Former sixth-grade teacher moves to head of school

Special to the EnterpriseJuly 24, 2013 

Debra Cabral believes in putting students first, using a positive approach and developing teamwork. She'll be she using this approach when she assumes the principal's position Aug. 1 at Our Lady of Fatima School in Los Banos.

Since announcing the appointment in early July, Father Bob Gamel, the pastor of St. Joseph's Parish and OLF School, has given the principal's role a great deal of thought.

"I come from an educational background that puts students first and stresses high standards, firm but reasonable discipline and high expectations," Cabral said; "but my educational philosophy also values encouragement and cooperation."

"I would like all students at OLF to develop their talents but also feel good about coming to school," she said. "I'd like to see our children grow mentally, physically and spiritually and become faith-filled, happy problem-solvers."

Cabral's educational philosophy was formed to a great extent by the Salesians. The Catholic teaching order, named after St. Francis de Sales, was founded in the 19th century by St. John Bosco. Salesians promote a preventive, rather than a repressive, approach to education.

"Following the Salesian model," Cabral said, "I would like OLF students to experience the positive effects of the church and the playground, and feel a sense of being at home while they're in school.

"A Catholic school today plays an important role in our world," Cabral said. "Besides the important skills of reading, writing and math, as well as science, social science, and computer literacy, OLF can also teach students the importance of our faith and develop morals and values, so that our students make good choices in their lives and serve society as adults."

In her 30 years in education, Cabral has served as teacher and principal at several California Catholic schools, including eight years as principal at St. Rose McCarthy School in Hanford.

Later, after serving as principal for a year at St. Mary's School in Ukiah, Cabral took a sabbatical after her brother's death. "Jim was the last member of my immediate family," she said. "After he passed away, I needed some time for physical renewal and spiritual reflection."

Toward the end of the sabbatical, Connie McGhee, then OLF principal, called and asked Cabral to fill in for a departing teacher.

"I've been a teacher at heart since I was five," Cabral said, "so I thought it would be good to take a break from administration and go back to teaching for a while."

After several years at OLF, Cabral left two years to seek a principal's job while continuing to work as a Rite of Christian Initiative of Adults director at St. Joseph's Parish, helping teach adults about the Catholic faith.

The downturn in the economy created a tight job market.

"I left it up to St. John Bosco and the Holy Spirit," Cabral said, "to help me find my next job.

"As it turned out, my search ended where it began, in Los Banos." Cabral succeeded Jeanette Suter, who accepted a position in another state.

Cabral is excited about the opportunity.

"Our Lady of Fatima, like almost every Catholic school in the country, has many challenges," she said. "But I believe that the OLF team, which includes teachers, students and parents, can respond to these challenges positively and successfully."

Cabral knows she has much work ahead. "With help of everyone interested in creating a stellar education environment and in putting the students' best interests first," she said, "Our Lady of Fatima can and will be successful."

Looking Ahead

Debra Cabral's first task at Our Lady of Fatima School was to hire three teachers, one each for first, second and sixth grades.

• "OLF is blessed to have three highly skilled, highly experienced teachers in Kathy Nerell, Christine Wren and Mary Espinosa. They will be excellent mentors for our new teachers. Together we will form a very competent and cohesive educational team."

Parents play a key role in Cabral's educational approach.

• "OLF is fortunate to have parents who care deeply about their children's education. OLF parents spend many hours volunteering at school and on field trips, and the Parents Club raises a lot of dollars to keep our tuition reasonable."

Cabral is eager to get started in August, and she would like to hear from parents of children who already attend OLF and from parents who may be thinking of sending their children to the school.

She already has an email address (, and the telephone at OLF — (209) 826-2709 — is accepting voice messages.

The school office reopens on Aug. 1, and Cabral returns from a required educational conference on Aug. 5. Classes begin Aug. 22.

Most grades still have openings for new students.

• "Parents interested in sending their children to OLF this fall, can stop by the office as early as Aug. 1, fill out an application, and make an appointment to see me."

In Her Words

Debra Cabral is already thinking about new approaches. She would like, for example, to bring additional opportunities in art, music, language and physical education into the curriculum at Our Lady of Fatima School. She would like to encourage students to have inquiring minds and enjoy the thrill of discovering new information and skills. Here's what she has to say:

• "I believe in being open to new ideas. And I am eager to listen to the opinion of anyone who'd like to make a suggestion. I am particularly interested in hearing from OLF alumni, any person who ever attended our school. I think our alumni have a lot to offer, in ideas and support.

• "I'd love to see alumni and other interested persons help 'sponsor' a child, to provide a scholarship to support all or part of a child's tuition."

• "For many deserving students and interested parents, Catholic school tuition is out of reach, but with a little help from our friends, more children would be able to come to OLF."

Comments can be sent to John Spevak at

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