Michelle Cox recently resigned as principal of St. Mary of the Assumption Catholic School in Santa Maria.
Michelle Cox has resigned after 14 years — 12 as principal — at St. Mary of the Assumption Catholic School in Santa Maria. (Janene Scully / Noozhawk photo)

Leading a small Catholic school through a pandemic, Michelle Cox said she was reminded that “blessings come in mysterious ways.”

Santa Maria’s St. Mary of the Assumption Catholic School already had implemented one-to-one iPads by March 2020 when in-person learning was abruptly paused, according to Cox.

“We had an investment years ago from a foundation that upgraded our entire internal network that led to us being awarded a grant for one-to-one iPads from the Archdiocese (of Los Angeles),” Cox said, adding that they quickly shifted to online learning without missing a day of school. “Because we had those for a number of years, even though we weren’t familiar with Zoom, the teachers and students were used to incorporating technology into their learning.”

She recently wrapped up 14 years — 12 years as principal — at St. Mary of the Assumption Catholic School. 

“The pandemic certainly wore me out a bit,” she said, adding that she felt that she and the school needed a full restart with a new principal bringing fresh energy.

She has been replaced by Erica Stevens, who graduated from St. Joseph High School in 2002. Stevens returned to Santa Maria in 2018 after attending college and working in San Diego for 16 years. She had taught fourth grade at St. Mary’s for the past four years.

“Michelle is a kind, generous and compassionate leader. Over the last four years, she has guided me as a teacher with patience and support,” Stevens said. “Above all, she has led the St. Mary’s school community with her faith and remains an example for us all as we strive to live out our mission in Catholic education.”

St. Mary was among the first schools to return to in-person learning in September 2020 — with multiple precautions in place — under a waiver. 

Cox reflected on students’ excitement at seeing friends in person after months apart.

“They knew it was something special. … They just were happy to be together,” she said. “To see the joy on their faces was a gift.”

After growing up in New Jersey, Cox earned her bachelor’s degree from St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia and a master’s degree from Regis University in Colorado.

She recalled deciding to become a teacher from the time she was young, even drafting her little sister to be her first student.

“I just always wanted to teach,” she said.

She arrived on the Central Coast the first time as the wife of an Air Force officer, now retired Col. Lee-Volker Cox, at then Vandenberg Air  Force Base. His various assignments have meant that she has had teaching gigs across the country before they returned to the Central Coast, where they plan to continue to live.

Cox found her niche as a Catholic school educator, loving that her faith is integrated in the work.

“My faith has been deepened by my experiences in Catholic education,” she said.

Reflecting on her time at the school, she expressed pride at expanding technology access for students and more.

“I am really proud of the changes that we’ve made that helped us maintain our high academic standards and our faith, but also provide other learning opportunities for children in areas that they don’t always do at home anymore,” she said.

That included biking and swimming lessons along with science lessons and a school garden in a move to develop the whole child.

After 23 years as an educator, Cox said she hopes to continue supporting Catholic education as a consultant, providing professional development and supporting principals in leadership roles.

She plans to first take some time off, excited at the chance to visit family without worrying about the school calendar.

She also will remain an advocate of St. Mary, the underdog among private schools in the Santa Maria Valley. The school sits in the city’s downtown area and dates back to 1938.

“I loved that when I would go anywhere around town wearing anything that said St. Mary’s, almost everywhere I went someone would speak up,” she said. “So many people have ties to this school and a deep love for it.”

Noozhawk North County editor Janene Scully can be reached at jscully@noozhawk.com. Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

A stylized hawk's head on a red background

Janene Scully | Noozhawk North County Editor

Noozhawk North County editor Janene Scully can be reached at jscully@noozhawk.com.