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By Mary Pearson

At the end of the 2023-2024 school year, five of the diocese’s 24 Catholic school principals will be retiring. In honor of their years of educational service, The BYTE reached out to each of them to provide a glimpse into their work and impact on Catholic education in the Diocese.

Cheryll Austin, Holy Rosary Academy, San Bernardino

Cheryll Austin has been a part of Holy Rosary Academy for 28 years. She first joined the faculty in 1996 as a first grade teacher and has served as principal since 2004.

“I have always wanted to be a teacher for as long as I can remember,” Austin told the BYTE. She began teaching preschool at 18 years old, eventually earning her degree in education and a teaching credential. “I attended Catholic school from first grade to eighth grade…and I knew I wanted to teach in Catholic school, so I applied at Holy Rosary.”

Over the course of her tenure at the school, Principal Austin oversaw some major milestones in the school’s growth, including the school’s addition of modular classrooms in 2005, allowing the school’s kindergarten, first, second and third grade classes to move across Arrowhead Avenue from the parish grounds to the main school campus. She also noted as a special memory the year Holy Rosary’s preschool opened in 2009, and seeing it grow from one classroom to two in only two years. Austin said that “watching our graduates complete high school and go on to so many challenging and rewarding careers,” is something she has treasured most in her time as principal of Holy Rosary.

Alan Bruzzio, Sacred Heart School, Palm Desert

Alan Bruzzio has been part of Sacred Heart School in Palm Desert for 28 years. After beginning his career as a financial controller in the hotel industry, he discovered a passion for teaching and connecting with people and decided to pursue education. Bruzzio started teaching computer classes at Sacred Heart School in 1996, was promoted to assistant principal in 1998, and then principal in 2008. Under Bruzzio’s leadership, the school’s enrollment has grown from 260 students to 630, the largest Catholic school in the Diocese. Bruzzio is quick to give the bulk credit for this growth to “benefactors and pastors who saw the benefit of a vibrant school as part of the parish, and a lot of hard work by many people.”

Asked what a typical day is like as principal of Sacred Heart, Bruzzio quipped, “I spend my days eating lunch with the kindergartners and playing at recess, and that’s a true statement.” He says that no one memory stands out to him because “every day has offered memories, has been a blessing and gone by way too quickly.” Asked what is next for him, Principal Bruzzio says he looks forward to taking it easy for a while, but then plans to get involved volunteering for Joshua Tree National Park as well as his local parish, and plans to continue to serve on the Diocesan Education Foundation Board.

Barbara Gustafson, St. Adelaide Academy, Highland

Barbara Gustafson has worked at St. Adelaide for the past 37 years, but her initial involvement at the school goes back to her high school days. “My family relocated to Highland during my sophomore year and St. Adelaide Church became our parish.” Gustafson is a graduate of Aquinas High School in San Bernardino, but as a teenager she volunteered to coach volleyball at St. Adelaide. “Years later, as I finished my college degree, the principal of St. Adelaide asked me to interview for a teaching position.” That was in 1987, and Gustafson has remained at St. Adelaide ever since, in the roles of teacher, faith formation coordinator, vice principal, and principal.

“I spend my days connecting with students, staff and parents,” Gustafson told the BYTE. “I have so many special memories throughout the years, but I believe what brings me the most joy is when I see or hear of the accomplishments of my former students.” Gustafson said she is looking forward to the time to travel and be with family and friends in her retirement, but she hopes to stay connected in some way to the St. Adelaide community.

Thomas Strickland, St. James Catholic School, Perris

Thomas Strickland is retiring after a 45-year career in Catholic education, the last six of which he served as principal of St. James Catholic School in Perris. Over the course of his career Strickland has worked in the roles of teacher, coach, and administrator throughout Southern California. Asked what made him first want to work in education, Strickland told the BYTE, “My father was a teacher, along with my older sister, Bette, and a dear friend, Ms. Geraldine O’Brien, made me think about teaching. I had wonderful role models.” Strickland, himself, is a product of Catholic education, having attended St. Augustine High School in San Diego and the University of San Diego.

In 2018, he was encouraged by Austin Conley, then Director of Advancement in the Diocesan Office of Catholic Schools, to apply for the open position of principal at St. James School. In the six years he has held the role Strickland has worked to foster the growth of the school, noting specifically that he has worked to secure a resource teacher for students as well as using title funds to set up a program for mental health.

Angie Williams, Sacred Heart Academy, Redlands

Angie Williams has worked in education for 42 years. She began teaching at Sacred Heart Academy in Redlands in 1982, after hearing about an open position there while visiting her hometown on a summer break from her first teaching position at a Chicago-area public school. “When I started [at Sacred Heart] in the fall of 1982, I was one of four lay teachers among the Dominican Sisters from Springfield, Illinois,” Williams recalled. The strong influence of religious sisters remained a theme, she says, specifically referring to former Sacred Heart Academy Principal, Sister Linda Nicholson, CSJ, as her mentor. Williams succeeded Sr. Linda as principal of Sacred Heart Academy in 2011. “Working with these religious women affirmed that my calling was in Catholic education, where our faith and academics are fused together.”

Williams said that a typical day at Sacred Heart Academy sees her juggling many different tasks, but that her favorite part of her days is interacting with the students. “There are so many special memories, from the look in a child’s eye when they ‘get’ a concept to working with a student dealing with emotional issues, to partnering with parents over difficult issues, and collaborating with staff to form a direction that is best for our students,” Williams said. In retirement she says she is looking forward to spending time with her five grandchildren, getting back to running, the piano, and even writing a children’s book.

Words of Wisdom:

The principals were each asked if they had any words of wisdom or advice for their successor, as well as whether they would like to share any words of wisdom with their students.

Principal Austin: My words of wisdom to the students is to value respect and have gratitude for your Catholic education. Parents make many sacrifices for the children to attend our school. Study hard and enjoy your friends. For the next principal my words of wisdom are to fall in love with the school community. You can handle any problem that arises if you love what you do and love your students and families. When you feel like you have an impossible task ahead of you, keep the faith for God always provides!

Principal Bruzzio: Be just with everyone, be present to everyone, let your personality show to everyone, and always remember, this is a service ministry. To the students: Love one another! Recess will be more fun, and you’ll go home each day with a smile on your face.

Principal Gustafson: My advice for the next principal is to make decisions that put children first and to do everything with love. I pray that my students will keep Christ in their life, and never give up on your dreams!

Principal Strickland: I would say to be yourself and to trust in what you believe is right in making your decisions. Working in collaboration is far better than trying to solve every issue by yourself. You will be exhausted, and things will not get accomplished. Trust in the staff, parent groups and the kids. Effort daily is the key for the students to believe in and practice. Having just completed WASC Accreditation and having done very well, take a deep breath and observe your surroundings.

Principal Williams: I pray that the next principal is dedicated to being a “Servant Leader” who leads humbly, putting others first as they partner with parents, provide support to staff, and love the kids!

Mary Pearson is a freelance writer and parishioner of St. Martha, Murrieta.