This is Part 4 of an ongoing series of articles spotlighting the principals who are leading Catholic schools in the Diocese of Palm Beach.
VERO BEACH | Wife, mother, soccer coach, teacher, grandmother and now school principal. All aspects of Debbie Irish’s life influence who she is and how she leads the students, faculty and staff at St. Helen Catholic School in Vero Beach.
Now in her first year as a principal, Irish has been an educator for 25 years, mostly in public schools in St. Lucie and Indian River counties. She worked a few years at St. Anastasia School in Fort Pierce, which she attended as a student before moving on to John Carroll High School.
Irish has lived in the Fort Pierce area her entire life except for the years she attended the University of South Florida in Tampa, earning a bachelor’s degree in special education. She worked as a special-ed teacher and resource specialist for most of her career and recently earned a master’s in educational leadership at the American College of Education. Becoming a principal was always her ultimate goal, Irish said.
“I am a person who is a continuous learner,” she said. “I’ve stacked up my resume and my certifications. I’m certified in just about everything you can be certified in just because I love learning and I love sharing that with people.”
Irish said she gets her love of teaching and strong faith from her godmother and aunt, Sister Rose Bernadette, who has served as a Dominican nun and teacher for more than 67 years. “I couldn’t have asked for a stronger role model growing up than Sister Rose. Her prayers and encouragement to become a Catholic school principal led me to where I am,” Irish said.
Her family teases her with a couple of nicknames, calling her “Bumble Bee” for always being as busy as a bee or “The General” for taking charge. They know that, when she attempts something, she goes all in.
“I don’t do things part of the way. I do things all of the way, and usually I overdo things because I love what I am doing,” Irish said. “But I feel that I’m a very fair person. I’m able to see things from a lot of different angles because of the experiences that I’ve had as a mother, as a teacher, as a coach.”
She has learned that being the principal of a school is much more than a 40-hour-a-week job. Maintaining a balance between home and work responsibilities is challenging.
“It’s a lot to try to balance,” Irish said. “But I love a challenge. That’s part of why I got into special education in the first place. No day was the same. I like working with difficult and challenging situations, trying to come up with ways to support people and solve problems.”
Besides the love and assistance of her husband and three sons, ages 21, 19 and 10, she feels immense support from St. Helen’s clergy, school families and parishioners.
“What makes this school really special, from what I’ve seen, is the relationship that we have with the priests,” Irish said. “They (the priests) are amazing. They’re here every day. They’re doing our car-duty line, coming into the classrooms to teach, and offering confessions for students. They are such a visible presence and it means so much to the kids to see them here.”
St. Helen’s parochial administrator, Father Matt DeGance, a former teacher and school administrator, said maintaining a presence at the school fits with his hands-on, boots on the ground approach to leadership.
“It’s foreign to my experience that the priest should be at a distance from the school and the faculty,” he said. “That doesn’t fit into my worldview or experience.”
Father DeGance said he likes that Irish leads by example, gives 100 percent and is open to input from others.
“She comes in with a good spirit. She’s open to learning. She doesn’t have all the answers and it’s not expected of her, and she’s not afraid to ask questions,” he said.
Irish said she has worked to build relationships with parish ministry groups, inviting them into the school to offer assistance. She had the Knights of Columbus lead a military veterans program, and Knights gave Bibles to fourth-grade students. Council of Catholic Women members have given generously to the school, including directing an after-school religion club called the Wednesday Warriors, teaching students about Mary and the saints, and strengthening their faith.
The times that Irish has sent out a request for volunteers have shown strong ties between the parish and school. She noted a recent last-minute request for help doing health screenings on students. Irish was impressed at the number of nurses, doctors, paramedics and others who showed up to donate their time.
When Irish started at St. Helen, she noticed that teachers ate their lunches with students. She was used to teachers getting a break from students during lunch, so she asked parents to supervise the children during lunch, which is working out well.
“You just ask and everybody is so willing to help out,” Irish said. “Having a background in public education, you don’t see family involvement as much. And it’s just so beautiful here to see that.”
She also realized that there was no lounge for faculty members to use, so she asked the parish and ministries for help to find a space on campus. “Ideas and financing started showing up and we’re getting ready to break ground and start the renovation. We’re going to make a nice little lounge for the teachers,” Irish said.
Work in the community touting the benefits of Catholic education have apparently paid off, with an enrollment increase of 52 students so far this school year. “We’re at 297 today. We have the capacity for 320,” Irish said. “We have waiting lists for four of our grade levels and our big enrollment event is happening soon.”
A refreshing aspect of working at a Catholic school is having the ability to incorporate faith into each day. When Irish’s oldest son, Ben, had a recent health scare, fearing that the cancer he had as a child had returned, she was happy to ask students to pray for him, which she had never been able to do at a public school. Students of all ages asked daily about Ben and let her know they were praying for him. They shared prayers and the joy of the news that he was cancer-free.
“It’s just a beautiful thing to be able to have your religion be a part of your entire day,” Irish said, “and I’m so excited that I can share my faith with the children. This is such an important job to have.”
For more information about St. Helen Catholic School, visit https://sthelenschoolvero.org/ or call 772-567-5457. Follow the school on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and YouTube. To learn about all schools in the Diocese of Palm Beach, go to www.diocesepbschools.org.