Photo by Tessa Marie Images
Carla Jantos MacMullen was the perfect choice to lead the female students of Bryn Mawr’s Sacred Heart Academy into a new era.
When Carla Jantos MacMullen was a young girl growing up in suburban Pittsburgh, she’d come home from St. Germaine Catholic School and set up a classroom for her toys. “I loved to learn, and I was fascinated by the teachers—lay people and sisters—at that school,” she says. “They encouraged me as a girl.”
Lots of kids play school, but not so many of them actually become teachers. MacMullen was one of that select group. She was fascinated by science, receiving inspiration from her engineer father and an instructor who brought high school-level concepts to seventh- and eighth-graders. But MacMullen’s educational journey wasn’t going to be confined to the classroom. She had too much ambition, too many opportunities, too much ability.
That triple threat has landed her at Bryn Mawr’s Sacred Heart Academy, where she’s now head of school, taking over the top leadership post at the K-12 all-girls school this past July. After 30-plus years teaching and leading in secular institutions, MacMullen has returned to her Catholic roots—and Sacred Heart is hoping her varied experience will provide different perspectives on enrollment, curriculum and fundraising challenges. “She’s bringing this new outside lens and perspective and energy to the position,” says Melanie McMenamin, who’s in her third year as Sacred Heart’s board chair. “It’s a refreshing opportunity for renewal beyond what a new head would normally bring.”
MacMullen spent the past five years as head at the Kew-Forest School in Queens, New York. Before that, she held a variety of roles over nearly 30 years at the Hopkins School in New Haven, Connecticut. That tenure began a year after she graduated in 1986 with a chemistry degree from Ohio’s Denison University.
Like any religious order, the Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus have a set of tenets that define their mission and goals as educators. Though some may consider faith, intellect, service, community and growth as somewhat generic, they’re big parts of the school’s approach to its students, and MacMullen is anxious to put these 19th-century tenets to more effective use. “I realized I was a Sacred Heart teacher before I was a Sacred Heart teacher,” she says. “Much of what is in those five criteria are in my orientation. Each has concepts that build it out. I find resonance with them.”
As a chemistry teacher, MacMullen saw how girls worked collaboratively with one another, understanding that it could lead to great success regardless of whether it might be different in more male-oriented settings. That knowledge has informed her approach to leading Sacred Heart. “I feel that if girls have a chance to develop themselves before they have to interact with males, it puts them on a better footing,” says MacMullen, who has two daughters and a son with her husband, Sandy. “There’s research out there at the secondary and collegiate levels to show that women who come out of women’s high schools and colleges enter the workforce differently and lead differently.”
After numerous talks, focus groups and questionnaires, Sacred Heart’s search committee knew exactly who the person to succeed Deirdre Cryor needed to be. “The next leader really had to be someone who was a champion of the Sacred Heart mission and its foundational principles,” says Mary Locke Cavallaro, a Sacred Heart board member and the committee’s chair.
That mandate could’ve worked against MacMullen, who’d spent 35 years in secular schools that had no connection to an international network the way Sacred Heart does. “It was kind of inspiring when we first spoke to her,” Cavallaro says. “For someone who didn’t have an alumnae or faculty connection, the way she articulated our mission said something very special about her.”
It’s no surprise that MacMullen aced the interview—and not just because she did her homework on the school. Throughout her career, she’s worked in the service of others, eschewing the role of top-down administrator and master delegator. “I see myself as a servant leader,” she says. “I want to roll up my sleeves and not have others do the work for me. I want to work with them.”
At Kew-Forest, MacMullen helped squire the community through the COVID pandemic, something that made her—and many others in the academic world—think differently about their futures. The shelf life of a school head used to be about 10–15 years. Now, it’s closer to five.
At Sacred Heart, MacMullen will work to boost enrollment, which sits at a bit more than 200 and has never been overwhelming. She must also sell the school to donors, and she might be asked to launch a capital campaign in the near future, since most schools are either just coming out of one or about to begin one.
In the meantime, MacMullen is continuing the school’s transition to more hands-on learning while demonstrating to students that growth comes from effort—and learning from the times when you don’t succeed. “We’re giving the girls more opportunities to try things and showing them that it’s OK if it doesn’t work the first time,” she says. “If they fail here, we tell them we love them, pick them up, dust them off and tell them to try again.”
It’s a powerful message—one that MacMullen has been promoting since her early days as a teacher with her toys. She believed it then, and she lives it now. And that’s good news for Sacred Heart Academy.