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DOWNEY – Steffani McMains always wanted to be a teacher as long as she can remember.
“I used to play school in the backyard as a child,” said McMains with a laugh. “I love children. There’s something about standing up in front of a group of kids. It’s a very serious responsibility — you have a lot of power. They look up to you, literally.”
An advocate of early childhood education, McMains has functioned as principal of Our Lady of Perpetual Help School since 1994, but after much thought, the 62-year-old Downey native says she has decided to retire at the end of the school year.
“There’s been a lot of bad days when I’ve wanted to quit,” McMains joked. “But I never want to quit when things are going bad and they’re not.”
McMains said the decision was made quietly last September as she recognized it was time for the next chapter of her life.
“I’ll have an opportunity to spend some time with my mother and to do some traveling,” she said.
McMains, who started her career at OLPH School as a kindergarten teacher, recalls some challenges leading the school in the early days, but believes the joy of seeing each child graduate far outweighs the workload.
“This school is like a family,” she said. “We have these kids from 5 years old to 13 years old and we grow with them. In a way they’re mine as well.”
McMains praised the school’s faculty and staff, many of whom she’s worked with for years.
“The teachers here are wonderful, highly-qualified, and dedicated to their students,” she said. “We have the connection to the church so we have Mass every Friday. In public schools, they can’t talk about God…we can, and that’s the reason this place is so special.”
A graduate of Warren High School, McMains earned her bachelor’s degree in history from California State University, Fullerton and a master’s in education from the University of San Francisco.
After teaching kindergarten classes for nine years, McMains nervously applied for the position of principal when the Sisters of Notre Dame left the school in 1994.
“The pastor of OLPH put together a search committee to find a new principal and I got the job,” McMains exclaimed.
“This is now my 19th year as principal. Kids haven’t changed, but the way we teach has,” she added. “When I first started teaching, you taught from textbooks and the teacher was the center of the universe. Now we focus on student learning. Kids don’t just sit in the desk, they’re moving around. There are a variety of styles and teachers. We’re not just teaching academics, but life.”
For the last 14 years, office secretary Susan Espitia has worked closely with McMains. She says her departure is a bittersweet moment for the entire school.
“We’re sad to see her go, she’s going to be missed. She made us all feel so welcomed,” Espitia said. “Loving, caring, leadership, just overall excellence…she’s very easy to get along with and that doesn’t happen every place. It’s been a pleasure working with her — we’ll always be friends.”
Out of the three candidates who applied for the position, the OLPH principal search committee selected Vice Principal Gina Aguilar as McMains’ successor.
“I’ll come back from time to time and work with her,” McMains said with a smile. “If she needs any help, I’m here.”
McMains says her husband Jim McMains, principal of St. Michael’s School in Los Angeles, will also retire this year.
After spending decades working at OLPH School, Mrs. McMains says she’s hasn’t quite figured out exactly what to say to her students on the last day of class.
“It’s been a privilege to be a part of their lives — all of them,” she said holding back tears. “I just want to thank them for enriching my life over the years.”
Published: May 23, 2013 – Volume 12 – Issue 06