St. Mary. The school, she noted, expects to make progress this year in helping underachieving readers in the second and third grades as well as meeting the needs of over-achievers.

“We want to work on helping both levels get more support for advancement,” Simonaitis said. “The school board wants to focus on staying current with 21st-century diversity in education and differentiation in the classroom.”

Schafer said the school board also wants to focus on long-term issues, “specifically about the value St. Mary’s brings to the community,” he said. “The other was through additional curriculum development and heightened focus on classroom instruction.”

Schafer also pointed out a renewed sense of community at the school.

“There’s a sense of community and excitement I haven’t seen in a number of years,” Schafer said. “I attribute it in part to [Simonaitis] and to Father May. It bodes well for good things to come.”