Doctors in the house

Aug 4, 2022
Principal of Bishop Moore Catholic High School, Erika Wikstrom is one of three PhDs sharing the same campus. She finds strength in a deep prayer life and seeks to bridge ethnic divides through understanding. (ALVIDA GROOM)

ORLANDO | Dubbed “The Doctors of College Park”, their focus is to make their zeal for faith, learning, and solidarity contagious. Principals Erika Wikstrom (Bishop Moore), Alicia Abbey (Morning Star), and Jamie Rodriguez (St. Charles Borromeo) are all PhDs who share a common campus in Orlando.

Superintendent of Catholic Schools, Henry Fortier said, “The College Park trio will be a strong partnership of highly effective Catholic educators. Each brings a rich and diverse background to their respective communities, while working collaboratively, integrating the campuses. They represent what Catholic education is about – a deep faith, service to others, academic excellence, and the rich diverseness of our Church.”

Wikstrom, principal of Bishop Moore Catholic High School in Orlando, grew up in Hawaii. Living on a naval base, she engaged with people of multiple ethnic backgrounds and cultures, from Japanese to Filipino. Living, sharing and growing together was a natural hallmark of their community.

In the late 80s, the family moved to Apopka, Florida. As an adolescent, “It was quite a culture shock,” she recalled. She remembers black and white students sitting separately in the lunchroom. She was called derogatory names and withheld from certain classes because of “perceptions of what (she) could do”. It was the first time she experienced racism.

Wikstrom’s educated parents explained this was a part of life. They encouraged her to become a mediator and try to find common connections while focusing on studies and sports.

She believes, “(Education) can empower you to leave your mark on the world and help other people.” To that end, she pursued learning with vigor attending universities in Glasgow, Scotland and York, England, Boston College, and currently seeks a certificate from Harvard. She taught at Rollins College and served as principal of Trinity Catholic High School in Ocala. In 2020, after beginning her career at Bishop Moore in Orlando as a teacher and coach, she returned as principal.

Her life experiences led her to write her dissertation on minorities and women. She hoped to connect with people by learning about their culture. “I wanted to understand other perspectives and experiences. I think that’s how you develop empathy and compassion,” she said.

She credits Bishop John Noonan and Henry Fortier for setting a tone of leadership that includes openness, solidarity, and a drive for high academic standards. “On this campus alone, we have three different principals with very diverse backgrounds… We are the universal Church and I feel our diocese is representing that universality because the leadership has made it a priority,” she said.

Jamie Rodriguez, Principal of St. Charles Borromeo Catholic School, brings her expertise in curriculum development and love of God to her campus, shared by fellow leaders in education. (COURTESY)

Jamie Rodriguez, principal of St. Charles Borromeo Catholic School, agrees. Earning her doctorate from Stanford University, she served as assistant principal at St. Margaret Mary and St. John Vianney. The published author loves that students of all ages, races, and different abilities can be found on this unique campus.

“It’s an opportunity to build something and create a model,” she said.

She recalled a mentor, Rachel Moreno, a Mexican-American like her – from Notre Dame where Rodriguez earned her master’s degree. She was drawn to her because she looked like her, shared the same family traditions, and was a gifted teacher.

“She was my cheerleader, my champion—always pushing me to continue my studies and inspired me to get my own doctorate,” Rodriguez said. “Her lesson to us always was, everything we do is for God’s children. We see the face of God in these children, and we make ourselves the best teachers possible because we have these children in front of us.”

Her desire is to provide students with quality educators to help set them on the right path – which she feels is key – regardless of race or economic background. She also wants to make sure every child is seen, because she grew up in Abilene, Texas, with little means, in a largely white community.

“I didn’t see people who looked like me when I was in school,” she shared. “I want to bring high academic opportunities to all the kids I encounter… make sure I am identifying the kids you don’t always look at; you don’t always think of—that I’m bringing them up to the best possible self they can be.”

Asked where she sees God in all of it, Rodriguez says, “Where do I not see God? I see Him in the path that led me here, in the face of the student in front of me. I see God in the faces of the teachers who, despite all they’ve gone through these past two years, are still here and ready to start again and do their best.”

Coming from a very different background, Alicia Abbey grew up in Winter Park and attended St. Margaret Mary and Bishop Moore Catholic High School. The local received her degrees from the University of Central Florida.

When working on her doctorate, she listened to a speaker describe the need for interventions to help struggling students. “It tugged at my heartstrings,” she recalled. It moved her to write her dissertation on inclusive education at Catholic Schools.

Alicia Abbey, principal of Morning Star Catholic School, works with Bishop Moore and St. Charles schools to provide deeper understanding of the uniqueness of every individual. (ALVIDA GROOM)

Having been a buddy to a Morning Star student while at Bishop Moore, Abbey jumped at the chance to return as an administrator. “Looking back, it’s pretty clear where the path was leading. Sometimes you don’t see God’s plan until you see the end result.”

Having previously worked in a secular school, she said, “I realized how important collaboration was, having a mentor you could turn to and talk to you. That was a piece I wanted to see in leadership. I wanted to learn how to reach my students and teach them more strategies.”

She worked with Rodriguez at St. Margaret Mary, has already learned much from Wikstrom and looks forward to the “doctors” partnership. “I think my background with inclusion will hopefully give them a perspective of what they can bring to their students – both typical and those with special needs – how to strategize and incorporate activities and events for them.”

She sees the advantages of the principals’ diversity. “I think it always helps when you have different backgrounds and experiences to share with one another. It is really building understanding and appreciation of our differences.”

By Glenda Meekins of the Florida Catholic staff, August 04, 2022