Retiring St. Ann Catholic School Principal Gina Groch with a young students wearing wig in Naples during the last week of school in May. (COURTESY)

Principals leave legacy of faith-filled education

Cape Coral  |  It is the sad reality that each year a number of Diocesan educators retire after many years of service. This year two principals have decided it is time to let someone else take the reins at their respective schools.

Dr. Judi Hughes and Gina Groch have been leading their respective schools since the start of the 2014-2015 school year. Both leave behind a legacy that will help their schools well into the future.

Hughes joined St. Andrew Catholic School in Cape Coral having joined the Diocese of Venice with more than 40 years of educational experience at every level of the Lee County School System.

Groch became principal at St. Ann Catholic School in Naples after serving in the Diocese as an educator for 18 years. She retires with a total of 23 years of service. Her time serving in the Diocese included a two-year stint as principal at St. Charles Borromeo Catholic School in Port Charlotte, and before that she served for 16 years as a teacher, then assistant principal, at St. Elizabeth Catholic School in Naples. Her life before education was as a corporate trainer for computers.

Hughes always knew she wanted to teach and loved every aspect of teaching. She retired from the Lee County School System content that she had made a real impact on education and did not think she would be called back. However, when she helped assist in the hiring of the new principal at St. Andrew, her name was put forward and the opportunity was something she could not pass up.

“I had been in public schools my entire career, but to be the principal at a Catholic School was a dream come true,” Hugh said. “To be able to be part of a spiritual family and help be a part of the young ones receive their first Holy Communion was so enjoyable and rewarding.”

In her early life, Groch never even considered becoming a teacher, let alone a principal, as she earned a degree on computer sciences at a time when few women were in the field. A successful career eventually moved her to Florida where she started volunteering as her daughters started attending St. Elizabeth Seton.

Because of her background in computers, while volunteering she was encouraged to get a teaching certificate and was hired as a computer teacher. That was 23 years ago. Although she was surprised by the direction her life was taking, Groch was happy. As the years went by, she was encouraged to earn an advanced educational leadership degree during a special summer program at the University of Notre Dame.

“I thought, ‘Who me?’ But eventually I did it and was then promoted to assistant principal at Seton,” Groch said. It was when a vacancy opened at St. Charles Borromeo that she took the next leap to become principal. She remained there for two years and loved every minute of it – except for the daily 150-mile commute.

Reluctantly, when the St. Ann job came available, Groch requested the move. As she had at St. Charles, she poured her heart and soul into the school. 

“Being a principal takes a total commitment,” she explained. “You are responsible for everything. As the principal, my goal was to create an environment where faith was paramount. With group morning prayer and a buddy system, we become one united Catholic community.” She gauged the success of the school upon how three questions were answered: Are the students happy? Are they learning? Are they excited to come to school today? “If the answer is yes to each of these, you know you are successful.”

Hughes started at St. Andrew with a goal to grow the Catholic identity at every level, from the faculty and staff to the students and parents, and even in the greater community. “It has been humbling to be a part of this process and the results have been amazing.”

She is most proud of helping the school become recognized as certified STREAM (science, technology, religion, engineering, art, mathematics) school by the Florida Conference of Catholic Bishops. “The process was incredible, as we got everyone to believe in the process and realize how fantastic this renaissance of learning can be for everyone,” Hughes said.

When the end of the school year approached, students and teacher wrote notes of thanks. One student wrote: “This may surprise you Dr. Hughes, but from time to time some of my classmates thought you were a little too strict. But now we realize you were trying to mold us into strong, independent, individuals.”

Groch said her last few weeks at St. Ann have been emotional and a surprise celebration from the youngest students stands out. She was called to the gymnasium under false pretenses and when she arrived the students were hiding. On cue they cheered and ran toward her with an enthusiasm as only 3-, 4- and 5-year-olds could have. Knowing her love for dancing, they danced together to various fun songs and one student even wore a wig which mimicked her famous head of black hair. “It was too much,” she said.

Both Hughes and Groch said they believe they are leaving behind schools that are not just places to learn but communities where everyone is considered part of a family and have brighter futures ahead.

They both said they will miss one thing more than anything else: the looks on the faces of the children each morning.