By Michael Gresham
The Texas Catholic
Life has come full circle for Maleli Paniagua.
An alumna and longtime educator at Our Lady of Perpetual Help Catholic School, Paniagua has worn many hats in her nearly 30-year tenure at the Dallas campus. As the 2015-16 school year gets under way, Paniagua has taken on yet another new role: principal.
“It’s a dream come true for me to have gone to this school, to be a member of this parish, and to have been teaching here for 29 years,” Paniagua said. “I feel God has put me here in this new role to help this school continue to grow.”
Born in Veracruz, Mexico, Paniagua came to Dallas as a child, attending OLPH from the first through eighth grades, before graduating from both Ursuline Academy and the University of Dallas. She returned to OLPH in 1985, this time stepping to the front of the classroom as a teacher.
“It’s a wonderful and gratifying feeling to be able to give back to the school that gave me such a great education and prepared me to do what I love to do most,” Paniagua said. “I know this school, this parish, these parents and I know these kids. It’s like my family.”
Father Cruz Calderón, pastor of Our Lady of Perpetual Help Catholic Church, called Paniagua a perfect fit for the principal’s post.
“She is well-known in our community, which gives her a sense of confidence and gives our parishioners a sense of security, encouraging them to bring their children into our school,” Father Calderón said. “I am very happy with her positive attitude and enthusiasm.”
As principal, Paniagua wants to improve the school’s learning environment by offering enhanced curriculum in science, technology, engineering and mathematics – or STEM.
“We want to help our students progress into the 21st Century,” Paniagua said. “We currently are in the process of getting a STEM lab from grant funds.”
Paniagua also is revamping OLPH’s after-school care into an extended day program.
“We’re working on a program designed for children who want to stay after school to continue their educations by offering learning opportunities in chess, Spanish, computer skills and other activities,” Paniagua said. “My philosophy is every child deserves a Catholic education no matter where they come from. We want to fulfill their needs.”
In addition, Paniagua will use her close ties to the community and her ability to speak fluent Spanish to help build a welcoming atmosphere for students and their families.
“I know from friends how sometimes they struggle when they walk into a place and there is no one there who can help them. I am able to reach these families and give them a sense of confidence,” she said. “In our Hispanic culture, we take care of our own. We’re always there for each other — comadres y compadres. I want them to feel like they are a part of the OLPH family.”
Dan Quill, a former OLPH administrator, said Paniagua is committed to continuing the quality of education that has been established at the school over the past several years.
“She has a clear vision of both making the school more accessible to our Catholic families, but also serving a unique population of students ranging from those who are gifted/talented, as well as those with certain learning differences,” Quill said.
Quill, who this year will serve the school as an administrative consultant for curriculum and professional development, added that the challenge facing Paniagua, as with any administrator in a school with the demographic of OLPH, is how to best deliver a meaningful program. Quill said he believes Paniagua’s long-standing ties will benefit her in meeting that challenge.
“This school and parish have been her home since she started school in kindergarten at OLPH,” he said. “Her facility in language is a wonderful asset as she moves to make the school more accessible. She can deliver the message of the importance of a Catholic education to all constituents as no one else who has led OLPH over the past many years has been able to do.
“I personally have a strong belief that as she strengthens her skills and administrative experiences, Mrs. Paniagua will grow to be the leader this school has needed,” Quill said.