SAN DIEGO — Marlena Conroy’s new job as principal of Cathedral Catholic High School shows that dreams do come true.
When she left Cathedral Catholic in 2015, after 11 years as a teacher and administrator there, it was always with the intention of coming back. Seeking to broaden her experience in administration, she hoped to be ready when the principal position opened up at Cathedral Catholic.
And so she was.
Conroy, 46, will be the school’s first female principal. Her official start date is July 1, although she began the process of meeting with faculty and staff in late May. As principal, she succeeds Dr. Kevin Calkins, who has become the school’s new president.
Conroy’s long-awaited dream job has come after perhaps the most challenging year in the history of Cathedral Catholic, a year that not only included a global pandemic and all that entailed, but also two deaths: The school’s facilities assistant lost her battle to stomach cancer in late January, and a beloved teacher and coach was murdered about a week later.
In April, Cathedral Catholic also faced criticism in response to social media posts by members of the varsity football team. These included a photo of the school’s quarterback wearing a T-shirt with racist overtones that mocked rivals at Lincoln High School. The San Diego City Conference, which regulates local high school sports, imposed a two-year probation and suspended the head coach for the first two games of the upcoming season.
Armed with firsthand experience of the spiritual strength of the Cathedral Catholic community, Conroy is confident that faculty, staff and students will overcome these challenges.
“It’s a strong community of faith, and I see how that’s come to play with how they have navigated and cared for one another in the loss of life that they have experienced,” she said. “And, with everything that they’ve been navigating with Lincoln (High), they have risen above (their transgression), to say that we are better than this, that this is not who we are, this is not who we strive to be.”
Conroy wants to work with and support them in this process.
“I call on my faith to give me strength to lead this school well … into a post-pandemic and post-tragic year,” said Conroy, whose Catholic faith has carried her through challenges and difficulties of her own. She is a breast cancer survivor, having been diagnosed in February 2020.
She was born in San Diego, to a Nicaraguan mother and a Canadian father.
As principal, she sees her role as being “the faith leader of this school.”
But Conroy, a member of St. John the Evangelist Parish in Encinitas since 2007, didn’t always have such a strong faith. She attended Catholic school from kindergarten through sixth grade, but had a distorted perception of God as angry and punitive, she said. She walked away from the faith during her teenage and college years.
While in college, a drunk driver crashed into her car. After surviving that ordeal, she visited a Catholic church, where she felt God’s presence, His love and a sense of belonging, she said. She returned to practicing her Catholic faith.
After her graduation in 1997 from California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, Conroy worked for the nonprofit Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD). In her work, she interacted with middle school and high school students, sparking an interest in teaching.
Conroy’s teaching career began in 2002 as a long-term substitute teacher at a school within the San Diego County Office of Education’s Juvenile Court and Community Schools program. She was a middle school teacher at Our Lady of Perpetual Help School, since closed, from 2002 to 2004.
“What drew me to education in the first place was the love of walking with students on their educational journey, seeing them learn, seeing them grow, being a support system for them, being a cheerleader for them,” she said.
What kept her within the Catholic school system was the realization that she “could be a part of their faith journey,” too.
In 2004, she accepted a teaching position at the University of San Diego High School, which in 2005 relocated from the Linda Vista area to a new campus in Carmel Valley, where it was rechristened Cathedral Catholic High School.
While at Cathedral Catholic, Conroy made the transition from teaching to administration. In 2007, she became the assistant dean of students and, five years later, was promoted to dean of students.
In 2015, seeking to further develop as an educational administrator, Conroy accepted a position as assistant principal of curriculum and instruction at Notre Dame Academy, a neighboring Catholic elementary school in Carmel Valley.
From August 2016 until her appointment as Cathedral Catholic’s new principal, she served as assistant principal at the Academy of Our Lady of Peace.
“While I absolutely enjoyed my time at Notre Dame Academy and OLP, it’s always almost felt like I went away to college and now I’m graduated” and “get to come home,” she said of her return to Cathedral Catholic.
Dr. Lauren Lek, head of school at OLP, said, “Developing and supporting future leaders is at the core of all that we do at OLP, from our students to our faculty and administration. Marlena Conroy has proven herself a true leader through her commitment to the mission and the growth of our students and faculty.
“Marlena is dedicated to the community she serves,” Lek continued. “We are thrilled that she will continue to support Catholic education and our diocese as she takes the helm at a fellow high school. We wish her all the best.”
Reflecting on her hopes and plans for the upcoming year, Conroy acknowledged, “No one can tell what the next day, the next week, will hold for us.”
“I am excited to start planning the actual high school experience for students,” said Conroy, who looks forward to the return of activities like theatrical productions, robotics competitions and sporting events.
“These are all going to be moments of joy that (students) had to hold off on for 14 months,” she said, “and I think that is going to help all of us heal, just having some normalcy.”