Edgar Alfonzo is preparing for the upcoming school year as the only Latino principal currently serving in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis. In June, he took over as the leader of St. John Paul II Catholic Preparatory School in Minneapolis, which has an estimated 75 percent Latino student population. Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit
Edgar Alfonzo leaves law for education, finds he has a heart for students
When Edgar Alfonzo took the role as principal at St. John Paul II Catholic Preparatory School in Minneapolis in June, the 44-year-old became the second Latino to ever serve in that capacity in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis.
“It’s an honor,” said Alfonzo, a parishioner of Good Shepherd in Golden Valley. “To be the [second] Latino is a big responsibility.”
He added that he will put “200 percent” of his effort into being a good principal, and to lay the groundwork for other Latino administrators who follow in his footsteps.
The archdiocesan Office for the Mission of Catholic Education believes its first Latino principal was Kevin Donohue, who served at St. Columba in St. Paul during the 2003-04 school year. The school closed in 2004.
Father Kevin Finnegan, pastor of Our Lady of Grace in Edina, serves as canonical administrator of St. John Paul II School. He said he’s happy to have Alfonzo at the helm.
“A [Catholic school] principal is not only the academic leader . . . but really is the spiritual leader of a school,” Father Finnegan said. He described Alfonzo as a man who loves Christ and who has an active faith.
Located in northeast Minneapolis, St. John Paul II School is supported by seven parishes. Alfonzo said nearly 110 students in kindergarten through eighth grade are enrolled for the 2016-2017 school year, up from about 90 the previous year.
“John Paul II is kind of a miracle in northeast Minneapolis, not only because we are the only Catholic school actually in northeast Minneapolis . . . but also because our population is so unique,” Alfonzo said.
About 75 percent of the student body is Latino, he said, but noted a significant population of students with families from Africa.
A heart for students
Alfonzo’s own background — both professional and cultural — will aid in his new role.
Alfonzo was born and raised in Venezuela, where he attended a private, non-Catholic school through third grade. The rest of his elementary through high school years were spent at public schools.
After graduating in 1993 with a law degree from Universidad Catolica Andres Bello in Caracas, Venezuela, he worked for 12 years at a law firm that specialized in labor law. In 2004, he immigrated to Minnesota, where he met his wife, Adriana Guerrero.
Alfonzo earned a master’s degree in nonprofit management from Hamline University in St. Paul and put it to use at two Minneapolis organizations between 2007 and 2010.
And although Alfonzo enjoyed his experiences in law and the nonprofit sector, he has most valued being a teacher. When he lived in Venezuela, he taught law courses to graduate students at three different universities. In the Twin Cities, he served as a Spanish teacher or bilingual educator at several public and private schools, including Trinity Catholic School in St. Paul (which closed in 2009) and St. John Paul II School from 2005 to 2007.
In July 2015, he became the school’s full-time director of student and family affairs.
Working at schools, Alfonzo discovered he has a heart for students.
One of them is Maria Alvarado, 14, who graduated from St. John Paul II School last year. Her father, Julio Alvarado, is excited that Maria’s sister, 5-year-old Samantha, will start kindergarten there in September.
That’s in no small part because of the way Alfonzo relates to students.
“Whether it’s a 6-year-old or a 10-year-old, he [Alfonzo] gives them the same attention, the same respect and the same approach,” Julio Alvarado said. “And I think kids love that; that makes them feel that they’re actually important, that whatever they say is valued.”
Not only is Alfonzo ready to help his students, but he’s also just as willing to go to bat for their families. Alvarado and his wife experienced this firsthand last year, when Maria was about to enter eighth grade. They weren’t able to afford her tuition, even after receiving financial aid.
“Transferring would have made it quite difficult not only to get to a good high school, but . . . going to new places [would have been] a challenge,” Alvarado said.
When Alfonzo found out about their situation, he helped them find a way to pay for her final year.
“The first thing he said was, ‘Don’t worry, we’ll figure something out.’ And needless to say, he was on top of things. He looked here and there and made it through,” Alvarado said. “He helped Maria stay in school, and [the] year after, she was graduating. So, we were really thankful for that.”
Like other Catholic schools in the archdiocese, St. John Paul II School has faced challenges in remaining a viable option for families. Still, Father Finnegan is confident that Alfonzo, like his predecessors, will help the school thrive.
“He just has this breadth of knowledge and experience, but also has this world perspective, and John Paul II is a world school,” Father Finnegan said. “We have kids from several countries and several cultures. He’s respectful of that, and I’m certain [he] will help it grow.”