Catholic Sentinel photo by Ed Langlois
Sandy Satterberg, the first laywoman principal of a Jesuit high school in the nation, will retire from the post at year's end, but continue to teach math.
Catholic Sentinel photo by Ed Langlois
Sandy Satterberg, the first laywoman principal of a Jesuit high school in the nation, will retire from the post at year's end, but continue to teach math.
Sitting in the semi-darkened chapel at Jesuit High School, Sandy Satterberg gazed out the window. A beefy football player emerged alone from the rush of students to pray aside an outdoor statue of Mary.

It's typical that one of Satterberg's memorable moments as principal concerns the good of a student, instead of her own accomplishments.    

Satterberg, 72, steps down in June after 15 years in leadership at the high-achieving institution. The first lay woman to be principal of a U.S. Jesuit secondary school, she'll continue teaching mathematics, a mission she started at Jesuit more than 30 years ago.

Satterberg, serene and slim with calming blue eyes, loves her job, especially the intellectual atmosphere. She calls teenagers and colleagues "wonderful," and admits it's exciting to never know what will happen on a given day.  

She knows principals are usually seen as mostly disciplinarians. She insists that the job is actually "a wonderful opportunity to form young people into responsible adults."  

Though she does not tout what she's done, others at Jesuit point to the high-ranked math department, which she built. She set up professional development for teachers and began Jesuit Commitment, in which students get involved in areas of school life they might otherwise have missed. Satterberg also launched institutes on leadership and Ignatian spirituality. She has served on the board of a nationwide association of 60 Jesuit schools in North America.

She does her work mostly behind the scenes.

"It's so much better to lead in a quiet way," she says.

When serious discipline is needed, Satterberg refuses to make snap decisions. In the Ignatian way, she takes a day to try to understand all sides and all experiences and then reflect. She meets regularly with a parent board and a student board.
She and ex-homebuilder husband Rod are deeply involved in school life. The couple attends a handful of Jesuit events every week — plays, retreats, concerts, debates, sports. She and Rod have been married for 52 years and have two grandchildren. Both are avid runners and downhill skiers. This summer, they plan a hiking trek through the Alps.

Satterberg grew up in Iowa and north Idaho. When she was a teen, her family moved to Oregon and she attended Beaverton High. She watched as the Jesuits built a new high school for boys a mile away from her house.

She earned a math degree at Portland State, even though not many women in those days went in for it. She would teach at Portland State, the University of Portland and Tacoma Community College. Feeling called to serve in a high school, in 1980 she answered a newspaper ad for a math instructor at Jesuit. She became department chair after a year.  

When Jesuit Father William Hayes arrived as school president in 1984, he and Satterberg aimed to build the best math department in the state. When she asked to create highly advanced calculus classes, even though only a few students qualified, Father Hayes hesitated because of cost, then assented.

"I said 'Go for it,' because I knew she was a great teacher," the retired president explains.

A few decades later, dozens upon dozens of Jesuit students take math classes usually offered to college juniors. They score an average of about 600 on math SATs, 85 points above the national average.

In 1988, Satterberg and husband Rod experienced inexpressible darkness when Nathan, their youngest son, died at age 17. The Catholic community at Jesuit reached out so fully and so authentically that the couple felt inspired to explore Catholicism. The next year, they were initiated into the church at St. Pius X Parish.  
The loss has given Satterberg keener insight into what really matters.

"It made me realize the importance of telling people you love them every day," she says. "Whenever we are having a problem with a student here, I think to myself, 'Someone really loves that child.'"

Colleagues named her teacher of the year in 1987 and 1991. In 1992, she was named academic vice principal. When it came time to hire a new principal in 1997, Father Hayes and the board opted for Satterberg. It was not to break a barrier, the priest says, but because she was the best candidate.

Her heroes include St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, an educator and mother, Mother Teresa of Calcutta and Hypatia, a 4th century female mathematician in Alexandria.

"I'm not a women's libber or a trailblazer," Satterberg says. "People should be judged on what they do and how they do it."

She worries about some developments in Catholic education. Catholic grade schools, high schools and colleges need to form better links, she says.

She fears that Catholic schools are at risk of leaving out the middle class. The wealthy can swing tuition and aid is available for many low-income students, but the people in the middle are lost.

John Gladstone, president of Jesuit, calls Satterberg "a visionary" who has nurtured the educational and spiritual lives of students and faculty.

"Sandy has fostered excellence while ensuring that the principles of a Jesuit education remain alive and applicable to the modern world," Gladstone says.

Interviews are underway to name a new principal. Satterberg says this is an opportune time for a change because the school is running so smoothly. She'll hand the new principal a file or two, but will not get in the way.   

Satterberg is excited to keep up teaching. She'll also keep up going to Mass at the school each day, including the Friday liturgy with students.

"I couldn't just leave," she says. "That would be too hard. This place has been too important to me."