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 | By Mary D. Dillard

From student to principal

Serving God through education

“There are so many unseen parts which play an integral role in success,” says Coach Ronald Steele, principal of John Carroll Catholic High School. “For our young people,” he explains, “the more we can reiterate how their contributions actually do hold value, the more they will be able to see it.”

In his youth, Steele was a star basketball player, and the value of contributions only translated to those made on the court. Steele did not attend Catholic schools prior to high school, so when he arrived at John Carroll as a freshman in 2000, it took some adjustment. His family knew they wanted a place where he could thrive not only academically but also socially, emotionally, and athletically. “I think the draw for John Carroll was that it checked off a lot of boxes,” he says.

Of course, starting as a freshman at a school where he knew absolutely no one was a challenge, but not the only challenge. “It was difficult in the beginning just getting used to the religious aspect. The uniforms were different. The expectations were different.” When he looks back, though, he realizes that John Carroll was the first “bridge” for him to meet people from all walks of life.

It was through those people that Steele saw lives lived with meaning. Yes, he had the opportunity to go to Mass, to pray, and to learn theology, but those opportunities would have been mere obligatory actions had Steele not witnessed those beliefs being integrated into everyday life and every decision. “I had teachers and coaches who I saw in so many scenarios model their beliefs, and that had an impact on me,” he maintains.

The impact he experienced was intriguing and something he longed to emulate. Acknowledging that his public-school experience was, by no means, “negative,” he does suggest that his experience at John Carroll was almost counter-cultural. “It opened up a level of influence that I had not seen before, and it motivated me to develop those qualities and traits.”

Using his athletic skills on the basketball court at John Carroll only solidified his newfound outlook, for it was impressed upon him and his teammates that virtue applies to every moment, every decision, how you train, how you work with your teammates, and the purpose of why you play.

After graduating from John Carroll, Steele went on to play for the University of Alabama, leading his team to a top 10 ranking his junior year. However, injury would plague the remainder of his college career and compromise his NBA draft standing. As an alternative, Steele decided to play internationally with an Israeli team and then a Turkish team. After more than six years of traveling overseas, he returned home to find his little brother coaching basketball at his alma mater, John Carroll. Almost instinctively, Steele agreed, on a volunteer basis, to help coach. Next, he found himself volunteering as the girls’ basketball coach. The experience would prove instrumental in helping him realize something he never thought was possible.

“The experience of working to develop young people actually got me more excited than playing the sport: I never thought I could have that,” Steele admits. A job opening at Cornerstone School of Alabama, a Christian school for inner-city youth, pulled Steele away from John Carroll, but not for long. While teaching and coaching at Cornerstone, he was able to model a life of meaning: for those kids he was able to be what John Carroll faculty and staff had been for him. “I really filled a void for a lot of those kids that went well past basketball,” he remembers. After a year of building relationships with the children of Cornerstone, he realized his next step should be one towards home. “I loved where I was,” he says, “but I thought the opportunity to serve in a place that had given me so much wouldn’t come along very often.”

He was chosen to lead John Carroll’s athletic program as the athletic director, and in his new role, he espoused the poignant parallel between sports and one’s faith journey, mirroring the teachers from his youth who modeled their faith in every aspect of their lives.

Striving to live a life lived with meaning was not easily overlooked, and in June of last year, it was announced that Steele would be the next principal of John Carroll Catholic High School.

As he leads his alma mater as principal, he embodies the type of service that our youth need to witness. For just as he believes success on the field or court takes many unseen efforts, Catholic education is no different. Ultimately, the goal of Catholic education is to form the entire person. “We’re not just about ACT scores, but that’s important,” he notes. “We’re not just about grades and GPA, but it’s important. We are about helping students recognize that success derives from serving God, [regardless if it is seen or not].”

From student to principal 2
Photograph courtesy of Sherry Rowe