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Sister Dawn Achs and Carmen Fernandez share a special friendship. Carmen is the principal of Notre Dame School of Dallas (NDS), a School Sisters of Notre Dame (SSND) sponsored ministry. Sister Dawn Achs is a provincial councilor for the Central Pacific Province. The majority of Sister Dawn’s vocation has been spent as a teacher, administrator and superintendent. All her positions included mentoring, “I believe leadership and mentoring go hand in hand,” said Sister Dawn.

Carmen Fernandez, prinipal of Noter Dame School of Dallas, shares her story of leadership and mentorship with Sister Dawn Aches. This photo is of Carmen and a student.

“So many SSND have made an impact on my life from school throughout my career,” said Carmen. “Although I have had many roles at NDS, the role of leadership was cultivated, encouraged and supported by Sister Dawn.”

Carmen’s path to leadership at NDS was not easy, fast, or straight. She came to NDS as a music teacher in 1990. Since then, she earned multiple degrees and certifications, all while raising a family - including twins. “My leadership skills today reflect the charism of the SSND,” said Carmen. “They are not a memorized set of words, but an embedded set of actions lived daily. In the forefront of these actions are recognizing that we are created in God’s image, that each day is a commitment to help others reach the fullness of their potential and the audacious belief that education can change the world.”

Carmen Fernandez, prinipal of Noter Dame School of Dallas, shares her story of leadership and mentorship with Sister Dawn Aches. This photo is of Carmen and a for first confirmation.

NDS was founded by the SSND in 1963. The school serves students, ages six through 21, with developmental disabilities. NDS is a loving and caring campus. Students are grouped according to age and taught at their functioning level within their age group. The academic curriculum emphasizes math, science, reading, social studies and language arts. Music, PE, computer and religion classes are offered to all students. Independent living skills, job skills and career exploration are essential elements in the upper school. Christian values and attitudes are taught in all classes. Catholic students are involved in sacramental preparation, as appropriate.

One of the unique elements of an NDS education is the opportunity to form meaningful and lasting friendships. A wide range of extracurricular activities are offered to encourage these friendships and foster independence. In addition, the NDS student-teacher ratio is low, 10 students to two teachers, and all teachers have a college degree with experience working with students who have special needs. NDS also has volunteers from the community, including the youth from area Catholic schools who come on a regular basis to work and interact with the students in their classrooms. Positive discipline is used as a means of teaching and encouraging students to develop self-control and responsibility.

Three years ago, Carmen initiated a new program called the STAR (Self-determination, Teamwork, Ability, Respect) Program for graduates who needed additional job experience programs. The STAR Program serves young adults as an adult day habilitation program to promote social, emotional, intellectual and independent growth by providing opportunities in the areas of science and cultural studies as well as a variety of other experiences off campus. The program focuses on development in time management, financial responsibility, daily living skills, independent decision making and teamwork. The STAR Program offers an extensive food preparation and cooking course which utilizes skills in reading, measurement, meal planning and promotes healthy choices and food safety.

The program also focuses on the development of office and organizational skills to prepare these young adults for future employment and provides individuals an opportunity to select courses that align with their interests and talents in the areas of the arts and physical health. It also incorporates jobs and community experiences in a safe and loving environment. The Star Program has grown so large, they are already looking for a new, expanded location.

“Carmen is a woman of vision,” said Sister Dawn Achs. “She sees the needs and meets them. She loves the school and the children.”

Sister Dawn Ach's posing with a student at Notre Dame of Dallas school.

Sister Dawn’s approach to leadership is one of servant leadership. “I’m here to serve those who are serving,” said Sister Dawn. “I never ask anyone to do anything that I wouldn’t be willing to do. I like to be able to ask questions, listen and really hear.”

Female leadership has a special place in families and communities, shared Sister Dawn, “A good female leader has a level of awareness of the need of the person. By our nature as women, we tend to be in tune to the person and their unique, individual needs.”

“I have reached out to Sister Dawn on many occasions to speak to her about education, leadership and shared thoughts about special education,” said Carmen. “The message was that of strength, humbleness and the belief all things are possible with God. I hold that very close to my heart.”


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