Cressy Epperly, the new principal of St. Jude of the Lake Catholic School in Mahtomedi, is well versed on what it takes to lead a private elementary school.

For 11 years, she was the principal at nearby St. Croix Catholic in Stillwater. Now, Epperly is leading by learning, taking over at St. Jude as the 60-year-old institution enters a new era as an authorized International Baccalaureate (IB) school.

"I am a lifelong learner, and I thought that if I had an opportunity to be part of an operating IB school that it would be exciting," Epperly, 65, said of the decision to return to the area. "I found it to be a challenge and an opportunity."

On July 1, she succeeded Jennifer Cassidy, who spearheaded the school's embrace of IB principles before leaving to take on a new challenge of her own as principal of Annunciation Catholic School in Minneapolis. It was an opportunity Cassidy felt she "could not pass by," she wrote in a June 6 letter to St. Jude families.

She had been among the people to recommend Epperly for the St. Jude job, said the Rev. Cory Rohlfing, the church's pastor. Cassidy and Epperly met more than 20 years ago as teachers at the former St. Matthew's School on St. Paul's West Side, Epperly said. Rohlfing said that he was "thrilled" to learn that Epperly had 30 years of experience in Catholic schools. That should make for a smooth transition, he said.

"She has a love of children and a love of Catholic education," Rohlfing said. "And she creates a hospitable atmosphere for parents."

St. Jude, a K-8 school, has seen enrollment drop from 300-plus kids about seven years ago to about 112 students in the 2012-13 school year. Rohlfing said that numbers could be down again in 2013-14, but that some families may apply late in the summer, as occurred last year. "Enrollment is always a concern," he said.

St. Jude is in an area with strong public schools, he and others noted, and it has sought to differentiate itself from other private options by investing in new technology and pursuing official IB status for its K-5 program. Even before its IB accreditation, St. Jude had trained teachers and revised its curriculum to advance a style of learning to help students build upon and retain youthful curiosity.

Lessons still are taught, but children are encouraged to seek out answers on their own and to act on what they know and ask questions.

A visit to a third-grade classroom this year found students working on PowerPoint presentations about nature and using skills across multiple disciplines. Teacher Lynette Loch said then that students were more engaged in learning.

Epperly said this month that she expected all of St. Jude's teachers to return this fall.

In 2012-13, Epperly was principal of St. Rose of Lima school in Roseville, but told the pastor about midyear that she would not return, she said. She was nearing completion of her doctoral studies and was thinking about doing more work as an adjunct professor at St. Catherine University.

But she also was on the lookout for a good opportunity, and being familiar with the workings of the six Catholic schools in the Washington County area, she figured that St. Jude was an excellent fit. She also said it is a nice drive from the home she and her husband share in West St. Paul. They raised two children and now are empty-nesters.

On July 28, St. Jude is planning welcome receptions for Epperly in the school cafeteria after the 9 a.m. and 11 a.m. masses.

The school also plans to celebrate its designation as an IB school, Rohlfing said. The pastor has put Epperly in charge of that celebration, which should be held this month.