When Patricia McGann was hired in 2005 as principal of Our Lady of Lourdes School in Bethesda, the school’s enrollment was down and the enthusiasm of the school’s families was diminished, but she turned the momentum around by confidently emphasizing the school’s Catholic identity, said Msgr. Edward Filardi, the pastor of Our Lady of Lourdes Parish. Within five years, the school grew from 100 to 275 students.

“She ran the school in a way that there was a deep Catholic sense,” said Msgr. Filardi, noting how every school day begins with the whole community, including some parents, gathering in the gym for prayer, the Pledge of Allegiance, and student announcements.

McGann – who is retiring as the principal of Our Lady of Lourdes School – said she would miss those morning gatherings, and can’t imagine not being there to hear the children’s announcements of their lost teeth and new dogs.

Another way in which McGann strengthened the Catholic identity of the school is through opening it up to students with special learning needs, said Msgr. Filardi.

Soon after McGann began as principal, a woman showed up at Our Lady of Lourdes with her son, Scotty, who had Down syndrome, and told McGann she could not bear to put him on the school bus one more day because of how much he was bullied at his public school. McGann, who also has a son with a disability, sympathized with the mother and told her to bring him to school there tomorrow.

“I don’t know how they showed up on our doorstep,” said McGann. “I guess God sort of dropped them there.”

So Our Lady of Lourdes welcomed him into their community starting the next day, and he joined the sixth grade class. Gradually more and more families in similar situations brought their children to the school.

“After that, it kind of changed everything,” said McGann. “Not because of the kids with special needs, but because of what we believe.”

The vision she had for the school when she first began as principal remained the same, she said, but making the school inclusive further clarified it.

“This just gave us one more opportunity to show the kids the face of God in every person,” said McGann, who noted that the school invites the students to look for God in their classmates and also to ask themselves if their classmates are able to see the face of God in them.

The way that McGann emphasizes the importance of the school’s Catholic identity “comes out of her own personal faith,” said Msgr. Filardi, who noted how that type of mission is always more effective when “it comes from somebody who is authentic; it is part of who they are.”

Having students with learning differences “helped us be more caring toward each other” and taught the school community how to “appreciate gifts you might not see at first,” said McGann. She also noted how when students start to do that, parents notice the friendships their children make with other children who have special needs and also become more accepting of them.

Now, about 20 percent of the school’s students have learning differences, and they recently hosted an Inclusion Symposium for Catholic school teachers from across the country to share their school’s model of inclusion. McGann’s daughter, Brighid, now works as the resource director at Our Lady of Lourdes and as a resource consultant for the Archdiocese of Washington.

Msgr. Filardi said McGann showed that making the school inclusive “wouldn’t pull down the school, but lift it up,” including academically. This became evident in 2015 when the school received a Blue Ribbon Award for academic excellence from the U.S. Department of Education.

“She did what people said would be impossible,” he said. “…There is a really sense of compassion and it brings out the best in each student… she restored my confidence in what a Catholic school could be and should be.”

What makes Catholic schools different from any other private school where students can be challenged academically is that “we are all here to help get each other to Heaven,” said McGann.

“It is such an amazing opportunity to help people on the way there,” she continued. “…You can’t replicate that. Teaching kids how to live as Catholics, that is the future of the Church right here in the classrooms.”

Filardi also noted McGann’s talent for hiring young teachers and developing their teaching skills. McGann said for many of the teachers at Our Lady of Lourdes, teaching there was their first job, and having them learn how to teach in an inclusive environment helped them with “more than teaching academics.”

“I feel we’ve had a lot of teachers come through here who have become really good teachers,” she said.

In the fall, one of the school’s teachers will be taking McGann’s place. Amy Moore, the current library media specialist who has taught at Our Lady of Lourdes for 19 years, will serve as the school’s next principal.

“I hope as the school develops and changes, as it should, I hope the two things that Lourdes stays are Catholic and inclusive,” said McGann. “And I think they are the same thing.”

McGann said during her time as principal, the societal pressure has increased on teachers and parents to push challenging academics on students at an earlier age, when they still need to rest and play more. While they have adapted to the times some, McGann thinks the school is still holding on to its roots as a traditional Catholic school that allows kids to be kids.

“I think [the school has] changed me more than I’ve changed it,” she said. “It’s made me realize what a gift our children are.”

In her retirement, McGann plans to do some consulting with schools that want to become inclusive, but aren’t quite sure where to start. She also hopes to do some writing, and may compile all of the “Wednesday Words” she has sent to the school’s parents over the years into a book.

“Being able to be with parents and kids as they go through whatever life throws at them is one of the gifts of being principal,” said McGann. “…I’ve been able to be a part of their lives and they’ve also touched my life.”