Beautiful stained glass windows and a well-behaved daughter in church brought Jane Hileman to membership at St. Helena in Minneapolis.
That was in 1988. Now, exactly 25 years later, she is putting both the parish and school on the map as one of 12 principals in the nation to be honored with a Distinguished Principal Award from the National Catholic Educational Association.
She will receive the award in April at the NCEA national convention in Houston, Texas.
“We always talk about this [St. Helena School] as being our best-kept secret,” said Hileman, 56, who became an English teacher at the school in the fall of 1995, with all three of her daughters enrolled, then became principal three years later.
“Even though it’s only a stone’s throw from the light rail [in south Minneapolis], nobody knows about it.”
When Hileman and her husband Jim, now married 30 years, moved to Minneapolis, they didn’t know about St. Helena either, though they only lived a short distance away. When a neighbor told them about it, they decided to come to Sunday Mass. They were nervous, however, because one of their daughters always brought a full tank of energy to every liturgy.
So, Jane carefully chose a strategy to help manage the high-octane child.
“We sat in the back,” she said. “The stained glass at St. Helena’s is absolutely gorgeous. The sun was coming through, she had all this color from the stained glass on her face and behaved beautifully, so I thought that was a sign from God that we had found the right place.”
Now, it is Jane who convinces many parents that the school is the right place for their children. Although enrollment is not as high as she would like, due to a tough economy and competition from public charter schools that are free of charge, it has remained steady the last few years. In fact, the current number, 165, is exactly the same as it was when she arrived.
That’s comforting, especially as some other Catholic schools have struggled.
“That’s just not going to happen to St. Helena,” she says, almost defiantly. “In spite of the tough times that are going on right now, our fundraising has been great. We made $43,000 in the marathon [for nonpublic education]. That’s over 240 bucks per kid in this school.”
Here’s maybe the best part, financially — neither the parish nor the school has debt. Pride in that simple fact runs deep.
“I’m not going to go into debt running this place,” Hileman insists. “If we have to fund raise more, we will.”
How does she do it? The answer is simple – plenty of what she calls elbow grease. It’s all part of being a “hands-on principal.”
“A lot of what I do is physical labor around this place,” she said. “It’s a labor of love. I’m not afraid to paint a wall, I’m not afraid to do many other things that brighten this place.”
The thing she dislikes the most about her job is sitting in her office attending her laptop. In her view, that is an annoyance that takes her away from what she loves most — the kids.
“When we’re meeting on the first day of school, she has the enthusiasm of waiting for [students] to come back,” said first-grade teacher Sue Olive, who started teaching at the school in 1972 and is the longest-tenured of St. Helena’s 13 teachers.
“It [school] has become her family, in many ways. She knows everybody’s name.”
And, there are a few names she likely never will forget, even though they no longer attend the school. One of them is Fred Tilbury, who was diagnosed with inoperable brain cancer as a kindergartner and died several years later. The school had a benefit for him when he was in first grade, called Shave Heads for Fred. At the time, Hileman said it was the first time she had dealt with a terminally ill student during her career in education.
Another memorable student is Mary Streiff, who graduated from the school and went on to the Academy of Holy Angels in Richfield. She graduated from the school last spring and now attends the University of Minnesota.
Hileman took a practical interest in Streiff during her eighth-grade year, when family troubles led to her staying elsewhere for a while. The student’s troubles were visible, and Hileman decided to intervene by taking her to and from school for two straight months.
“Mary’s just a very gifted kid who wasn’t dealt the best hand in life,” Hileman said. “Mary was pretty quiet by nature and especially at this point. We talked a lot about literature. And, being an English teacher, I absolutely loved doing that. We talked about where she was in her book and how far she had gotten. She was always reading a great classic, and usually one that I had read.”
Hileman still finds her way into the classroom, even as she scours the hallways wearing the many hats of a principal whose administrative staff consists of one secretary.
One of her favorite jobs is helping kids who are struggling with their classwork. Seeing Hileman sitting at a table reading books with kids brings a smile to the face of long-time librarian Nancy Rivers — plus a few memories.
Rivers has two children who were taught by Hileman, including one who was in the same grade as one of Hileman’s daughters. In fact, Rivers said her daughter Megan has a love of literature today because of her grade school English teacher at St. Helena.
“Megan just adored her and learned a lot,”?Rivers said. “I could see how much she [Hileman] loved teaching, how much she loved the kids and how she wanted the kids to succeed. She would do whatever she needed so that the kids would have success.”
Hileman, it seems, has a way of energizing and rallying people around her and the school. Even her own husband, Jim, finds himself pushing a broom or swishing a paint brush in the halls and classrooms of St. Helena. A retired project manager for McDonald’s fast food restaurants, he now takes orders from his wife at school every day.
But the huge smile she often flashes indicates he is not at all under tyrannical leadership. In fact, during their long weekends at the cabin during the summer, she happily lets him fish while she hunches over her laptop getting ready for the upcoming school year.
She is reluctant to accept high praise for her work, but will eagerly do so for the benefits it will bring to the school.
“I think it’s funny that I even got this award because I have tunnel vision,” she said. “I’m St. Helena. I love this place. This is why I’m here. I didn’t want to be a principal, so when I’m done being a principal, I’m not looking for any other place to be a principal. When I’m done here, I’m done.”
Hileman is the first NCEA Distinguished Principal Award recipient from St. Helena School and the 10th principal from the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis to receive the honor.