Ascension icon Dorwatha Woods retiring

| April 22, 2016 | 0 Comments
Dorwatha Woods is retiring after 29 years as principal of Ascension Catholic School in north Minneapolis. Ascension pastor Father Dale Korogi said, "Ms. Woods has spent her life living out the conviction that every child has the right to an excellent education, and she has been a leader in making that happen." Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

Dorwatha Woods is retiring after 29 years as principal of Ascension Catholic School in north Minneapolis. Ascension pastor Father Dale Korogi said, “Ms. Woods has spent her life living out the conviction that every child has the right to an excellent education, and she has been a leader in making that happen.” Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

Twenty-nine years after she started a job she never wanted, Dorwatha Woods knows it was in God’s plan for her to be the principal of Ascension School on the north side of Minneapolis.

Raised Baptist, she was in college at Hampton Institute in Virginia when she converted to Catholicism.

“God was setting me up,” Woods said with a chuckle.

“I knew [the Catholic Church] was where God wanted me,” she said, and her strong Baptist scriptural knowledge has served her well at Ascension as she welcomed students from non-Catholic families and conversed with their parents.

“I could relate to their Baptist tradition,” Wood said. “I could give them the bridge to the Catholic faith.”

A self-described Army brat, Woods, 58, was born in Germany when her father was posted there. When her dad retired, the family settled in Chattanooga, Tennessee.

She was an education major at Hampton when she joined the Church.

“I liked the fact that Catholics stand for things,” she recalled. “I liked that priests had college educations, the grandeur of the Mass when the liturgy is rich, and the layout of the Scriptures from one Sunday to the next.”

She earned a master’s degree in special education at the University of Michigan and married a Minnesotan. She had been the director of religious education at St. Joan of Arc in south Minneapolis for four years when she was invited to apply for the principal’s position at Ascension.

“I said, ‘No, no,’ ” Woods recalled. “I never aspired to be a school principal. I loved St. Joan of Arc. My daughters were just 1 and 3, and I was working on my second master’s at time at the University of St. Thomas.

“But they kept calling, and it made me get on my knees and talk to God about it.”

When she toured the north side campus with Father Raymond Monsour, Ascension pastor in 1987, Woods found that he had been honest with her.

“The good stuff was true,” Woods said, “and the horrible stuff was true, too.”

She took the job, anyway.

As she sat at her desk in the classroom-turned-principal’s office at Ascension nearly three decades later, Woods said, “God called me here, he truly did. There were things God wanted me to do here.”

Father Dale Korogi, Ascension’s pastor, said Dorwatha Woods’ vocation and ministry as an educator rise out of her deep faith in Jesus Christ.

“She sees every child with the eyes of Jesus, loves each of them with the love of Jesus, reminding them every day of the dignity they bear as beloved children of God,” Father Korogi said.

“She has wonderful relationships with our scholars and their families. Ms. Woods has spent her life living out the conviction that every child has the right to an excellent education, and she has been a leader in making that happen.”

Auspicious beginning

The success Ascension has achieved in educating students over her 29 years, Wood said, is proof that learning can happen in the midst of poverty, and that children of color can learn and achieve.

That wasn’t evident in 1987.

When Woods arrived Ascension’s enrollment had fallen to 163 and the school was in the midst of consolidation talks that would have it merge with other struggling Catholic schools on Minneapolis’ north side.

Populated with mostly white students, those schools didn’t so much want Ascension’s primarily black students as much as they wanted the financial subsidies that came with them, Woods charged.

“I recommended we go it alone, and trust that God will supply our needs,” she said. “When you’ve got Jesus working out there and you believe in him, you will do the right thing.”

Over the past 29 years, Ascension enrollment has regularly remained at 250 or above, reaching as high as 300.

It hasn’t always been easy for her personally.

Woods said the reception she received upon becoming Ascension’s principal is among the reasons she stated, “Minnesota is the most racist place I ever lived.”

Hired too late to attend the annual pre-school year meeting of Catholic school principals, Woods missed getting the packet of information each school leader received. When she called what was then the Catholic Education Center to ask that it be mailed, a staff member said she would deliver it personally.

“The first thing she said when she got here was, ‘From under what rock did they find you?’ ” Woods said.

When later she attended principals’ meetings, Woods said she couldn’t help but notice how differently other Catholic school principals treated her in comparison with another new principal, who happened to be white. As Woods described it, while they fawned over him, they pretty much ignored her. Only two other Catholic school principals made an effort to befriend her, she said.

Mentor and role model

Jamil Payton was an eighth grader when Woods arrived.

“She took the time to get to know us and to know our families,” he remembered. “She treated us like her own kids.”

Now an assistant principal in the Osseo district with both bachelor’s and master’s degrees in counseling and a certificate in education administration, Payton worked in administration and counseling at Ascension for five years, and he said he regularly uses lessons he learned from Woods.

“I truly learned what it means to be a servant leader,” Payton said, “to work not only for the students but for the staff, and really caring about students and student achievement.

Payton said Woods showed him how to lead by example for students, staff and for the community.

“The way she stood up to the drug dealers and gang members,” Payton said, “telling them they could do their stuff anywhere but they weren’t going to do it in her school with her babies — she’s an icon in north Minneapolis.”

As proud as Woods is of the school’s survival and of the academic achievement of Ascension students, she expressed just as much pride in playing a role in bringing many of Ascension’s “scholars,” as she calls students, to Christ.

She explained her philosophy this way: “We have to foster the faith of children who have been raised in the Catholic tradition and be evangelizers to those who aren’t Catholic.”

Woods plans to continue her volunteer activity at Clare House, St. Joan of Arc’s home for people with HIV-Aids, where she cooks a couple times a month.

And two other activities will keep Woods busy when she retires from Ascension at the end of June.

She’ll keep her hand in education. Woods said she is negotiating with a Catholic university to supervise teachers.

And, she said with a smile, she expects to be spending lots of time with her first grandchild, who is due to arrive this summer.


Related:

Tags: , , , , , , ,

Category: Local News