About 50 students at Slidell's Pope John Paul II High School held up signs and called out words of support Monday morning to protest a decision to remove the Rev. Pat Wattigny as the Catholic school's president.

As parents looked on approvingly, the students assembled in the parking lot about 7:15 a.m., carrying signs that read, "If Father Pat Leaves We Leave" and "We deserve an explanation."

They then marched to the front of the school, where Wattigny greeted each student individually, prayed with them briefly and quietly urged them to go to class.

"I'm not going in till you do," one girl called out.

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Wattigny is the parish priest at St. Luke the Evangelist Catholic Church, which is near Pope John Paul II.

He had been appointed president of the school at the beginning of this academic year. He had previously served on the school's advisory board, according to the board's president, Sam Caruso Jr.

But on Friday, the school's principal, Nicole Alvarez, sent out a letter to parents, dated May 2, from RaeNell Houston, superintendent of schools for the Archdiocese of New Orleans.

The letter informed parents of a "change in leadership" for the 2018-19 school year," with Wattigny's position to be eliminated. Alvarez will remain as principal.

"With this change, Pope John Paul II will return to the governance model in place at all archdiocesan-owned high schools," the letter said.

Houston thanked Wattigny for his "year of service as we piloted a new and different leadership model here at Pope John Paul II."

In response to emailed questions, Houston said that all archdiocesan-owned schools follow the same leadership model, with one person serving as president and principal.

A year ago, she said, "We decided to pilot a new leadership model which included a part-time president to focus on Catholic identity, mission, community and alumni engagement and fundraising."

The model would free the school leader to focus on day-to-day school operations, she said.

"We always intended to revisit the 'new' leadership model after one year to determine its effectiveness and feasibility," Houston said. It did not prove any more effective and is being ended, she ended. 

Parents who were at the protest said many of them had written letters to the archdiocese to object to the decision.

Brian Cappy, who has had two children graduate from Pope John Paul II, one this year, and who still has a son in the 10th grade, said that Alvarez and Martha Mundine, a former principal who is now with the archdiocese, told him that Wattigny had done a wonderful job.

He said everyone was "blindsided" by the sudden announcement.

Cappy said that the school, established in 1980, has seen high turnover among teachers and administrators and has not seemed to be a priority for the archdiocese.

"The school has been going in the wrong direction for many years," Cappy said. "He was a bright shining star, and we thought the archdiocese had seen the light and were turning a corner on the school. They took it away from us."

Caruso said the advisory board does not get involved in personnel matters but focuses on working with whomever is in charge to carry out the school's strategic plan and improve the school.

The president-principal model was new, Caruso said. "I don't know if we were told it was a pilot," he said. 

His understanding of Wattigny's role was that he was to be an ambassador and advocate for the school who also would make sure it stayed focused on its faith-based mission, Caruso said.

Wattigny fulfilled that role well, Caruso said, frequently visiting Catholic elementary schools to talk up Pope John Paul II with faculty, administrators and students.

"I loved working with Father Pat," he said.

Monday was the final day of classes for the school before exams, and the day's events included the May crowning of the Virgin Mary as well as an awards assembly.

Cappy, who was at the protest and the later assembly, said Wattigny received a standing ovation.

He said the outpouring of student support was in response to the support Wattigny gave them all year. "He knew every kid's name, their families. He wrote on every report card, whether to say 'great job,' or 'work on this.' He was at every function, after school, before school, at football games," he said.

"To wear the collar and be a priest and represent the school and interact with the school was priceless," Cappy said.

Wattigny said he did not want to comment on his departure, except to say that while the situation is difficult, "Pope John Paul is going to get through it just fine."

Follow Sara Pagones on Twitter, @spagonesadvocat.