For Lisa Gutierrez, principal of Aquinas Catholic Community School in Merrillville, she never thought her teaching career would lead her toward Catholic schools. However, when a substitute teaching position opened at a local Catholic school, it wasn’t long before she committed herself to Catholic education.
“While I was raised Catholic, I didn’t attend Catholic school growing up, so I wasn’t very familiar with it,” she said. “But when I began subbing at St. Edwards in Lowell, I fell in love with Catholic education right away.”
The longtime teacher taught in Illinois before moving to Northwest Indiana, where she worked at St. Edwards Church before taking a position at St. Casimir Church in Hammond after St. Edwards closed. There, she grew more connected to Catholic education and the community itself. Her husband went to middle school at St. Casimir and grew up across the street, so working in a school she connected personally with only strengthened her love of teaching.
“I was emotionally attached to the school and the parish from day one,” Gutierrez said. “Eventually, I was offered the assistant principal position which led to a chance meeting a few years later with the superintendent when I learned about Notre Dame’s master’s program.”
Gutierrez graduated from the University of Notre Dame’s Mary Ann Remick Leadership Program in 2017, a year accepting the principal position at Aquinas School in Merrillville.
“Being able to serve and turn a school around is what really inspired me to go this route,” she said. “I could see on day one that Aquinas School had great kids and a devoted staff. It is an honor to serve this community.
Now in her fifth year as principal, Gutierrez has followed her vision for the school and has seen it continue to grow. In the past four years, parts of the school have been renovated for new classroom space as more students have enrolled at the preschool through eighth-grade school.
“Our class sizes have grown, and our staff size has more than doubled over the years,” she said. “We have a lot of kids from Merrillville, Gary, and surrounding cities looking for Catholic education.”
When Big Shoulders Fund’s Northwest Indiana Initiative, a nonprofit that provides support for local schools and students with scholarships, leadership development, and resources, approached Aquinas School last year, Gutierrez saw it as an opportunity to continue to enact positive change and growth in the school.
“Big Shoulders Fund’s Northwest Indiana Initiative identified us as a demographic they are passionate about serving,” she said. “We were eager for any assistance they could provide to our students and were honored when they approached us about starting a partnership.”
Big Shoulders Fund’s Northwest Indiana Initiative quickly recognized a specific need within the school: access to food. At the time, Aquinas didn’t have a breakfast or lunch program for students who would benefit from increased food options. While many students qualified for a free or reduced lunch, a program was not in existence.
“Beth White of the Bruce and Beth White Family Foundation that funded Big Shoulders Fund’s expansion into Northwest Indiana was there during that first meeting and she noticed us making some lunches for kids in our offices,” Gutierrez said. “The first thing they did was to help us with the paperwork necessary when applying for the National Nutrition Program’s free or reduced lunch program.”
“It’s a long application process, so Big Shoulders Fund purchased breakfast and lunch for the entire school for the rest of the school year,” she said. “We were approved for that program, so we now have a full breakfast and lunch program as of this school year.”
When the COVID-19 pandemic forced school online, Big Shoulders Fund’s Northwest Indiana Initiative provided COVID-19 relief grants in the form of tuition support for students whose families have been negatively impacted by the shutdown.
“Many private schools across the country lost students because their families couldn’t afford tuition due to the pandemic. Not us though,” Gutierrez said. “With the help of Big Shoulders, we didn’t lose a single student due to financial reasons, and we have maintained those numbers into this school year.”
To learn more about Big Shoulders Fund’s Northwest Indiana Initiative, visit https://bigshouldersfund.org/.