Called to Catholic education

  • Written by Jean Parietti
  • Published in NW Stories
Tim Uhl. Photo: Stephen Brashear Tim Uhl. Photo: Stephen Brashear

Principal Tim Uhl’s deep commitment, innovation make a difference for Tacoma school

Tim Uhl was on the cusp of becoming a stay-at-home dad for his two toddlers when the call came in mid-September 2010.

Would he consider being interim principal of a Catholic inner-city school with declining enrollment, financial difficulties and in danger of closing?

“It probably wouldn’t have been a job I would have applied for,” confesses Uhl (pronounced Yule). But the lifelong Catholic educator had recently moved back to the Seattle area and no other Catholic school opportunity was in sight. Uhl was open to the challenge at Tacoma’s Holy Rosary Regional School.

“It sounds like a place that needs a leader,” he remembers saying. And if the school needed to be closed, he thought, “there’s a right way to do that, with compassion and grace.”

But new life has been breathed into the school under Uhl’s leadership. Since beginning an innovative English-Spanish immersion program, Juan Diego Academy, two years ago, Holy Rosary has seen enrollment growth, an increase in diversity and budget surpluses. By 2020, students in every grade level will be bilingual.

“I have great admiration for him,” said Darrell Jesse, a longtime Holy Rosary parishioner and Catholic education supporter who chairs the school board. “He’s very innovative, he’s a hard worker, he cares about the kids.”

Father Jacob Maurer, priest administrator of Holy Rosary Parish, uses two words to describe Uhl: drive and vision. “He doesn’t just want to climb a ladder, he wants to go places where he’s going to be challenged, where perhaps others wouldn’t go,” Father Maurer said.

Uhl, now in his fourth year as Holy Rosary principal, has a strong belief in the value of Catholic education, and a deep commitment to being a Catholic educator. “It’s a ministry and a calling,” he says simply.

Importance of being known
At 7:45 a.m., Uhl opens Holy Rosary’s doors and greets the 165 students gathered outside before the start of the school day. “I know all the students’ names and most of them know each other’s names,” even if they’re several grades apart, he said.

You can’t underestimate the power of being known, Uhl said. “It’s just really important for kids to feel like they belong” and for parents to feel they’re part of the school community. “The students feel safe here. The students feel comfortable here. This is a very fun school.”

A similar sense of community might be found at some public schools, Uhl said, but faith creates a deeper relationship for students at Catholic schools. “We go to church [together] every week. At a very, very impressionable age, they’re learning about the faith; they’re learning prayers,” he said.

That close relationship extends to the adults at the school, who start their staff meetings with a prayer, then share “good news.” It can be as simple as a teacher reporting that a student has turned in a research paper. “Everybody celebrates, not just for the student, but for the teacher,” Uhl said. “They share the joy.”

Uhl attended Catholic schools all the way through graduate school, and still feels connected to his elementary school, St. Margaret Mary in Omaha. “I’m Facebook friends with people I haven’t seen in 20 years because we went to grade school together,” he said.

Tim Uhl talks to student
Tim Uhl talks with a student in the school library. Photo: Stephen Brashear

Serving others equals happiness
Uhl’s parents — Dave, a postman (now deceased), and Lynn, a VA nurse — didn’t graduate from college. Although they couldn’t really afford it, they sent their three children to the parish school. “They were convinced that Catholic education was the way for their kids to get to college,” Uhl said. “School and parish were just extremely important for our family.”

His high school years were spent at Creighton Prep, an all-boys Jesuit school in Omaha. “The Jesuits were really, really influential for me,” Uhl said. “‘Men for others’ is just a really cool slogan,” he said of the Jesuit philosophy that taught him “serving others is the key to a happy life. Why would I just go and do a job when I can find a career that can serve others, where I can make a difference?”

After earning a bachelor’s degree from St. Mary’s University in San Antonio and a master’s degree and Ph.D. in American studies from St. Louis University, Uhl wasn’t sure what that career would be — possibly teacher, journalist or writer.

He landed a teaching job at a Catholic high school in Dallas, where it didn’t take him long to discover he’d found his niche. “I really like the energy and the nonstop unpredictability of teaching,” Uhl said. “I was pretty hooked.” Still, “I had this growing suspicion that I wanted to be in the mix, coaching the teachers” as well as the kids.

Catholic environment is key
In 2001, Uhl came to Bishop Blanchet High School in Seattle as dean of men, later becoming an assistant principal (he later spent four years in Louisiana as principal of a grade 4–12 Catholic school).

Uhl enjoyed coaching the students in life and behavior. “The easiest, most joyful thing is working with the kids,” he said, even those who might seem uninterested or rebellious. “High school kids are like tough nuts to crack. Once you crack them, it’s very rewarding and a very special experience.”

A Catholic environment is key as teens begin understanding who they are, Uhl said. “It’s so important to be able to talk that language — what it means to be a Christian man, what it means to be a Christian woman,” not just in a religion class, but at retreats and on other occasions, Uhl said.

An elementary school like Holy Rosary offers a different opportunity. “Here you can engage kids when they’re just sort of becoming,” he said.

Uhl and his wife, Joanne (now a guidance counselor at Kennedy Catholic High School), moved back to Seattle in 2010 to be closer to family as they began raising their own family.

Today, instead of being a stay-at-home dad, Uhl is principal of the school where his two older children, Henry, 6, and Lucy, nearly 5, are in kindergarten (George, 2, is still a little young for school). Sending his children to Catholic school is a no-brainer for Uhl: “This is the kind of environment I want my kids to grow up in — the Catholic community we create in Catholic schools.”

Read Tim Uhl’s three-part series “How to Save a School."


Innovation turns school around

In fall 2011, Holy Rosary Regional School became the first Catholic school in the state — and the first school of any kind in Pierce County — to offer a “two-way immersion” program, Juan Diego Academy.

Native English-speaking students and native Spanish speakers are learning side-by-side, following a method that promotes dual-language literacy in all subjects, grade-level or higher achievement, and positive cultural attitudes.

The move was intended to bring financial stability to the school by serving the Tacoma area’s growing Latino population and offering a more rigorous academic curriculum for all students. The program began with students in pre-K and kindergarten, and first grade was added this year. Each year, another grade will be added until the school is fully bilingual in 2020.

Today, Holy Rosary is one of the most ethnically diverse schools in the Archdiocese of Seattle: 40 percent of students are Hispanic, and there are significant numbers of Caucasian, African American, Asian and Pacific Islander students. Students come from throughout the Tacoma area; 69 percent qualify for the free or reduced lunch program and 75 percent qualify for financial aid.

The school receives substantial support from the archdiocese’s Fulcrum Foundation and the school’s Spring Gala, which raised $100,000 last year. Tickets for the May 9 event are $150 per person and are available by calling the school at 253-272-7012.