Anne Willkens Leach has dedicated her career to the betterment of children, and that’s not about to change. From now on, however, her focus will shift from thousands of students over her professional life to a group of only four youngsters — her grandkids.
“On May 9 I just had my fourth grandchild. If my (two) children still lived in town and did not decide to relocate to the New York City area, I wouldn’t be retiring right now. I love this job,” Willkens Leach said in explaining her decision to step down after five years as diocesan superintendent of schools.
Willkens Leach’s tenure is due to end June 30. She’ll be succeeded by Anthony Cook III, currently the principal of Seton Catholic School in Brighton. She departs on what she considers a promising note, saying that enrollment at diocesan schools — approximately 4,600 in prekindergarten through eighth grade — has stabilized in the past year and increased slightly in the Finger Lakes and Southern Tier regions.
“When I came in, we were in a double-digit (yearly percentage) decline,” she remarked.
Indeed, Willkens Leach assumed the superintendent’s role in August 2008 during a highly challenging period. Fourteen diocesan elementary and junior high schools — including 13 of 24 in Monroe County — had closed at the end of the 2007-08 school year. In the wake of these closings, “I think the biggest challenge was to try and rebuild trust in the diocese,” she said.
Although a handful of additional closings have occurred over the past five years, Willkens Leach said positive outcomes can still be found. She cited Holy Cross School in Charlotte — which reopened in 2011 as the merged site for Greece’s Our Mother of Sorrows School and Rochester’s Cathedral School at Holy Rosary — noting that Holy Cross has a current enrollment of more than 300. And although Holy Family Middle School in Elmira closed at the end of last school year, a new seventh- and eighth-grade addition that opened in the fall at Elmira Notre Dame High School has been highly successful, she said.
“The vast majority of (former Holy Family) students went right over (to Notre Dame),” she said.
Willkens Leach said she’s also been gratified by the formation in 2010 of a diocesan Catholic School Board; prior to that a board had only existed for Catholic schools in Monroe County. She added that it has been a personal priority for her to visit all the diocesan schools and get to know their communities as well as possible — particularly schools in outlying areas.
“In the past they’ve felt like the stepchildren of Monroe County, and I’ve considered it critical that I know their schools and that they know me and that I care deeply about them,” she said.
Willkens Leach acknowledged that considerable challenges for Catholic education in the diocese still remain. “I wish I had more kids (enrolled), I wish we had never closed schools, I wish I could say we had a whole lot more money. But I think I’ve made strides forward, and I’m proud of the accomplishments,” she remarked.
She said she’s enjoyed working with all the people she has encountered in her role as superintendent — “students, teachers, principals, lunch ladies, crossing guards. It’s a wonderful gig,” and added that “I feel that I’ve had tremendous support from the leadership of the diocese. I can’t say enough about it.”
Willkens Leach also praised Cook, her soon-to-be successor as superintendent, saying that “we’re leaving the diocese in very good hands. He’s an excellent administrator who cares deeply about Catholic education.”
Having begun her career teaching physical education at School of the Holy Childhood and Rochester School for the Deaf, Willkens Leach spent 20 years as a teacher, training coordinator and administrator with Monroe BOCES No. 1. She then served as assistant superintendent in the Wayne Central School District and with Genesee Valley BOCES in Le Roy. In 2007-08, the year before becoming diocesan superintendent, she was simultaneously principal of Rochester’s Nazareth Hall Middle School and Nazareth Academy.
Willkens Leach and her husband of 43 years, Steve, are Penfield residents and parishioners of St. Joseph Parish. Although her traveling schedule will increase in retirement, she said she plans to remain a local presence whether it be through leadership coaching, public speaking or some sort of interim position.
“I’ll be around; I’ll be available,” she said. “I love working. I don’t know how I’ll be not working. With my personality, you’re never done.”
Tags: Catholic Schools, Diocesan Appointments