New Ramona Convent Principal Finds Value in Moving Forward
Through challenging times, Jacqueline Quinones Sienkowski offers hope and ‘community’
“My passion is truly in all-girls education, especially working in a diverse demographic like Ramona, where we have girls from a variety of cultural, religious and ethnic background,” new Ramona Convent Principal Jacqueline Quiñones Sienkowski, J.D, said in a recent interview.
“Oftentimes,” said Sienkowski, “Our young women need to be guided, encouraged and empowered so that their gifts can freely be given to our world; that’s what we do here at Ramona.”
Sienkowski’s fervor to raise up young women comes largely from her own background, growing up in the working class communities of Rosemead and East Los Angeles.
“I was always attracted to education ever since the third grade,” She said. “I wanted to be a teacher.”
But it wasn’t until she got to junior college that a Women’s Studies professor asked her, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” And Sienkowski responded, ‘I want to be a teacher.’
Instead of encouraging her educational aspirations, her professor said, “Oh, don’t be silly. You’ll never make any money. You should be a lawyer.”
Sienkowski was struck.
“Growing up in East Los Angeles and Rosemead,” she recalled, “no one had really ever told me what I could be before. I’m a Mexican woman.”
Sienkowski’s immigrant parents were very traditional, and it had never occurred to them to encourage her. But the teacher’s words hit home. From junior college, Sienkowski headed for the University of California Riverside, earning her Bachelor’s degree, and from there, earning her Juris Doctor degree from Thomas Jefferson School of Law, San Diego, California.
She then spent a number of years working in the San Diego public defender’s office , but still felt the call to education.
“After marriage,” she recalled, “my husband said to me, ’You really should think about getting into the classroom. That has always been your calling. That has always been where you want to be,’ but I didn’t want to go back to school to have to do that.”
Chasing that dream again, she found Teach for America, a program to place new college grads and career changers into disadvantaged schools. She was placed in New Haven, Connecticut teaching English for two years, but ended up staying for five, until her husband was transferred back out to California.
When they returned to California she soon found herself as an English teacher, Dean of Students, and then Head of School at Cornelia Connelly school, an all- girls Catholic school in Anaheim.
“Being a Catholic myself, it was very attractive,” she said. “And I found that working with young women and helping them to find and use their voice to not only change their life, but the life of their community and change the world was so incredibly fulfilling that I could never leave.”
Cornelia Connelly eventually closed its doors due to low enrollment, and Sienkowski was appointed by The Board of Trustees of Ramona Convent Secondary School as Ramona’s new Principal.
She was immediately impressed by Ramona’s work, she said.
“Ramona does everything incredibly well, “said Sienkowski. “And that really is a testament to the faculty and staff of this incredible school, but it’s also a testament to the previous principal, Mary Mansell.”
But she is quick to acknowledge that not only is maintaining that sterling reputation a challenge, but that the pandemic has added its own fresh set of challenges.
“In many instances,” she said, “I haven’t been able to meet the entire student body face-to-face, nor have I been able to meet every single teacher face to face.”
Sienkowski’s goal now, as she describes it, “is to truly build community in a virtual world, and it can be done, and it is being done because the community here is already so solid and already so strong.”
And so far, it’s gone far more smoothly than she might have dreamed, given the vagaries of a Zoom-intensive world.
“It’s because the community is so resilient and because of the women here that the students are so fierce and so fearless,” she said “and they embraced the change so well, that this transition to virtual learning to virtual teaching has really been, I would say, not without challenge, but really, very close to flawless.”
“Students have embraced it beautifully,” she marveled. “The families of our students are incredibly supportive, and the faculty and staff have worked to have their courses function at a very, very high level.”
Ramona has also long enjoyed a reputation for very rigorous academics. That has not changed, she notes. And it’s a position she is striving to maintain, pandemic or not.
“We continue to reach out to our girls, to our families, to build community,” she said, explaining that every Tuesday and Thursday on a rotating basis, until the campus reopens, she holds evening, virtual, grade level meetings.
“I’m inviting our parents and our students to come onto a Zoom call, for each grade level, where parents may bring a glass of wine or they may bring a snack and just be in community. Where I can answer questions about what we’re doing in moving towards bringing the girls back on at some point via hybrid or whole student learning environment. Where I can answer parents’ concerns, where I can take their compliments and share them with our community, where we can just build community.”
For now, she admits, Zoom is the name of the game, for better or worse.
“Getting everyone in the same place at the same time is the biggest challenge, but I will tell you that the archdiocese of Los Angeles and we are not an archdiocesan school, we are an independent, all girls Catholic school, but they have been very, very generous. And they have provided me with a zoom account that allows for 500 participants.”
But she rightfully admits, “How do we build community when we can’t be in the same place at the same time?”
She will soon, however, commence virtual full school assemblies to allow for the whole community to come on at once, she explained.
“Of course, “ she continued, “the challenge with that is that not everybody can talk to one another at once, but putting people into chat rooms, putting people into smaller groups, a community, that’s the goal.”
Not just building community, says Sienkowski, but moving forward through challenging times and even grief-filled times, is the goal.
As she summarized, “We want all of our community to be in a growth mindset, right? That’s one of those buzzwords that teachers like to toss around over time, but as a mother of five year old twins, I find myself doing it all the time with my own kids.
Sienkowski added, “I will say that (this is) not the end of the world. In living through COVID, sadly we have lost so many beautiful lives and every life of course is precious, but it hasn’t ended our world. We move on. The memories of those we’ve lost, and our blessings to those who have loved them, to those of us who have loved those that have moved on. But we move on with grace and with dignity, we move on with joy. We move on with love in our hearts. But the bottom line is we do move on.”
Ramona Convent Secondary School, 1701 W. Ramona Rd, Alhambra, CA 91803, (626) 282-4151 or visit www.ramonaconvent.org.