Diocese honors DelGenio

Karina Ellis of Jamesport gets some encouragement from principal Lorraine DelGenio at Our Lady of Mercy Regional School in Cutchogue Tuesday.

Our Lady of Mercy Regional School principal Lorraine DelGenio has been selected from among administrators at 56 Catholic elementary schools in the Diocese of Rockville Centre to receive the Tomorrow’s Hope Foundation Distinguished Administrator Award.

The nonprofit foundation was formed by the diocese in 2004 to help finance Catholic schools faced with declining enrollments and increased financial pressure.

“Shock, then disbelief,” is how Ms. DelGenio, who has been at the Cutchogue school now for two years, greeted the announcement last month. “Then I thought this would be wonderful for the school,” she said, discussing the award Tuesday morning at the school.

Mercy has been rebuilding for the past two years following a rocky time with an interim principal brought in to replace Sister Christi, who retired in 2007.

“Trust is the key” to repairing relationships with Catholic parents in the district, Ms. DelGenio said. She has opened doors to parents, not only so they can see what their sons and daughters are learning, but to have them participate in the learning experience through workshops and fundraising activities.

When parents inquire about sending a child to Our Lady of Mercy, not only do they come to the school to learn about its programs, Ms. DelGenio said, but the child is placed in the appropriate classroom for a day to get a flavor of what being a Mercy student would be like.

“Ms. DelGenio inspires and leads by example,” diocese school Superintendent Sister Joanne Callahan said as she presented the award at last month’s Stars for Students Scholarship Gala, which benefits the Children’s Scholarship Fund. The event was held at RXR Plaza in Uniondale.

“Ms. DelGenio sets out clear guidelines and expectations and creates a culture of accountability in a non-threatening manner through positive reinforcement,” Sister Joanne said.

Ms. DelGenio’s approach to education is to reward positive achievements rather than chastise bad behavior and poor results, she said. When students accomplish a positive goal, she’ll invite them to her office to retrieve a token. When a student accumulates five, he or she can trade them in to come to school in a “dress down” mode, the principal said. As she stopped in a third-grade classroom Friday morning, a student begged her to give the class a challenge — a chance for someone to win one of the coveted tokens.

Pointing out that the brother of one of their classmates was planning to go to the Gulf Coast to assist in the oil cleanup, Ms. DelGenio challenged the students to write the names of states affected by the BP disaster (Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida).

Young students flock to Ms. DelGenio when she walks the halls, wanting to hug her, sing to her and tell her jokes.

“I love walking down the hall,” she said. “You get unconditional hugs.”

During her first year at the school, Ms. DelGenio challenged her students to raise $16,000 by Thanksgiving to support school programs. They did and she kept her promise, braving 30 degree temperatures to climb to the school roof and sit there as she read the students a Dr. Seuss story.

“We’ll see what I do next year; I’m thinking,” she said, noting that she always tries to think outside of the box.

What pleases her is that test scores have improved and she now has 104 students enrolled — but she’s determined to raise that number. She’s also seeing more parent involvement in school activities.

“I would hope you feel a warmth in the building,” Ms. DelGenio said.

Before coming to Our Lady of Mercy, Ms. DelGenio spent 15 years teaching sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders at St. Mary’s School in Islip. She attended college at St. Joseph’s in Patchogue and earned a master’s at Adelphi. She obtained her principal certification at Manhattan College in Riverdale.

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