SAN DIEGO — Principal Hernán Valdivia is grateful for the “gift of Catholic education” in general, as well as for the dedicated staff that he leads at St. Patrick School in North Park.
But, this Thanksgiving, he has three new reasons for gratitude: Their names are Leiana Lepule, Deziree Madachy and William Fleming.
All three attended St. Patrick School from kindergarten through eighth grade and remember one another from their time together as students. They returned to campus this fall as teachers.
“It means everything that we have three alumni who want to come back to teach at their former school,” said Valdivia. “At a time when all schools are facing severe teacher shortages, I feel lucky that we get these fantastic individuals who are not only committed to Catholic education, but to the mission of our school.
“I believe it says a lot that St. Patrick School was such an important part of their educational and faith formation, and now they want to come back and serve in a new role as teachers,” he added. “Their familiarity with our community and school traditions will only benefit our students.”
Third-grade teacher Lepule and fourth-grade teacher Madachy are both members of the Class of 2013. Fleming, who teaches music to all grade levels, graduated in 2006.
Lepule, 24, acknowledged that it’s “very surreal” being back on campus as a teacher, especially since she now counts some of her own former teachers as colleagues.
“My teachers here were the reasons why I wanted to become a teacher,” said Lepule, who recalled expressing interest in that profession as far back as first or second grade.
She earned a bachelor’s in Liberal Studies in 2021 and a teaching credential the following year, both at San Diego State University.
Lepule stayed connected to the St. Patrick Parish and school community over the years. She attended Mass there, despite having to commute from Chula Vista, as well as the annual fall festival.
She said the school has changed in some ways in the years since she was a student. She referred to campus improvements, noting that her generation had been required to make do without air-conditioning. Today’s students also have access to Google Chromebooks.
“What has stayed the same,” she said, “is the sense of community.”
For Madachy, also 24, St. Patrick’s School “feels very much like home.”
She said the school was “a huge, positive and important part of my childhood,” a place where she learned “how to be a good follower of God” and developed the “academic grit” that evolved into a strong work ethic.
During high school, she began seriously considering a career in education, as the result of an internship with her former kindergarten teacher at St. Patrick’s.
“I really got to see the behind-the-scenes of everything, and I really enjoyed it,” she said of her experience as an intern.
Madachy earned a bachelor’s at the University of California, Santa Cruz, in 2021, double majoring in Psychology and Education. She earned a master’s in teaching and a teaching credential at San Jose State University in 2022.
She said, “I want to be that guiding and supporting figure for my students like (my teachers) were for me.”
Today, Madachy teaches inside the same fourth-grade classroom where she once sat as a student. Her own fourth-grade teacher, Leslie Young, is down the hall teaching first grade.
“I arrived at St. Pat’s when Leiana and Deziree were both in seventh grade, so I got to teach them for two years,” said Valdivia. “I remember that they were both fantastic students, but, more importantly, outstanding individuals. So, when they applied for teaching positions, that was one of the easiest decisions I’ve ever had to make.”
Fleming, 31, admits that he wasn’t “an angel” when he attended St. Patrick School.
“I was kind of hyper,” he confessed, “but they were very patient with me.”
His teachers’ investment paid off: Fleming went on to earn a bachelor’s in Music in Performance from San Diego State University in 2016. Prior to joining St. Patrick’s faculty, he had given private music lessons and had assisted in classrooms, including at St. Therese Academy.
Reflecting on being back at his alma mater, he said there are memories in “every corner of that school.”
“Everywhere I look, I’m just flooded with all these different memories,” he said.
During his years as a student there, St. Patrick’s didn’t have much in the way of a music program. But Fleming, whose parents were both musicians, availed himself of the opportunities that presented themselves.
He recalled school talent shows, where he gave dance and musical performances, as “my highlight of the year.” He also fondly remembers a school parent who, in the absence of a full-fledged program, brought “fun, little lessons” about music into the classrooms.
“It feels really great to come full circle and help share my gifts and my experience with the current students,” said Fleming, who teaches in a music classroom that had been the computer lab during his student days.
Valdivia said that, while he never taught “Willie,” he has known him and his family for years. The Flemings have been active parishioners for decades, his parents still sing in the church choir, and his older sister was the school’s former seventh-grade teacher and the writer of a grant proposal to the Augustinian Foundation that secured funding for the school’s music program four years ago.
“Now, Willie gets the opportunity to grow our music program in his own vision, in addition to leading our student folk group, ‘The God Squad,’ (which) his father, Bill, started, so that’s obviously very cool,” Valdivia said.
“When students graduate from St. Pat’s, our hope is they head out into the world and become positive difference-makers in their communities,” said Valdivia, “so it’s extremely rewarding to have former students return as colleagues and work alongside them to prepare the next generation of difference-makers.”
He added, “These three teachers embody the values of St. Patrick School because they are choosing a vocation of service to their community. As an Augustinian school, building community is at the core of our mission.”