At 75, Immaculate Conception School still at Columbia Heights’ heart

| June 18, 2015 | 0 Comments
A new mural inside Immaculate Conception School in Columbia Heights depicts the sacramental life of a student and the parish history. The school commissioned the mural by artist Carole Bersin in honor of its 75th anniversary. Photo by John P. Ashmore

A new mural inside Immaculate Conception School in Columbia Heights depicts the sacramental life of a student and the parish history. The school commissioned the mural by artist Carole Bersin in honor of its 75th anniversary. Photo by John P. Ashmore

When the eighth-graders at Immaculate Conception School received their diplomas June 2, it was the 75th time commencement exercises had been held at what I.C. principal Jane Bona calls “a beacon” of Columbia Heights.

Over that three-quarters of a century, Immaculate Conception has educated some 6,397 young people and served as a vital part of the first-ring Minneapolis suburb, she said.

“Immaculate Conception is a focal point in the center of Columbia Heights,” Bona said. “It’s a beacon and an essential place for the community. You never drive by without seeing cars in the parking lot.”

I.C.’s values of faith, academics and service make the school a “community builder,” Bona added.

Immaculate Conception School has been celebrating its 75th anniversary throughout the school year. There was a breakfast for alumni in October, and at least 500 toured the school and relived grade school memories at the all-class reunion in March. For 55 of those 75 years, the school was served by the Sisters of St. Francis from Sylvania, Ohio.

Satisfied with the results

Jami Bridgeman sees the impact that an Immaculate Conception School education has had on her three children.

“Nine years here prepared them for high school with good study habits,” said Bridgeman, a longtime volunteer who now handles special projects for the parish and school. “They’ve grown into such cool people. The faith-based tradition was important, and they have a sense of always doing their best.”

Although the Bridgemans lived closer to another Catholic school, they’d heard good things about I.C. from a neighbor who was best friends of an I.C. teacher.

Although the Bridgeman children are now in their 20s, that teacher, Debbie Blake, is still at Immaculate Conception, teaching kindergarten and computer class.

During the growth years of Columbia Heights, Immaculate Conception School’s enrollment peaked at 1,223. In 1966 the graduating class numbered 120. In 2015, I.C. graduated only six.

As the suburban community’s demographics changed, the school was down to only 73 pupils in 2011. There are many elderly in the parish pews, Bona said, and the population of Columbia Heights is far more diverse than it had been in the past.

But there’s been a turnaround.

1940: First graduating class of Immaculate Conception School, Columbia Heights Courtesy Immaculate Conception School

1940: First graduating class of Immaculate Conception School, Columbia Heights Courtesy Immaculate Conception School

Moving forward again

Enrollment at the K-8 school was 137 this past term, with an increase of better than 10 percent.

“We’ve made a lot of progress,” principal Bona said, “and that says a lot about who we are as a community.”

The student body is fairly evenly split with one-third African, one-third Latino and one-third Caucasian.

“What’s exciting for me is that most are the children of immigrants,” Bona said, adding that African immigrants in particular seek a Catholic school education for their children.

“They want the experience they had from their homeland in Africa, where they attended Catholic schools. That tradition we have in the U.S. is an international tradition,” Bona said.

I.C. implemented the blended learning model throughout its curriculum in 2014. The partnership with the Alliance for Catholic Education at the University of Notre Dame has meant an increase in technology use in the classrooms and a great boost for teachers’ professional development, she said.

“I think what all this is saying is that we are a strong and sustainable school,” Bona added, “and we’re 75 years old, too.”

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