A Foundation of Faith

Hawai‘i Catholic Schools faculty and staff, including its top educator for 2020-21, Mary Jane Vannatta, are the driving force behind the state’s next generation of leaders.

After more than 40 years as an educator with Maryknoll School, Mary Jane Vannatta still loves her job. It’s a testament not only to her campus but also the larger organization that serves parochial schools around the state.

“It has been an awesome experience,” says Vannatta, who was named the 2020-21 Hawai‘i Catholic Schools’ Teacher of the Year. “I still learn a lot from everybody, including my colleagues and students. There’s never a year I don’t learn something new.”

In four decades, Vannatta has garnered a plethora of knowledge and understanding, and has touched hundreds of lives (including Hawai‘i News Now anchor Stephanie Lum) — and those along her instructional journey have taken notice.

Augustine Educational Foundation gifted Maryknoll School $1,500 for faculty development. Pictured are (from left) 2020-21 Hawai‘i Catholic Schools Teacher of the Year Mary Jane Vannatta, Shana Tong, Father EJ Resinto and Dr. Llewellyn Young.

“She reached out to students who struggled and gave of her time, she reached out to families to make sure they had what they needed, she did what any good Catholic teacher is supposed to do when supporting students, allowing them to grow into responsible citizens, filled with love and compassion; all those things we treasure in our faith,” says Dr. Llewellyn Young, superintendent of Hawai‘i Catholic Schools. “I am so pleased she rose to the top. She is so deserving of this award, and it’s nice we can recognize that and give credit where credit is due.”

Along with the coveted title, Vannatta also won some pretty neat prizes, and even garnered one for her beloved campus. She can now display The Golden Pine-“apple” Award with pride, and is more than elated that she was able to earn Maryknoll School $1,500 from Augustine Educational Foundation for faculty development.

Personally, Vannatta won a brand-new car, courtesy of Aloha Kia, and Par Hawai‘i, which operates Hele gas stations around the state, tacked on a $1,000 gift card for fuel. Presenting sponsors Chaminade University of Honolulu, Catholic Schools Hawai‘i, and John and Mary Lou Brogan, meanwhile, awarded Vannatta $1,000.

The middle school educator is the third winner of the annual Teacher of the Year accolade, which honors excellence in education at Catholic elementary and secondary schools statewide. All winners are chosen based on criteria that extend far beyond excellence in the classroom, with an emphasis on how students develop spiritually, socially, physically, cognitively and emotionally. In essence, the focus is on the child as a whole.

“All the dimensions of a child must be attended to,” adds Young, noting that this five-pronged approach is Hawai‘i Catholic Schools’ foundation of child development. “All Catholic schools look at a child holistically, not just academically.”

In the same comprehensive way, Vannatta was chosen not only for her success in the classroom, but also her academic accomplishments, leadership, service to the school and community, and ability to make a profound difference in the lives of her students, especially in their spiritual lives.

“Catholic identity is a very important one,” says Young. “Judges looked at how these teachers instill the Catholic faith and identity in their students, how they integrate that into their subject areas. It ties into everything else, from community to school.”

It’s something that’s resonated with Vannatta since childhood. She attended St. John the Baptist School in Kalihi (which closed last year), and continued on at her alma mater, Sacred Hearts Academy.

“That’s one of the perks,” she says of being able to work at a Catholic school. “I can practice my faith out in the open, and I was really evangelizing like I’m supposed to do.”

Students under Hawai‘i Catholic Schools’ purview continually score above the national average in every single subject area, and 98% of its teens enroll in college after graduation. In addition, children can choose from an array of award-winning sports and arts programs, allowing their passions outside of scholastics to thrive.

But, like Young and Vannatta reiterate, it’s not only about academics and extracurriculars.

“I think everyone has the ability to do well, but doing well doesn’t necessarily mean getting an A in everything,” says Vannatta, who herself has a master’s degree in special education from Seattle University. “I want my students to be successful, and I challenge them. That’s what makes me a hard teacher. I want them to do well, to think and challenge themselves, to have integrity.”

By educating students to accept challenges, Vannatta and the rest of her Hawai‘i Catholic Schools colleagues give these young minds the tools to adapt to change in healthy, productive ways. Furthermore, turning the state’s next generation of community leaders into go-getters and problem-solvers, especially after the past 18 months, is quite reassuring.

“The Hawai‘i Catholic school system fared incredibly well throughout this pandemic, when others struggled and experienced considerable learning loss,” explains Young. “Many Hawai‘i Catholic schools conducted worthwhile service projects, virtual field trips and successful virtual fundraisers, providing students with enriching service learning opportunities.”

So successful were these parochial schools in maintaining high academic standards and student achievement that overall, Hawai‘i Catholic Schools saw significant increases in enrollment late into the 2020-21 school year and into the 2021-22 term.

Each of the nearly 30 campuses was able to balance in-person instruction (starting in August 2020) — taking care to adhere to strict safety guidelines — with online learning a difficult feat not many other private and public schools were able to accomplish.

“That was hard,” Vannatta admits.

“I was not used to using technology like that.

“I’m a dinosaur when it comes to that,” she adds with a laugh. “It was definitely a learning experience.”

See? Even in the midst of a pandemic, the 2020-21 Hawai‘i Catholic Schools Teacher of the Year finds the silver lining and keeps on learning.