Cathedral Catholic High School names first female principal

Cathedral Catholic's new principal Marlena Conroy.
(Karen Billing)

Cathedral Catholic High School has hired its first female principal in the school’s 65-year history.

San Diego native Marlena Conroy will officially take over as the head of the school on July 1. Kevin Calkins, who has been principal for the last six years, will be stepping into the president’s role as Stevan Laaperi is retiring after 45 years of dedication to Catholic education.

Becoming principal at Cathedral marks a return to the campus for the Encinitas resident. Conroy previously worked at Cathedral as a teacher and an administrator for 11 years. She is coming to Cathedral from the Academy of Our Lady of Peace, where she served as assistant principal and director of campus life.

“I’m beyond excited,” Conroy said at her first day on campus on May 21. “If you could see under this mask, my smile is from ear to ear….I can’t wait to meet the students. I come alive when I have students around me.”

Conroy is also the first Cathedral principal of Latin decent—a first-generation American, her mother is Nicaraguan and her father is Canadian. She said it’s important for students to see a reflection of themselves in leadership positions, both as a Latina and a Catholic woman.

In her conversations with Cathedral as she was considered for the principal position, Conroy was able to reflect on her own faith journey.

As a kid, she grew up in the Catholic church and attended Catholic schools but she had a difficult life experience and, in some ways, she felt that God was working against her. She turned away from her faith for a long time.

While a college student at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, she was hit by a drunk driver on Highway 101. Her car was spinning on the freeway and on that stretch, it seemed her car could only go off the cliff or through the center divide. Thankfully, her car happened to come to a stop on the only mountain of dirt in that flat section of road.

“It was the only thing that saved me from going out onto oncoming traffic,” she said, seeing the event as an example of God working for, not against her. “That was the time I started to go back to my faith. I walked into a church and started to cry, I felt at home. And I never really looked back.”

Conroy studied history at Cal Poly and never thought she would go into education. In San Diego, she got involved with Mothers Against Drunk Driving and it wasn’t until she started collaborating with and supporting teens that she realized she had a true passion for working with young students.

She changed gears and got her teaching credential at National University, working first as a long-term sub for San Diego Court and Community Schools, teaching juvenile offenders.

In 2002 she accepted her first teaching position in Catholic education at Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Lakeside. She came to Uni as an English teacher in 2004, eventually becoming Cathedral’s assistant dean and dean of students. She left in 2015 to gain more administrative experience with the hope of returning, taking a position as the assistant principal of curriculum and instruction at Notre Dame Academy in Carmel Valley where she also taught middle school Spanish.

For the last six years she has been the assistant principal at the all-girl OLP.

Being back on campus, she is thrilled to see familiar faces as well as meet new people. Many people from her last 17 years in Catholic education have reached out to offer congratulations and support.

Catholic schools have faced challenges over the last year—nationally enrollment went down by 4.6% and over 200 schools were forced to close during the pandemic. Cathedral, however, is at capacity and there is a waiting list to apply. Conroy is eager for the opportunity to reach students with an excellent education at Cathedral and help them grow.

“I 100% see myself as a servant-leader. I care for the wellbeing of my students and staff, that is the most important thing as we transition into a post-COVID world. This school has faced so much tragedy in the last year, on top of the trauma of a pandemic,” said Conroy, noting the tragic murder of teacher and coach Mario Fierro in February. “I want to help regain the joy and create a foundation for us as a community, for how we embrace and see each other and connect. It’s going to be an exciting time.”