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Draper Journal

New St. John principal ignites love of learning, outgoing principal to be associate superintendent

Aug 02, 2022 10:42AM ● By Julie Slama

By Julie Slama | [email protected]

A bit of history walked away from the 57-acre Skaggs Catholic Center in Draper this summer when Nikki Ward left after 13 years as St. John the Baptist Elementary School’s principal. She also served as the second St. John the Baptist Middle School principal during her 23 years on the campus, the entire time the schools have been open.

Coming from St. Andrew Catholic School in Riverton, Erin Carrabba will be the fourth St. John the Baptist Elementary principal in the school’s history.

Ward remembers her early years at the school.

“I started in 1999 as assistant principal and Sister Karla (McKinnie) was very gracious and allowed me to be an assistant principal part time while my kids were younger,” she said.

Shortly after the middle school moved into the west wing of the high school, where it remains today, she followed Roger Marcy as principal of St. John the Baptist Middle School, serving for more than seven years before returning to the elementary school to head it.

“I have a huge commitment to Catholic education. I love the community and I just really enjoy watching students grow from preschool, when they enter school for the first time, and then sending them out of getting ready for middle school and just seeing their growth academically, physically, socially, emotionally. It just that's what charged me every day to go into the building,” Ward said. “It's our mission at St. John's to educate the whole child through our Catholic faith. We are able to infuse our Catholic tradition and all of the tenets of Catholicism as a tradition into the daily education of our students. We have a commitment to the whole child, so I’ve maintained specialists for art, computer, music, PE and Spanish.”

She also values technology so all 550 students have their own devices.

“I like to use the phrase, ‘technology is a tool; it is not the teacher.’ It’s been something that we've had to balance. We still believe elementary students need to learn how to cut, learn cursive, hold books in their hands, do art projects. So, it can't be 100% technology, but we do want them to be digital citizens and technology is all around us in every aspect of our world,” she said.

After graduating from Judge Memorial Catholic High School in Salt Lake City and earning her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Gonzaga University, being immersed in education isn’t new to her.

“My dad retired from Granger High School, and he was really involved in student life and a coach, so we used to be around there all the time, and my mom worked as a school secretary, so we would go help her unload supplies and work around the school, so I grew up in education,” she said.

She’ll continue to work in education in her new position as associate superintendent for Utah Catholic schools, a position she’s eased into this past year. It will be a job where she will oversee curriculum, assessment and data for 13 elementary and middle schools and serve as the Western Catholic Education Association commissioner for the diocese overseeing the accreditation process for all Utah Catholic schools.

“I’ll miss our community,” she said, adding that the Christmas program and the May crowning ceremony will be some events she’ll especially miss. “I know all the students’ names, the parents’ names and people say that I even know their cars. There's an old saying, ‘Nobody cares how much you know until they know how much you care.’ I've always tried to start the school year out with my teachers. I tell them before you open the math textbook, find out something about your students. At a faculty meeting, I’ll ask, ‘What do you know about your student outside your classroom? Do they like soccer? How many siblings do they have? What do they like?’ I think just calling people by name has so much value and knowing about them helps us build relationships and our community.”

That community will be one Carrabba will embrace as she makes St. John the Baptist Elementary not only her new home, but the new campus for her children.

“I’ve been really impressed (with Catholic education) as they are learning all of the foundational academics, but they're also learning really what it means to be a good person, a good citizen, a good friend; it's just such an immersive experience,” she said. “I love that the elementary school here is on the same campus as the middle school and the high school (Juan Diego Catholic High). There are so many opportunities for students here to keep growing and developing as human beings, with athletics, with the extracurriculars, with the rigorous academics and with their spirituality. I'm really excited just to be a part of it.”

Prior to being principal for 150 St. Andrew students, Carrabba worked in New Jersey as a private school principal for special education teens, some who had mental health or addiction issues or other challenges.

“I’ve learned to work with students, to say, ‘Sure, you made some mistakes, but guess what? This is the end of that story. Let's get back on track. Let's find out what you really love and reconnect with that,’” she said, adding that she also had taught art and English-language arts at that school before going into administration.

Carrabba knows about not taking a direct path to a career goal. After earning her bachelor’s in fine arts with a concentration in art history at St. Elizabeth University, she took some time before entering the education field.

“After college, I worked at Enterprise rental cars for a year because I really didn't know what I wanted to do; it wasn't really my cup of tea. So, I went into recruiting. I liked that a little bit more, but still, I was like, ‘Oh, this just can't be what I meant to do with my life,’” she recalled. “So, I was like, who do I know who really loved their job and it took me back to high school. I had this amazing art teacher; her name was Mrs. Clifford and she really loved what she did. I reached out to her, and she told me there's an alternate route to teaching so that’s how I got my teaching license. After that, I got bit by the bug. I love working with kids and igniting that love of learning.”

So much, she earned her master’s in educational leadership at Seton Hall and currently is filing her dissertation in organizational leadership. She also has challenged herself by completing her first marathon this year, learning to play guitar, continuing her passion for drawing and painting, and with her kids, raising 14 bunnies.

It’s that love of learning she hopes to introduce to her new school community.

“Being a lifelong learner is the key to ongoing engagement in your world and happiness,” she said. “I honestly am really honored to have the opportunity to take over where Nikki left off because she's an amazing principal.”