Column: Leadership runs in the family for this new Arcadia Catholic school principal

Ashley Reagan Dunster is the new principal of Holy Angels School in Arcadia. The Glendora resident is the youngest grandchild of President Ronald Reagan. (Photo by Job Rivera)
Ashley Reagan Dunster is the new principal of Holy Angels School in Arcadia. The Glendora resident is the youngest grandchild of President Ronald Reagan. (Photo by Job Rivera)

Ashley Reagan Dunster is not afraid to start things.

After all, the new principal at Holy Angels School in Arcadia began her new role mere months after getting married, beginning newlywed life as stepmom to three young boys, as well as moving to Glendora with a household that includes four dogs.

“I’m a big proponent that things happen for a reason, that there’s a bigger reason for things to happen,” Dunster said.

Her faith that all things work together for good has led the 40-year-old, a convert to Catholicism, to embrace her work.

Holy Angels School, with its 223 students from 165 families, and a staff of 25, is surrounded by high-performing schools, both public and private. So why would a family choose this Catholic school for their children?

It all boils down to something Dunster said we can’t sell: the strength of connection.

“Life is tough and Catholic schools are communities of faith you can’t get anywhere else,” she said. “You can’t sell that. You have to experience it, how everyone supports each other in a way I don’t think you can get it in a school without a faith component to it.”

Her own faith journey began at birth. Dunster is the youngest grandchild of President Ronald Reagan, born while he was in office, but raised far from Washington, D.C.

She and her brother Cameron, children of President Reagan’s eldest son Michael, were born and raised in Sherman Oaks.

Dunster attended Notre Dame High School in Sherman Oaks, then earned her bachelor’s degree in liberal studies from California Lutheran University in Thousand Oaks.

A short spell in the corporate world pushed her to pursue a master’s degree in education and a multi-subject teaching credential from Pepperdine University in Malibu.

Dunster jokes that “I’ve hit every religion” in her schooling, from attending a Presbyterian, then Baptist nursery and grade schools through to the Catholic Loyola Marymount University, where she earned her administrative certificate.

It was while she was teaching at St. Mel Catholic School in Woodland Hills that she felt called to conversion, completing the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults in her mid-20s, later serving as an Eucharistic minister (also known as a Communion steward) at St. Mel’s, as well as teaching there.

So powerful was her faith journey that her mother, her brother and his family have also joined the Catholic church. Her father Michael was raised Catholic.

A belief in the divine was always strong in her family anyway, Dunster said, but learning about Roman Catholicism at 25 was a wholly different experience as learning it from the cradle.

“Finding out why we believe what we believe takes on a richer depth,” she said.

In 2022, Dunster was selected for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles’ Onward Leaders Program, which mentors and trains new principals. She served a residency at St. Jane Frances de Chantal School in North Hollywood before taking the reins at Holy Angels.

“There’s no way I could do this job well if not for Onward Leaders,” Dunster said.

The Rev. Kevin Rettig, pastor at Holy Angels, said Dunster’s arrival is an exciting new chapter.

“With Ashley’s tremendous energy, magnetic personality and broad professional skills, we are confident that more and more families will be drawn into our already extraordinary Holy Angels community,” he said.

Cecilia Jativa McKim is president of the school’s Parent Teacher Association. She said Dunster has quickly impressed her with her leadership, relationship-building and communication skills.

“It’s clear to me that Mrs. Dunster cares about our children and our community,” McKim said. “Mrs. Dunster is approachable and easy to talk to. She’s incredibly passionate and here to continue building a faith-based community, creating a culture that is warm and welcoming to all families.”

That hopeful “let’s work on it together” attitude is something Dunster admires in her presidential grandfather. She was 5-years-old when he left office, and most of her memories of him come after that.

“He became very private (after),” Dunster said. “We used to go up to see them every Sunday, at their ranch in Santa Barbara or their house (in Bel Air).”

Dunster said she had two moments when she realized her grandfather’s place in history.

One time was when she started high school and classmates asked her if she was related to our 40th president. The other time was in 2004, after her grandfather passed away.

“We were leaving the mortuary to go to the (Reagan) library and seeing the 405 closed and thousands of people in the streets and the freeway, people standing outside their cars, I remember saying, ‘Dad, people really liked Grandpa.’”

Dunster stays bonded with her grandfather through her work with the Reagan Legacy Foundation, which serves the military and World War II veterans. She honors him and the rest of her family through the way she lives, she said.

“(I most admire) his ability to stay true to what he believed in, how he was able to stand firm regardless of what other people thought,” Dunster said.

He was able to connect with people and bridge gaps to show a level of respect and share ideas and communicate respectfully. That’s something that’s important to learn and something we need more than ever.”

It’s a principle she holds close in her new work, where Dunster said she’s found a lot of support from staff and families.

“Our teachers show up for the kids, they pay attention to them and love them, they work so hard,” she said. “We’re not just educating our students, we’re teaching them to be good humans. I love it, even the hard days.”

Anissa V. Rivera, columnist, “Mom’s the Word,” Pasadena Star-News, San Gabriel Valley Tribune, Whittier Daily News, Azusa Herald, Glendora Press and West Covina Highlander, San Dimas/La Verne Highlander. Southern California News Group, 181 W. Huntington Drive, Suite 209 Monrovia, CA 91016. 626-497-4869.

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