Five years ago, enrollment at Immaculate Conception School in the first-ring suburb of Columbia Heights was at a record low, and its future was unclear. Veteran educator and Immaculate Conception Catholic Church parishioner Jane Bona joined a committee to help evaluate the viability of the school and walked away with a new title – principal.
“I always knew I wanted to return to Catholic education,” said Bona, who went to Catholic grade school at St. Charles Borromeo in nearby St. Anthony. “But I didn’t realize that God’s plan was to call me right back to my own parish.”
Through Bona’s faith-filled guidance and passionate push for new students, enrollment is up 84 percent, and 147 students walk through the doors of Immaculate Conception each day with an image of the Blessed Virgin Mary overhead.
The spirit of this small but mighty school has been renewed thanks to Bona, who was recently honored with the 2016 National Catholic Educational Association “Lead. Learn. Proclaim.” award, which recognizes excellence and distinguished service in Catholic school education. Bona was selected as a winner along with only 31 other Catholic school principals, teachers, staff and priests nationwide. She will accept her award in March at the annual NCEA convention in San Diego.
Gary Wilmer, associate director for governance and human resources in the archdiocesan Office for the Mission of Catholic Education, was a part of the committee who selected Bona as the official candidate of the Archdiocese nominated by the Office for the Mission of Catholic Education.
“This is really a total vocation for Jane,” Wilmer said. “She’s very inclusive in wanting to involve the entire community, and that’s really what turned Immaculate Conception around.”
Bona speaks with pride and emotion about her time at Immaculate Conception, a place where she says everyone knows everyone’s name. Individual prayer requests are highlighted in her newsletter, and the staff of 15 works to meet the needs of each individual student. In recommending her for the award, teachers described her as a hands-on leader known for her collaborative approach and strong listening skills. Most important, they noted, is she makes decisions based on what’s best for the students who sit in the desks each school day.
Immaculate Conception Catholic School recently implemented a blended learning program through a partnership with the University of Notre Dame’s Alliance for Catholic Education that integrates online learning with traditional teacher-led instruction to personalize the learning experience for each child. They’ve also embarked on a “beautification” — improving the outside of the building to be more welcoming, adding more Catholic art in the hallways, and advertising on a billboard at the intersection of nearby Interstate 694 and Central Avenue.
“Jane believes that a strong Catholic school needs to tell its story to current families, parish members, alumni, community stakeholders and the archdiocesan community, and she is always looking for ways to do that,” said Father John Mitchell, pastor at Immaculate Conception.
Having celebrated its 75th anniversary in 2015, Bona said there’s room to grow, and she plans to focus on answering the evolving needs of students, fostering professional growth and development for the staff and continuing with their marketing ideas, all while staying true to their Catholic identity. Mark 9:23, “All things are possible for one who believes,” commonly serves as the staff’s unofficial mantra for encouragement when faced with challenges.
Bona said she’s humbled and grateful for the NCEA recognition, one she assures belongs to the entire school community.
“It’s really a reflection of the whole community and the spirit of Immaculate Conception,” Bona said. “Immaculate Conception is a beacon of light in this area and the community that we’re in.”