Photography by Danny Fulgencio

Lydia Torrez thought St. Cecilia Catholic School was so big.

She remembers, as a third-grader, getting lost in the school until an older kid helped her find her classroom.

At the end of this past school year, Torrez left an 18-year stint at Bishop Dunne Catholic School, where she was director of development. She returned to St. Cecilia as principal.

This isn’t her first time back. 

Torrez and her brothers attended the school in the late 1960s, when their mom was school secretary.

After teaching at Mark Twain Elementary out of college, Torrez returned to St. Cecilia for 15 years, as a teacher, assistant principal and principal. Her three sons attended the school during those years. Four of the school’s current teachers are St. Cecilia alumni. Of those, two were Torrez’s students, and one was a classmate.

“My whole life has been spent in service to this community,” she says.

Now she is planning to take the school into a post-COVID future, and she does it with joy in her heart. Torrez is the type of person to wax romantic about the first day of school. The new shoes, the nerves, the smell of pencils and crayons.

While St. Cecilia is expected to return to in-person school in August, the first day could look different, with face coverings, social distancing, instruction on safe hygiene and a hybrid of in-person and online school.

Torrez had planned to take two weeks off between jobs, but her last day at Bishop Dunne was April 10.

By then, St. Cecilia was operating fully online under the leadership of interim principal Estela Valdez. Torrez took the principal’s chair April 13.

Photo by Danny Fulgencio

“Our faculty didn’t have a spring break,” Valdez says. “We worked every day, all day.”

St. Cecilia has about 140 students in pre-K through eighth grade. While middle school students already had online learning, staff had to build from the ground up to teach pre-K and elementary students online.

Teachers sent emails to parents every day outlining the curriculum, and they met by video with each of their students one-on-one at least once a day, on top of group instruction. They also had individual calls with parents once a week.

In the beginning, the faculty met every day to debrief on what was working and what wasn’t.

Considering all of that, plus learning new software and strategies for e-learning, fielding tech-support calls and tutoring, it went quite well.

“We found that we had less missing work from students because of the time we spent with parents,” Valdez says. “Everyone is closer now, the faculty and the parents. This strengthened the whole community.”

They’re planning to offer in-person school, but they also want to continue providing online-only education for families who don’t want to take the risk amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Photo by Danny Fulgencio

“It’s pushing us as educators,” Torrez says. “As terrible and painful as it is, it has produced some positive outcomes in terms of pushing us into the 21st century.”

Amid all this transition, St. Cecilia is also undergoing renovations this summer, starting with recabling the entire building to increase bandwidth. They’re doing roof repairs, removing old ceiling tiles, updating electrical work and painting all the classrooms in calming pastel colors.

“This is a hard time for the students. They understand what’s going on in the world, and it’s scary,” Torrez says.

The school begins the day in prayer, and they try to include mindfulness in everything they do.

“I’m looking to make school fun. Learning has to be alive,” Torrez says. “It has to be hands on and real world.”

The elephant in the room here is St. Cecilia’s place amid allegations of sex abuse in the Catholic Church. St. Cecilia Church was the site of a May 2019 police raid that came a few months after the Catholic Diocese released a list of priests who were “credibly accused” of sex abuse.

A priest at St. Cecilia Catholic Church, Edmundo Paredes, was accused of stealing as much as $80,000 from the church. Paredes also was accused of sexually abusing three male students of St. Cecilia School between 10 and 20 years ago. Paredes is thought to have fled the country following his retirement in the summer of 2018 and remains at large.

Here’s what Torrez has to say about that:

I would not have taken the leadership role as principal here if I did not feel confident in the commitment from the school to keep our community safe.  I am committed to the rigorous, multi-faceted Safe Environment Program that includes training, screening, background checks and other procedures designed to reduce the risk of sexual abuse of children and vulnerable adults.

The financial issues did not involve the school which has a budget and funds held separately from the church.

My goal is to work with our students, faculty, staff and parents to create a safe environment for all in our community and to ensure that all St. Cecilia students achieve the goal of college and heaven.

Besides her connection to the school, Torrez has seen five generations of her family in the pews at St. Cecilia Catholic Church, from her grandparents to her grandchildren.

Torrez grew up in El Tivoli, where she lived a few blocks away from her grandparents and other extended family members.

“Oak Cliff is my community, and I have served it, and there is no greater place to live, in my book,” Torrez says.