When first-grader Christine Wren arrived on the doorstep of Our Lady of Fatima School for the first day of school in 1974, she didn’t speak any English.
Today, with an associate’s degree in business and a bachelor’s in education from California State University, Stanislaus, the oldest daughter of Portuguese immigrants sits in the main office in her first year as the school’s principal.
“I always dreamt of one day being in this office, because I love this school, I want this school to continue,” Wren said. “Enrollment is down, but I feel like I wanted to make this school stronger, and I think that if it’s a good school the children will continue to come. My vision is I would like to have enrollment back at full capacity. That is one of my goals. But No. 1 is teaching the Catholic Christian values, because going back to first grade, that was always instilled in me.”
When it comes to inspiration, Wren has only to look at her own past. When she was an English-learner and the only girl in a class with 19 boys, she looked up to Sister Eliza Santos, who helped her deal with the challenges that came with her situation.
“She helped me through first grade, and you’d think a person would be scared, but she made me love school,” Wren said. “And then I made it through college, and I was the first person in my family to go through college, so that was special.
“I just remember her telling me at the end of first grade, and she said watch educational shows like “Sesame Street,” and your English will get better. And I always remembered that, because then it would help me encourage my students. You need to study, or you need to read this book, and it will help you further along.”
Wren has taught at OLF for 13 years, and has tried to foster the same kind of relationships with her students that she had with Sister Eliza. She saw bits of herself in a young student who was in her third-grade class last year and spoke almost no English when she arrived at the school.
“Her mom and dad felt that this was a very close-knit family that would take care of her, and now she writes and speaks so beautifully,” Wren said. “I had her in third grade just this last year, and it’s just wonderful to see how far she’s come along when she didn’t know any English.”
Wren takes over the position from interim principal Connie McGhee, who took over for the second half of the 2013-14 school year after Debra Cabral left. Her main two points when she talks about the school are high expectation for the students academically, and teaching the Catholic Christian faith. Wren said the school just went through its accreditation process and received the highest level – six years, meaning the school is accredited through 2020.
“One of the strong points was that they could see the Catholic identity just walking around and talking to the children,” she said. “And they spoke very highly of our students on how they could tell that it was a very close-knit family, and that we have a very safe environment.”
Wren said the school has about 145 students, with another 34 in the preschool program. Her goal is to go back to the days when the school had a waiting list, and she said the way to do that is to continue providing a strong education. The family aspect is a big one for Wren, who considered the school her second family growing up and considers the 20-person staff a second family today.
“Coming here instilled the love of school, and being the first one to go to college was also an experience. I just want the school to succeed and be like it used to be,” said Wren, who sent both of her daughters to OLF.