By Michael Gresham
The Texas Catholic
WAXAHACHIE — For Autumn Helland, being named as principal of St. Joseph Catholic School is a dream come true.
“I went through RCIA here. I got married here. My children have gotten their sacraments here,” Helland said. “It’s just home for us.”
Helland, a resident of Waxahachie and a parishioner at St. Joseph, has taught at the school since 2014. She hopes her appointment as principal will provide some consistency at the leadership level for the school, which is on its third principal in three years.
“I love this school. It’s a big part of my life,” Helland said. “I am invested so much here.”
Helland grew up in nearby Lancaster and graduated from the University of North Texas with a degree in art history. Upon graduation, Helland was pursuing opportunities at art museums when a conversation with her mother set her on a new path.
“My mother is a dental hygienist and she had a client that day who was discussing how she had just received her alternative teacher certification,” said Helland, adding that her mother suggested she do the same. “I love kids. I loved school. It just made sense.”
The next day, Helland enrolled in a program through the Region 10 Education Service Center. She began her career as an educator in the small Ellis County district of Palmer, where she taught for two years before making the move to teach in Red Oak for five years. In 2012, she stepped away from teaching for the birth of her second child.
“After a couple years, though, I felt the call to return to teaching,” she said.
This time, however, Helland wanted to work in an environment that combined two of her passions: faith and education. She found that opportunity teaching art at St. Mary of Carmel Catholic School in West Dallas.
“My first week teaching there, I was just amazed. It was such a breath of fresh air,” Helland said. “Having the Catholic faith and the education all mixed together, it was really eye-opening and inspiring to me. The kids just won my heart.”
In 2014, an opportunity arose for Helland to teach at St. Joseph Catholic School in Waxahachie.
“It was a perfect fit and perfect timing,” Helland said. “We had learned that we were going to have our third child. My oldest son was getting ready to start school. And it was our home parish. I was literally living down the street.”
In her new role as principal, Helland wants to create an atmosphere that she enjoyed as a student growing up.
“When I was growing up, there was so much going on in my life that sometimes I struggled to keep focus in school. I remember the teachers would always push me, encourage me and tell me, ‘You got this.’ It made a big impact on me. I want to have that kind of impact here,” she said.
The school, which is expecting an enrollment around 130 students this fall, faces its own set of challenges, but Helland said she believes a foundation is in place to help it succeed.
“The culture here is special. The families here truly care and the students strive to do their best,” she said. “I just really believe in this school.”
Joy Smith, whose son Rustin is a fourth-grader at the school and older son Ryder attended through fifth-grade before transferring to Bishop Dunne Catholic School, said Helland’s mix of compassion and student expectations are a perfect fit for St. Joseph.
“The kids love going to her classroom. They know what to expect with her, and she really helps them grow exponentially,” Smith said. “For my son, she really gave him the confidence that he could do anything that he set his mind to.”
Smith, a resident of Midlothian and parishioner at St. Joseph, said Helland’s involvement in all aspects of the community gives her a unique perspective.
“She’s an educator. She’s an administrator. She’s a parent. And she’s a parishioner,” Smith said. “She can lead the school from all different angles – and that’s great for our school.”
In college, Helland worked at Starbucks and one of their corporate concepts has stuck with her. It’s something she says is true about St. Joseph.
“They wanted to make Starbucks the third place in people’s lives – home, work and Starbucks,” she said. “Well, for me, St. Joseph’s is my second and third place – it’s my home and my work. I love it here.
“I plan on being here for a long time, building the school, increasing enrollment and creating an even more vibrant community.”
Find more stories on new principals and the start of the new school year in the Aug. 23 print edition of The Texas Catholic.