On July 1, 2021, Father Walter E. Jenkins, C.S.C., Ed.D, stepped into his new role as the President of Mater Dei High School. Father Jenkins replaced interim President Father Steve Sallot, who assumed his responsibilities upon the resignation of Patrick Murphy in January 2020 to pursue a management position with the Arizona Coyotes.
New to Southern California, Jenkins is originally from New York, having grown up in the town of Binghamton within the Diocese of Syracuse.
With extensive leadership experience in secondary education, Jenkins’ path to Orange County has taken him through various parts of the country, including a bachelor’s degree from Kings College – a Holy Cross Father’s College in Pennsylvania, seminary at the University of Notre Dame and a doctorate in Catholic school leadership from the University of San Francisco. He also previously served as the president of Holy Cross High School in Queens, New York.
His decision to return to secondary education after being on sabbatical in South Bend, Indiana, led him to throw his hat into the ring for the open position at Mater Dei. After discussions with a local team that included Superintendent of Catholic Schools Dr. Erin Barisano and Bishop Kevin W. Vann, Jenkins officially joined the Monarch community in February of this year.
As president, or head of school, at Mater Dei, Jenkins will function like a CEO, often serving as the outward face of the Santa Ana high school, interacting with media, donors and alumni.
But Jenkins will also be on campus each day, working closely in partnership with Mater Dei’s principal, Frances Clare, who is responsible for the school’s day-to-day operations. He feels that a unique aspect of what he brings to the table is the fact that he is a priest, specifically a member of the Congregation of Holy Cross.
“I think at such a high profile Catholic high school, to be able to have a priest as the head of school is beneficial for Mater Dei and the Diocese of Orange,” said Jenkins.
While not completely familiar with Mater Dei prior to his arrival, it didn’t take long for Jenkins to learn about the school’s history of excellence and impact on the community. With that, he feels he has been handed a “spectacular institution,” one without the presence of large-scale issues
“This is a storied place, and it’s a tight-knit community,” said Jenkins. “This is not your average Catholic high school…it’s the size of most Catholic colleges. What I bring is an outside perspective, a reverence for it. I’m deeply impressed by the people here and their desire to be innovative in education. I will support that.”
Shortly after his acceptance earlier this year, Jenkins conducted Zoom meetings with school administration, department chairs and student leadership groups, such as ASB officers and athletics captains. It was the students who quickly gave him a strong sense of what it means to be a Monarch.
“They were extraordinary, and their love for this place and their enthusiasm about it really was infectious,” said Jenkins. “The kids draw one another to this place. They are the greatest marketers of Catholic institutions. If they have a great experience, they tell everybody. People want to be here.”
After functioning in a hybrid learning model for the entirety of last academic year, Jenkins is thankful to see the student body return to Mater Dei for on-campus instruction. Additionally, he is grateful for the efforts that the administration, teachers and staff invested into the students’ education in the last 18 months.
“I’m really impressed with how this place responded last year,” said Jenkins. “Necessity is the mother of invention, and I think people were stretched in ways they didn’t even think about before. That’s created, out of a very bad situation, a very positive energy about what we can do in the future.
As far as his next steps, Jenkins feels a large part of what he has been asked to do in his new role is to secure the future of the school, keep that future bright and assure access is possible for those who want to be a part of the Monarch community. This includes developing, funding and implementing a “10-year and beyond” strategic plan.
For now, with Mater Dei’s robust enrollment heading into the new school year, including a waiting list, Jenkins said he is looking forward to putting new eyes on a great situation and taking some time to soak in all aspects of his new home at one of the largest Catholic high schools in the nation.
“Right now, I really want to enjoy it,” said Jenkins. “My immediate plan is to do a lot of experiencing and listening. I want to be at things. I want to get to know people. And I think from there, we come up with a clearer vision of how we take something that’s really extraordinary and just make it even better.”