Outgoing principal sees morality, character formation as strength of Catholic schooling

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Walk the halls of Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton School, the Archdiocese of Anchorage’s first parochial school, and it won’t take long to spot Jim Bailey, the school’s soft-spoken principal. At first, you might think he is just another kindly grandpa dropping off a beloved grandchild at school, but it soon becomes apparent he holds special favor with scores of children rushing to hang up coats and unpack book bags before the morning bell rings. Not because he gives off an authoritative air, but because dozens children stop to give him a hug and tell him to have a good day. In a school known for its family feel, Principal Bailey leads the way.

 

STUDENTS INSPIRE

Bailey is set to retire after seven years leading Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton School, but he has dedicated many more years of his life to educating children. Over the past 39 years, Bailey has been a teacher, assistant principal and principal, mostly in high schools. Taking the helm at Saint Elizabeth’s was his first elementary school job.

“I’ve always been drawn to the younger grades, especially at smaller schools,” Bailey told the Catholic Anchor. “There is a sweetness about the children, who are so eager to learn and grow. They take great pride in learning new things and love to share what they have learned with others.”

Bailey spent many years teaching in the Anchorage School District, and he maintains his belief in the right of each child to receive a quality public education. So what drew him to Catholic education?

“The opportunity for parents and students to experience a holistic education, including not just academics, but also morality and character-building, is really special,” he said.

 

FINDING A MISSION

Bailey’s decision to serve at Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton School was also grounded in less lofty realities. After retiring from the Anchorage School District, he was looking for something to do. Like many retirees with ample time and energy, and years of life left, he was bored.

A failed attempt at running for the Anchorage Assembly, where he lost to eventual Acting Mayor and now Alaska State Representative Matt Claman, also increased his desire to stay active in the community in some way. When he was in the middle of another run for public office, this time for the Anchorage School Board, he was encouraged by a close Catholic friend to apply for the position at Saint Elizabeth’s. When offered the job, Bailey quit campaigning for the school board seat and took the reins at Anchorage’s largest Catholic elementary school in 2008.

Since then, Bailey has presided over years of growth and restructuring. When he assumed the principal role, the school building was essentially the same as it was in 1980, the year it opened. Alumni who were now sending their own kids to the school commented that walking into the school was like walking into a time warp. In short, the school was old, outdated and in need of a “down to the studs” remodel.

Five years ago, the families of both the school and parish began planning for a renovation. Though he credits St. Elizabeth Ann Seton pastor Father Tom Lilly with doing most of the heavy lifting involved in planning and implementing a multi-million dollar capital campaign, Bailey also took a prominent leadership role. The end result is an art-filled, safe and modern school that aims to provide an inspiring academic space.

 

ROOM TO GROW

His biggest regret was not being able to get an on-site preschool over the finish line. Long a dream for the parish school, the church’s strategic planning revealed insufficient appetite for adding a preschool. Discuss the concept with him, though, and you can still catch a glimmer of hope in his eyes, not just for a preschool but for what the future of the school might be.

“This school has so much potential,” Bailey maintained. “Look at that empty lot over there,” he said, pointing out his office window and across the street. “That land could all someday be utilized by the school or the church. You could build a K-12 school to rival the best Catholic schools in the Lower 48. Not under my watch, but the potential is there,” he said, smiling.

 

JOURNEY TO THE CHURCH

Given his belief in Catholic education, one might guess Bailey spent his formative years in Catholic schools. Not so. He hasn’t even been Catholic very long. Unlike many of the students at the school, his journey to the faith took a more circuitous route. As a child, he was a Baptist. Later in life, he became a Presbyterian. Finally, he answered the call and joined the Catholic Church.

“I eventually figured it out,” he said.

That’s because his wife’s family had been devout Catholics for years, and he finally decided to check it out for himself. After going through the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults (RCIA) under the tutelage of the late Deacon Ken Donahue, he now wishes he had become Catholic 20 years ago.

“Better late than never,” Bailey said. “I’ve found such joy here.”

 

THE ROAD AHEAD

Joy is a word Bailey uses frequently to describe the highlights of his time at the school. Of the things he is most proud of, the spirit of love and inclusiveness among the students is one of them. Normally soft-spoken, Bailey’s voice lowered a bit more when he describes how two students with muscular dystrophy have found nothing but support and acceptance at the school.

“Our kids take care of them, but in a way that is no big deal. No one is made to feel different or uncomfortable. It’s just the kids treating others as they want to be treated.”

When asked what is next for him, Bailey is noncommittal, but promised he “will be busy.” He also doesn’t rule out another run for public office. A current member of the Municipality’s Budget Advisory Commission, he has concerns about the city and state’s fiscal future. No matter what he does, Bailey said he will stay involved in some way with Catholic education.

“I like big ideas,” says Bailey. “So I won’t be able to sit still for long.”


'Outgoing principal sees morality, character formation as strength of Catholic schooling' have 1 comment

  1. April 2015 @ 3:11 pm Mike Henry

    I known Jim Bailey for 20 years. He is honest, hard working and has the flare for innovation. You will not find an educator who is more dedicated to students, teachers and parents than Jim. I congratulate Jim on his retirement.

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