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New St. Martha principal hits the ground running

Tawanna Coates (middle) stands with fifth-grade students at Sunday Mass.

The St. Martha Elementary School community welcomed a new principal this year, Tawanna Coates, who is starting new clubs and finding a lot of success in the role.

Coates became principal in July and has since started after-school clubs and activities such as sign language, public speaking and Spanish. This is her first time in a principal position.

“I want the children to remember me as what I did for them, and what I provided,” Coates said. “I want them to remember me as a fun principal that always tried to do something to make them happy, to have a good, loving experience.”

St. Martha’s former principal, Karen Donofry, encouraged Coates to take principal classes when Coates was still a teacher. At first, Coates said, she was hesitant. But she decided just taking the classes couldn’t hurt.

In Coates’s second year teaching at St. Martha, Donofry decided to retire. 

“She set me up!,” Coates joked. “She really believed in me. She looked to me to say, ‘Would you take over?’ ”

At first, Coates was hesitant, but later accepted.

“I had a lot of encouragement from my family, my mother, my friends and my husband, they all said, ‘Go for it! You’re gonna be good at this.’ ”

Helen Konstance, who is chair of the school board, said that positive feedback about Coates has been flooding in.

“She’s implemented and has devoted herself to try to not just improve the enrollment, but to improve the interests of St. Martha’s and take it to a different level,” Konstance said. “She talks the talk and walks the walk. It’s so refreshing to me.”

Konstance said that Coates brings energy to the school and that she is excellent to work with.

“I think she was the best candidate and the best choice to be our principal,” she said.

Coates, a North Philadelphia native, said she has always loved working with kids. Her first experience with children was at an orphanage, where she was exposed to abuse and neglect cases.

“I was very young. It kinda inspired me to continue working in education,” she said. 

Coates holds a bachelor’s degree in elementary education from Chestnut Hill College and a master’s degree in special education from Holy Family University.

“My favorite thing about being an educator,” Coates said, “is I get to watch the kids grow, and how they improve over the years, and then they come back and say, ‘I remember you.’ ”

After all her time as a teacher, Coates said she enjoys slowing down from classroom tasks and having time to really get to know her students.

“Being a principal, this is a dream. It’s different. I get to talk to the kids one on one now. I can understand that individual student. I like the counseling side where I can sit down and really talk to them,” she said. 

Working at St. Martha’s in particular is special to Coates because of her Catholic upbringing, and she is excited to pass those values along.

“I am a product of Catholic education, I went to Catholic school all my life,” Coates said. “I’m glad to be a principal at a Catholic school so that I can give back that experience.” ••

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