Principal has lifelong connection to Fort Smith school

Second-grader Isabella Kindrick (front row right), who was selected as Principal for the Day at Immaculate Conception School, assists Sharon Blentlinger (back row right) with a school tour for a visiting family from Kentucky.
Second-grader Isabella Kindrick (front row right), who was selected as Principal for the Day at Immaculate Conception School, assists Sharon Blentlinger (back row right) with a school tour for a visiting family from Kentucky.

FORT SMITH — Immaculate Conception School has called its principal, Sharon Blentlinger, “Mrs. B” for 30 years, but when Blentlinger first walked through the school’s doors, she was just “Sharon,” a petite first grader in a big school with lots of hallways, stairways and students.

In the intervening decades, Blentlinger has been involved with the school as a sibling, teacher, principal, mother and grandmother. She understands everyone who is a part of the school because she has walked a mile — or more — in each one’s shoes. This year she will mark 30 years as principal, the longest tenure of any Catholic school principal in the state.

The long list of family members who attended Immaculate Conception School includes three sisters, one brother, three daughters, three granddaughters and numerous nieces and nephews.

“My youngest granddaughter is a second grader here now,” Blentlinger said.

When Blentlinger received her bachelor’s degree in math and education from Arkansas Tech University, she began applying for teaching jobs in the Fort Smith public schools, but her mother had other ideas.

“Mom begged me to talk to Sister Monica (Ellerbush, RSM) at IC,” she said. “I was offered a teaching job and started out in fifth grade with my former teacher, Sister Giannetta (Kiniry, RSM), across the hall. I was her ‘partner teacher,’ but she always saw me as her former student. It wasn’t easy to make my own way, but I had all the respect for her in the world.”

“For several years, I’d been helping the principal, Sister Henry (Simoneoux, RSM), with administrative tasks,” Blentlinger said. “When Trinity Junior High School opened (in 1986), Sister Henry wanted to move up as Trinity’s principal. During that year’s spring festival, Msgr. (William) Galvin walked the grounds with me and said, ‘Sharon, I want you to be principal (of IC) next year. What do you think?’”

Blentlinger immediately began working on getting her master’s degree in administration at University of Arkansas, juggling work, school and her three daughters, who were 10, 6, and 18 months old. Her parents and husband pitched in to help her earn her degree.

During her tenure, Blentlinger has lived through numerous educational and cultural changes. She struggles to provide a high-quality education while keeping tuition affordable for parents.

“Our parents have sacrificed everything to send their children to Catholic schools,” she said. “Wants are secondary to needs.”

To help students succeed, the school offers a resource room and Title I programs and after-school care.

“We pay two tutors to offer homework help to after-school care students from 3:30 to 5 each day,” Blentlinger said.

Immaculate Conception has experienced great success with English Language Learner (ELL) students.

“Where we were once so European in background, we now have Vietnamese, Laotian and Latino students,” she said. “We embraced that change in our school and maintained our high standards. We are very proud that we have been able to keep high expectations with our changing demographic.”

In 2012, the school began a program, “The Leader in Me,” based on Stephen Covey’s “Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.”

“Teaching is not imparting information and facilitating how to learn,” Blentlinger said. “We need to focus on higher order thinking skills, analyzing, comparing and contrasting, building a strong foundation and fostering a love of learning and time-management skills.”

In 2006, Blentlinger was recognized as the outstanding educator of Region 10 by the National Catholic Education Association, but she is proudest of Immaculate Conception’s recognition as a National Blue Ribbon School in 2013, the first Catholic school and first Fort Smith elementary school in Arkansas to be honored.

Despite a nine-week leave of absence after suffering a pulmonary embolism in 2009, Blentlinger shows no signs of burnout.

“I just love what I do. I walk into kindergarten classes and get hugs and smiles and ‘I love you’s,’” she said. “I get to spend my life with the best part of God’s creation — children. I wish every child could experience Immaculate Conception School.”

Maryanne Meyerriecks

Maryanne Meyerriecks joined Arkansas Catholic in 2006 as the River Valley correspondent. She is a member of Christ the King Church in Fort Smith, a Benedictine oblate and volunteer at St. Scholastica Monastery.

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