Every morning, Nancy Nasko tells her children she loves them—all 240 of them. And then she turns off the PA system and returns to her role as principal at St. Pius V Catholic School in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood.
To hear Mrs. Nasko tell the story herself, she says it was a bit of an accident the first time she said “I love you” over the PA during morning announcements.
“It just kind of slipped out,” she says.
In reality though, there are no accidents with her.
Mrs. Nasko is the first lay principal at St. Pius. She was hired by Dominican and parish pastor, Fr. Chuck Dahm, O.P., in 1986, during his first year at St. Pius.
She was hired to teach 5th grade after receiving her Master’s Degree. With her principal’s certificate burning a hole in her pocket, her plan was to stay only one year. She thought she knew everything there was to know about administration.
“When I came here, not only did I learn about good teaching and how to relate to students, but I also learned about leadership from (Sister) Erica Jordan (former assistant principal),” Nasko says. “She was not only a mentor, but a wonderful role model. I really didn’t understand all the work and responsibility that went into this job because Sister Erica was really good at her job. As a teacher, I had no idea how everything ran so smoothly.”
The Dominican spirit is alive and well at St. Pius, where its principal insists she felt the difference right away.
“Children are talked to here in a way such that no consequence is strictly punitive,” Nasko says. “It’s a completely different way. We always try to help the students understand what could be learned from the situation; what they could have or should have done, using ‘I’ statements.”
When Mrs. Nasko first spoke to Sr. Jordan to set up an interview at St. Pius, she admitted to hearing many good things about the school. Sister replied honestly, “They’re all true.” Twenty-eight years later, Nasko tells people the same thing.
Nasko’s home community includes her husband of 40 years, whom she admits to being madly in love with, but no children of their own—only the 240 in their second family. He’s an artist and consultant, as well as a member of the St. Pius community.
“I feel like this school is my second family, so that’s my Dominican community,” she said.
Last year, Mrs. Nasko was given two Distinguished Principal awards, one by the National Catholic Educational Association and one by the National Association of Elementary School Principals, recognizing her as one of only three Catholic elementary school principals in the country to receive the award.
“I always thought the past winners must have been outstanding principals, but they were distanced from me,” Nasko says. “When I realized some of my colleagues whom I had admired for years had won this award, that’s when it became very humbling for me.
Among many characteristics and professional abilities, it was love that stood out among her peers, who wrote a number of touching letters of recommendation.
“They said I was passionate and I loved the students here. They said I’m devoted to the school and the faculty,” she said.
This is where Nancy Nasko became visibly overcome by emotion during our conversation.
“Every time I’m on the PA, I tell the kids I love them,” she said.
After the first time, “the accident,” Nasko says everyone came up to her and talked to her about it, that the kids loved it. Now, very often, the students at St. Pius approach her in the hallways to tell her they love her.
“We all need to know we’re loved and cared for. It helps them when I have to have a hard talk with them,” she said. “They know I’m doing it because I love and care for them. Our rules are based on care and concern, I don’t want them to be hurt physically or emotionally.
“There are kids who don’t hear it—it’s not that they’re not loved, they just never hear it,” she said. “I’m not just saying students of St. Pius, I love you, but I say it to the staff here and it guides what we do.”
A number of students have parents who attended St. Pius and were taught by Mrs. Nasko. Some students come from more than 25 miles away.
“We hold students to high expectations and we work hard to get them there,” Nasko says. “We exist to bring children closer to God, to provide an excellent education, and to provide a safe and caring place to learn. We expect them to be accepted to the best high schools in the city of Chicago, and the majority are. Although many are accepted to top Catholic schools, the reality is that the parents cannot afford it. We’re fortunate to have many of them also accepted to some of the top public schools.”
This year, Ivan Soto, a St. Pius grad, will attend Fenwick High School, one of the top 100 high schools in the nation, and a ministry of the Dominican Friars, Central Province.
One of Sr. Jordan’s gifts was hiring good people, which Mrs. Nasko has also learned to do. Her staff, which she beams about, includes some of Sr. Jordan’s hires as well as Mrs. Nasko’s own, like Sean Mundy, a second year teacher who was a former Dominican USA volunteer and award-winners Mark Sazek, Janine Markowicz, and Abby Torres.
“The awards are wonderful for our school, but I don’t think anybody does this because they want an award,” Nasko says. “I know they could make more money and do less work in other places, but I’m invigorated by them. Everybody knows how I feel; I wear my heart on my sleeve. Even on your hard days, you’ll still love the job. I think there’s still work to be done and I’d love to be a part of it.”