There is a new principal at St. Mary School this year. Nicole Nolazco has taken the reins at the Riverside Catholic school, succeeding Barbara Rasinski who served as the principal for the past five years.

In March, Rasinski told St. Mary’s pastor, the Rev. Thomas May, that she planned to retire at the end of the 2019-20 school year. May and the school’s advisory board decided that it would be best to hire a new principal right away and have Rasinski work this year in a newly created position as the director of educational vitality so she could help mentor the 34-year-old Nolazco. 

However, over the summer, Rasinski decided to immediately retire and is no longer at the school.

Nolazco was a last-minute applicant for the position. She had been the principal of St. Barbara Catholic School in the Bridgeport neighborhood of Chicago for the past three years. 

But her run there ended when Archdiocese of Chicago decided to close St. Barbara School and merge it with St. Therese School. Nolazco didn’t get the principal’s job at the newly combined parish school, but May said St. Mary is fortunate to have Nolazco.

“She brings with her experience, she’s a woman of faith [and] she has youth on her side,” May said.

At St. Mary, Nolazco has been an energetic presence since school started. She hangs out outside the school in the morning greeting and talking to parents as they drop off their children at the school.

“She has done a great job of coming in to establish herself and has really worked to build community,” said Nicole Hayes, a member of the St. Mary School Advisory Board and the mother of three children who attend the school.

Nolazco, for her part, has been impressed with the level of parent involvement at St. Mary.

“The community is excellent here,” Nolazco said. “The family spirit is something, too, that’s really great. A lot of parents are involved in their kids learning, which you can’t say at many schools.”

Nolazco, who taught social studies at St. Barbara for eight years before becoming the its principal, is focusing on curriculum and working on ways to differentiate instruction. She hired a new part-time curriculum and instruction coach, Lisa Garza, and has created a professional learning community model. 

She is working to bring a more data-driven approach to instruction and is reviewing the way St. Mary’s two tracks in sixth, seventh, and eighth grades operate. She said she enjoys working directly with teachers.

“I consider myself more of an instructional coach,” Nolazco said. “I more or less like working directly with the teachers, working directly with the students.”

Nolazco, who grew up in Elmhurst, attended public schools until enrolling at Dominican University in River Forest. While at Dominican, Nolazco was impressed with the Catholic approach to education. A student-teaching stint at the now-closed St. Cyprian School in River Grove cemented her decision to work in Catholic schools.

“I feel that that that the Catholic schools are different than the public schools in terms of our objectives and our goals,” Nolazco said. “We’re not just educating kids, we’re building their whole person.”

Nolazco has earned two master’s degrees from Concordia University, one in curriculum and instruction and another in educational administration.

Enrollment has been holding fairly steady at St. Mary with about 360 students enrolled this year, making it one of the larger Catholic schools in the area.