Faith, family and a fearless spirit

Categories: Around the Diocese,Catholic Schools Week 2015

Principal Erin Hatlestad’s commitment to core values, innovation and steadfast leadership have earned her a national education award

By Kristi Anderson
The Visitor

Nearly every afternoon, Principal Erin Hatlestad stands on the playground behind St. Katharine Drexel School in St. Cloud and helps students pile into cars to head home with their families — families that, she says, have become a part of her own family.
Her commitment to family and willingness to try new things have helped Hatlestad to earn a Distinguished Principal Award from the National Catholic Educational Association. She will receive the honor at the association’s annual convention April 7 in Orlando, Fla., along with eight other principals.


Erin Hatlestad helps Quentin Fladeboe with a Spanish assignment during a visit to the first-grade classroom Jan. 23. Photo by Dianne Towalski / The Visitor

“Winning this award isn’t just an honor for me,” said Hatlestad. “It is an honor for the whole school. I am not great without the great staff, teachers, parents and students. We are a family. We are together in this from the beginning. When you are surrounded by great people, it makes [the] job easy.”

Since she was 7 years old, Hatlestad wanted to work in education. Growing up in Sauk Centre, she attended Holy Family School and was heavily influenced by her principal, Benedictine Sister Suzanne Slominski, who is one of four educators from the Diocese of St. Cloud who have won the NCEA’s principal award.


Erin Hatlestad, principal at St. Katharine Drexel School in St. Cloud, wishes a happy birthday to third-grader Molly Hommerding in her office Jan. 23. Photo by Dianne Towalski / The Visitor

Growing up in a faith-filled family, attending a Catholic elementary school and nurturing her faith further at the College of St. Benedict ignited Hatlestad’s commitment to living out her faith in the community and world.

“Throughout any tough situation, whether it be a struggle within our community or outside of it, Erin leads us in prayer,” said Kris Maehren, kindergarten teacher. “Our children celebrate Mass together once a week, but faith goes far beyond worship. Our faith is an integral part of our identity. We pray, learn, give and express our commitment to our faith as one.”

The 17-year veteran principal actively lives her faith outside the school walls as well — as a volunteer of Quiet Oaks Hospice House, the National Kidney Foundation and the Minnesota Brain Injury Alliance. She also organizes efforts within the school by providing resources, support and awareness for organizations like Anna Marie’s Alliance, Catholic Charities Supportive Housing for Youth and weekly collections for Common Hope, the Poor Clare Sisters and the local food shelf.

Michelle Voit, a mother of three daughters, two of whom attend St. Katharine Drexel, said Hatlestad’s commitment to community enhances their Catholic faith as a family.

“In our family, we do volunteer work and talk to our children about helping others and giving to others in need,” she said.

“However, when that belief is strongly reinforced at school, it makes our job as parents easier.

“My kids get that a lot of people need our help,” Voit said. “They know it is all of our responsibility to help take care of those that can’t take care of themselves. The leadership Erin provides in heading up or supporting food drives, Sharing Trees and work-a-thons helps all the students become contributing members in society. That, I believe, is living out the Catholic faith.”

Overcoming obstacles

Despite a kidney transplant that threatened to slow her down in 2007-08, Hatlestad, then principal of Sacred Heart School in Sauk Rapids, her husband, Jamie, a teacher at All Saints Academy in St. Cloud, and their children, Logan, Lauren and Isabella, felt embraced by both school communities.

Though she was able to lead through most of her illness, she says she wasn’t the “only captain of the ship.”

“We got through it because of the support of the communities both Jamie and I were in,” she said. “People ask if the experience changed me. You don’t go through a major life experience without being changed. But the change was for the better. I appreciate life, and I am more content. My life is not about money or material things — it is about family and that includes my wonderful co-workers, students and parents. That is what is important and that is who I get to be with every single day.”

In 2009, a new challenge emerged: a proposed merger between Sacred Heart and St. Augustine’s/St. Mary’s School in St. Cloud. Though the merger meant sacrificing the Sacred Heart School building, under Hatlestad’s leadership, the unified campus of St. Katharine Drexel School was formed.

Voit recalls Hatlestad’s steadfast leadership throughout the sensitive process.

“Erin has proven her leadership skills in the daunting task of consolidating two local Catholic schools,” Voit said. “I worked closely with her and the committee faced with this task. Erin very decidedly showed compassion and strength in making decisions and standing by those decisions.”

Leading fearlessly

Hatlestad takes pride in the fact that she and her staff aren’t afraid to try new things to help students succeed. There is rarely resistance, she said, because the staff members see their teaching role not as a job, but as a vocation.

“Our whole staff is willing to try just about anything if it means it is going to be better for one of our students,” she said. “Our thought is, ‘Why wouldn’t we try it?’ You wouldn’t, in the medical field, say something might work well for this patient but we aren’t going to try that. You try everything you can to make things work, not just do what is the easiest.”

What have they tried? An all-staff training to help students with dyslexia, installing blue light filters to help students who are sensitive to fluorescent lighting and diffusing essential oils to help control germs. Hatlestad’s innovative approach encourages her staff, which has adopted the attitude of “being excellent together.”

“Erin is a forward-thinker, which not only makes SKD a great place to teach but a great place for our learners,” Maehren said. “We were all trained in the Barton reading program, which has significantly impacted our struggling readers. She’s always looking into new forms of technology we can implement. And, this fall, we were asked to become a demonstration school through Marzano leadership training, which will give SKD teachers strategies to become even more effective in the classroom as well as the opportunity to lead other Minnesota school teachers.”

The most important thing, Hatlestad says, is that education is always about the students.

“It’s not a ‘one size fits all,’ ” she said. “If a student has a need, we are going to try and meet it. Fair is not equal. Fair is having what you need. Students need to be brought to their fullest potential, and I believe we can do that here. That doesn’t have to look the same for every student. I want our SKD students to walk out of here thinking they can conquer the world.”