Blentlinger’s roots run deep at Immaculate Conception

by The City Wire staff ([email protected]) 308 views 

Sharon Blentlinger is pretty much a rock star in the world of parochial schools. She has been at the helm of Immaculate Conception Elementary School's leadership for 27 years, after serving as a teacher there for nearly a decade.

Under her guidance, the school has expanded its programs, earned top scores on annual standardized tests, and most recently, received national recognition as one of the highest-achieving schools in the country. Blentlinger's devotion to her beloved school began at an early age and has continued throughout her career, helping establish Immaculate Conception as one of the most-respected elementary institutions in the nation.

Blentlinger's involvement with Immaculate Conception stems back long before her service began there more than 35 years ago. The school has been part of her life since she was a student at the school. Blentlinger attended IC as a child, along with her four siblings. She walked the same halls as her students do today and sat in the same classrooms in which she later taught and now oversees. She graduated from St. Anne's Academy, a member of the final senior class of Fort Smith's former Catholic high school.

After marrying her husband Keith in 1973 and starting her family, Blentlinger began her career as an educator at IC in 1978. For eight years, she taught middle-level math to fifth and sixth graders, and upper-level algebra. She was appointed principal in 1986.

Affectionately known as "Mrs. B" to her students, Blentlinger has seen the school thrive and evolve under her headship. Prior to the of establishment of Fort Smith's Trinity Junior High School in 1986, IC housed junior high grades 7-9. The school transitioned to a K-6 elementary-only campus after the junior high opened. Blentlinger supervised the addition of a preschool program in 2007, which now provides care for children beginning at 18 months of age.

Her goal is to provide an environment that promotes academic excellence, stewardship, and spirituality.

She also works to celebrate the school's rich history. Founded in 1930 as a ministry of Immaculate Conception Church, the school now enrolls more than 300 children and includes more than 40 staff members. For years, Immaculate Conception students have maintained consistently high scores on state and national standardized tests. The school also boasts top-notch fine arts program and a wide-array of extra-curricular activities.

"I feel that less and less emphasis is being placed on the creative nowadays," said Blentlinger. "We try to stress the importance of both the academics and the arts here at IC. We have a phenomenal art program that includes shows featuring work done by our very talented students."

Such credentials have helped solidify the school's stellar reputation as a quality provider of elementary education in the area. In September, the U.S. Department of Education named Immaculate Conception a 2013 National Blue Ribbon School. IC is the first elementary school in Fort Smith to earn the prestigious distinction and is the only Catholic school in the entire state to hold the title.

“The National Blue Ribbon Schools Program recognizes public and non-public elementary, middle, and high schools where students achieve at very high levels and/or where the achievement gap in narrowing,” according to the Arkansas Department of Education. “The Program sets a standard of excellence for all schools striving for the highest level of achievement. The National Blue Ribbon Schools Program is part of a larger U. S. Department of Education effort to identify and disseminate knowledge about best school leadership and teaching practices.”

Immaculate Conception received the “Exemplary High Performing” designation, meaning its reading/English language arts and mathematics test scores ranked among the top 15% in the state. During the application process, IC also had to highlight other achievement indicators, such as community collaborations and cooperative efforts with other schools.

Blentlinger credits her faculty and staff for the school's success and for the continued record of student achievement.

"Forty seven percent of our instructional staff hold advanced degrees," noted Blentlinger. "I am also proud of the longevity of our staff."

I.C. boasts an average staff retention rate of 17 years, providing a solid base of experienced teachers who also share their principal's commitment to the school.

Making the accomplishment even more notable is that it was the first time that IC had applied to be considered for Blue Ribbon status. Blentlinger was ecstatic to learn in May that the school had been selected for the honor, but admittedly struggled to keep it a secret for nearly four months.

"It was definitely a hard secret to keep,"  acknowledged Blentlinger. "But it has been fun educating our students and the community about what we did to earn this and about what it means."

On Wednesday (Nov. 19), Blentlinger accepted the Blue Ribbon Award for Immaculate Conception at a special ceremony hosted by the U.S. Department of Education in Washington, D.C. Arne Duncan, U.S. Secretary of Education, spoke at the private ceremony which honored I.C. and the other 285 schools named as 2013 Blue Ribbon recipients. Blentlinger was accompanied by Ann Cannon, the IC director of curriculum and professional development; Father Greg Luyet, IC pastor; and Vernell Bowen, Diocese of Little Rock Superintendent.

The long-time principal is proud of her school's recent achievement, but quickly notes that is wasn't just her current students and staff that helped I.C. reach such status.

"Immaculate Conception has lots of legacy," Blentlinger said. "I am seeing second and third generations of families now walking our halls. We have stressed that it is not just the 2012 students and families who have earned this award, but also the generations of families before us that built this school and made it what it is today."

Blentlinger's impact is evident by much more than IC receiving the Blue Ribbon recognition. Former students and other school leaders say she is a big reason why many families choose to send their children to the school. Former students and parents are quick to sing her praises.

"She’s been a part of the school for 35 plus years to the point that her name has become synonymous with Immaculate Conception School," said Philip Doss, former IC student, parent and School Board President. "It has become part of who she is as a person. She is very passionate about it and loves every child there as if they were her own. She has seen a lot of changes during that time and has always remained steadfast in her commitment to the students."

Betsy Schulte Porta is another example of how the IC tradition passes from one generation to the next. As a child, she and her siblings attended IC, where their mother, Susan, has also taught for the last 28 years.

Upon returning to Fort Smith with her husband Gabe, they enrolled their three boys in Immaculate Conception. Andrew is in first grade, Caleb is a member of the PreK-4 class, and their youngest, Samuel, attends the 18-month program.

"IC is like home to us," Porta said. "I grew up here and am proud to have my boys attend here now. Mrs. B means a great deal to us and she has done so much for the school. She and IC are such blessings to my entire family."

The IC student tradition is also alive and well in the Blentlinger family, with enrollment now extending into the third generation. All three Blentlinger daughters, Kerri, Kelli, and Tara, attended IC as children. Several of Blentlinger's grandchildren are either enrolled at IC or previously attended before advancing to Trinity Junior High School.

"IC School is my love and my passion. It has been my blessing to be the leader of our school for many years," said Blentlinger. "My vision has always been for our school to be a place of love and joy where families would enter into a partnership of spiritual and academic growth for children with school staff thereby allowing all children to realize their God-given talents."