SAN DIEGO — Nine schools in the Diocese of San Diego will have new principals when the new academic year begins in August. They include:
St. Pius X School, Chula Vista
Kristina Alger is “a proud product of Catholic education,” from preschool through high school, and says it shaped her into the person she is today.
“Ever since I was a little girl, I knew I wanted to be a teacher,” she said. “I looked up to my teachers and have always loved learning.”
Alger, who grew up in Portland, Ore., graduated from Oregon State University with a bachelor’s in Human Development and Family Science. She began her 17-year career in education in a classroom of 4-year-olds at St. Ann’s Model Early Learning Center in Kaneohe, Hawaii, from 2005 to 2008.
Alger next taught kindergarten at St. Patrick School in Kaimuki, Hawaii, from 2008 to 2014.
Except for three years as an English teacher at a “hagwon” in Seoul, South Korea, from 2014 to 2017, she has taught exclusively in Catholic schools.
Alger, who earned a master’s in Educational Leadership in 2013 from Chaminade University of Honolulu, moved to San Diego in 2017. In the diocese, she has taught at St. Mary Star of the Sea School in Oceanside (2018-2021) and at St. Pius X School in Chula Vista (2021-present), where she also was vice principal.
In recent years, she has felt “drawn” to educational leadership and has served as a teacher liaison and as co-facilitator of the diocesan Office for Schools’ Institute for Novice Catholic Teachers.
“Catholic education is so special because we are able to educate and form the whole person – mind, body and spirit,” she said. “We are able to teach our faith and shape the future generation.”
Notre Dame Academy
Marisa Amann has taken over the top administrative post at Notre Dame Academy at an exciting time.
Since its founding in 2005, the school has been run by the sisters of the Institut de L’Union-Chretienne de Saint Chaumond. And, despite being located next-door to St. Therese of Carmel Parish, it has never been a parochial school.
But that is changing.
Amann, who previously served as principal of St. Pius X School in Chula Vista, described this as “a transitional year” in which Notre Dame Academy will “say goodbye” to the sisters, and an effort will be underway “to connect our school and parish more fully as we transition into a parish school.”
Born and raised in Las Vegas, Amann attended Catholic schools from elementary through graduate school. She felt early on that she had a “calling” to be an educator.
“I knew this was the vocation for me,” said Amann, who holds a bachelor’s in English and Theology from the University of San Diego and a master’s in Special Education from Loyola Marymount University.
Now entering her 13th year in education, she started teaching in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. Since moving to San Diego, she has been a teacher at Stella Maris Academy; vice principal at the School of the Madeleine; and, from 2020 to 2023, principal of St. Pius X School.
“Our students are the future of our faith,” she said, “and, with parents as the primary educators, it is our primary purpose to help our students become saints and scholars to better our future world.”
Our Lady’s School
Amanda Angaiak is new to San Diego. Really new. In fact, the Alaska native has only been here since early July.
Angaiak had been “discerning a transition out of Alaska for a bit.” She knew that Jesuit Father Scott Santarosa, whom she had known during his years as provincial, had become pastor of Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish in San Diego and that Our Lady’s School, the combined school of Our Lady of Guadalupe and Our Lady of Angels parishes, was seeking a principal.
“I reached out to Father Scott and, honestly, the Holy Spirit – and some careful steps of Ignatian discernment – took it from there,” she said.
Angaiak attended the University of Notre Dame, where she graduated in 1996 with a double major in Theology and Anthropology. That year, she took part in the University of Notre Dame’s Alliance for Catholic Education (ACE) Teaching Fellows program and, in 2000, earned a Master of Arts in Teaching from the University of Portland. In 2008, she received a master’s in Educational Administration through the University of Notre Dame’s Remick Leadership Program.
Angaiak has spent 27 years in education, all but two in Catholic education.
Most recently, she served as director of the Catholic Schools of Fairbanks and president of the nonprofit Monroe Foundation, Inc. (2019-2023). Prior to that, she was PK-6th principal for the Catholic Schools of Fairbanks (2003-2019).
“One of the best things about Catholic education is how Christ the Teacher moves us to action: to celebrate, to speak up, to be present, to give and not count the costs,” she said. “It’s super cool.”
Dr. Melody Belcher
St. Kieran School, El Cajon
Dr. Melody Belcher may be a first-time Catholic school principal, but she brings to that role three decades of experience in public education, including as principal at four public elementary schools.
She also has strong ties to the St. Kieran Parish community. For more than 20 years, she has been actively involved at the parish, where she has led Sunday School, sacramental preparation classes and Vacation Bible School.
For Belcher, who recently retired as a public school principal, it was “serendipitous” that St. Kieran’s principal position opened up at this time.
“I felt the guidance of Christ to bring my educational leadership abilities to my parish,” said Belcher, who describes herself as “filled with gratitude and excitement” as she begins her new job.
“I see the potential of St. Kieran’s … to thrive to great achievements and continue its 63 years of tradition and reputation,” she said.
Originally from San Jose, Belcher came to San Diego in 1988 to attend San Diego State University, where she graduated with a bachelor’s in Speech Communication and a teaching credential. She went on to earn a master’s in Education at National University and, in 2022, a doctorate in Educational Leadership from SDSU.
Belcher, whose son is a St. Kieran’s alumnus, is passionate about Catholic schools.
“Catholic education is beyond special,” she said. “It is a ‘must’ in our world and lives today. … The family unit is very fragile right now in our world. We, as Catholics, have much work to do, and I am confident that the Holy Spirit will direct our work.”
St. John School, Encinitas
Education was “a second career” for Jill Burke, who earned a bachelor’s degree in Business and worked in the area of human resources before starting a family.
When she reentered the workforce, she did so first at a preschool and later at an elementary school, where she was an instructional aide.
She worked with students in kindergarten through fifth grade in the Poway Unified School District, as an aide, intervention teacher and long-term substitute teacher, before transitioning into Catholic education.
“It wasn’t until my own children started attending a Catholic school that I realized the importance of a Catholic education,” she said.
She has spent 18 of her 28 years in education at a Catholic school – St. John School in Encinitas, as third-grade teacher, as assistant principal for the past 13 years, and now as principal.
“Catholic education is special because of the sense of community that permeates Catholic schools,” she said. “We get to share our lives in faith and service.”
She recalled a quote from Pope St. John Paul II, who said, “To teach means not only sharing what you know, but also living what you believe.”
Originally from Louisville, Ky., Burke obtained her bachelor’s degree from Bellarmine University in Louisville. She later earned a teaching credential and master’s in Education at National University. She completed her administrative credential, also at National University, after being asked to serve as assistant principal.
“While I have been working in administration for many years,” said Burke, “I am excited to help St. John School continue to grow and work in collaboration with the diocese.”
St. Vincent de Paul School
“Once a Viking, always a Viking,” is a common expression at St. Vincent de Paul School and, for Britni Coito, it certainly rings true.
Having worked there from 2016 to 2021, she is back as principal.
“When the position at St. Vincent de Paul School opened, it gave me the needed push to take the next step,” said Coito, who already had experience as a vice principal. “I am returning to a place that has always held a special place in my heart and I am excited to be back.”
A native San Diegan, Coito is an alumna of Sacred Heart Academy and University of San Diego High School.
She holds a bachelor’s in Psychology, a Master of Arts in Teaching in Elementary Education, and a teaching credential from the University of San Francisco. She is also certified for Mild to Moderate Special Education, through the University of Notre Dame.
Coito began her teaching career in 2010 at St. Charles Borromeo Academy.
After a year of teaching outside the diocesan school system, she returned in 2016 to teach at St. Vincent de Paul School, where she would eventually become vice principal of curriculum and instruction.
In 2021, she came back to St. Charles Borromeo as vice principal and taught middle school math. This year, she has returned to St. Vincent de Paul.
“I firmly believe that faith and character education go hand in hand,” Coito said, reflecting on the impact of Catholic education.
“My goal,” she said, “is to empower my students to become not only knowledgeable individuals, but also compassionate members of society and disciples of Christ.”
School of the Madeleine
Dana Davalos got her first taste of Catholic education as a high school student in Marin County.
“The teachers fostered the belief that the student is an image of God,” she said. “Their mentorship made me love school.”
That trend continued at the University of San Diego, where she earned a bachelor’s in Diversified Liberal Arts with a Multiple Subject Teaching Credential. She credits her undergraduate years with having “greatly influenced my calling” to become a Catholic school educator.
She began her teaching career 32 years ago at the School of the Madeleine, where she has returned this year as the new principal.
During her first six-year stint at the School of the Madeleine, she earned a Master of Education in Counselor Education, with a Pupil Personnel Credential, from USD. She then transitioned into the public school system, where she hoped to find a counseling position.
After nine years teaching at Nubia Leadership Academy, a predominantly African-American charter school in Southeast San Diego, she “yearned” to return to Catholic schools.
For the past 15 years, she has taught at St. Charles Borromeo Academy, where she has also served in administration. In 2015, she earned her Master of Education in Leadership and Administration through Jones International University.
Davalos is “honored and humbled” by the opportunity to lead the School of the Madeleine.
“I want to make sure we honor the mission of our school,” she said, “which is to value each student as a unique creation of God.”
St. Therese Academy
As a teenager, Ali Knoll was blessed with teachers who showed her that “faith was an invitation to a personal relationship with Jesus.”
She realized that she wanted to be a teacher, so she “could be a positive force in students’ lives as they discovered how to embrace their own faith.”
Originally from Lafayette, La., Knoll attended Catholic schools from preschool through graduate school. She earned a bachelor’s in Theology and Religious Studies and Psychology from the University of San Diego, and she earned a master’s in Education from Providence College in 2019.
In the San Diego Diocese, Knoll served at Cathedral Catholic High School from 2012 to 2018 in a succession of roles, including director of retreats, assistant dean of students, and dean of mission and ministry. From 2018 until 2023, she was at the Academy of Our Lady of Peace, first as a theology teacher and campus minister and then, beginning in 2021, as assistant principal and director of campus life.
“I believe the guidance of the Holy Spirit led me through a series of small ‘yeses’ and invitations to this final big ‘yes’ to (becoming principal of St. Therese Academy),” she said.
Knoll, who sees the principal’s role as primarily one of service, seeks to ensure that the school’s teachers are “set up for success in the classroom.”
“I am entering this role with trust and curiosity,” she said. “I look forward to learning about what programs have been successful at (St. Therese Academy) and what the community hopes to prioritize as we grow.”
Dr. Erin Zwahlen
St. Gregory the Great School
Upon learning that her predecessor as principal of St. Gregory the Great School was retiring, Dr. Erin Zwahlen was immediately interested.
“I could not get the thought of applying off of my mind or heart,” she said. “I prayed and meditated on the idea for weeks.”
To her new role at St. Gregory the Great’s, she brings 27 years of experience in education.
She has worked in more than 15 school districts in San Diego County in various roles, including with students with special needs and as a mentor, trainer, and consultant to administrators, teachers and parents.
But despite all of those experiences, this will be her first year in Catholic education – and she “could not be more excited about this next journey.”
“I love working with children, collaborating with teachers, and sharing my faith, so Catholic education is a perfect fit for me,” said Zwahlen, who holds a bachelor’s degree from the University of Southern California, a master’s from San Diego State University, and a doctorate from the University of Hawaii, Manoa.
Though she attended public schools during her own formative years, Zwahlen is a believer in the value of Catholic education. She shared that, even before the birth of her two children, she already planned to provide them with a Catholic school education.
“The Catholic school is a sacred place that combines faith, academic excellence, athletic rigor and social development in one place,” she said. “There could not be a more special place than that.”