FORT SMITH — When Immaculate Conception School’s principal, Sharon Blentlinger, retires in May, she will have a lifetime of experience to share with her successor. Blentlinger spent 53 years in the school — eight as an elementary student, eight as a fifth-grade teacher and 37 as its principal.
“All of my experience as a student and educator has been in Catholic schools, except for college,” said Blentlinger, who holds a master’s degree in educational administration from the University of Arkansas.
Her three daughters and three granddaughters are all Immaculate Conception graduates, and she hopes her newest granddaughter, born in December, will follow the family tradition.
In an interview with Arkansas Catholic in 2016, she said, “I wish every child could attend Immaculate Conception School.”
Pastor Father John Antony said he would miss Blentlinger, whose passion for Catholic education equaled his own.
“For the past 45 years, Sharon has displayed deep Catholic faith, true love and tenderness for all children, an eager partnership with parents and a cheerful outreach and engagement with the community. … No matter what the challenge, Sharon always sees an opportunity to make our school live up to its motto: ‘A Commitment to Christ … A Commitment to Excellence.’”
Blentlinger had initially planned to retire in 2020, but the COVID pandemic caused her to reconsider.
“I always tell people I was going to retire when my youngest granddaughter Claire graduated from sixth grade, and she’s now in Northside (High School), because I wanted to see our school, staff, students and families through that time,” she said.
School was conducted online from March through May 2020 and reopened with safety procedures and an online option in August 2020.
She successfully navigated other challenges in her years as principal. She struggled to provide a high-quality education while keeping affordable tuition for parents. She introduced Title I classes, resource rooms for learning-disabled children and afterschool care. As the school welcomed children from Vietnam, Laos, Mexico, Central America and other countries, she established an English Language Learner program. She helped the school acquire and assimilate educational technology.
“We were fortunate to have formed a small technology committee in 1996,” Blentlinger said. “We saw technology coming, and through a grant, were able to spend a week at the University of Dayton learning to write a five-year strategic technology plan. Since then we have been very proactive to stay current with all our resources.”
Her staff is a mix of veteran teachers and newer teachers and she has organized several Professional Learning Communities for curriculum and professional development. This shared leadership approach has allowed the teachers to plan for the future. They are currently working on seeing what children need to learn at every grade level and how to narrow learning gaps. Analyzing test statistics, they decided to focus on reading and bringing the components of literacy — reading, phonics and spelling — together.
“We are doing a five-year overhaul of our curriculum,” Blentlinger said.
“Sharon helped navigate the Catholic school response to the grade restructuring of public school that required the loss of our beloved sixth grade. And she has been working tirelessly to implement the ground-breaking legislation called the LEARNS Act,” Father Antony said.
One of Blentlinger’s proudest accomplishments was establishing the preschool in 2007. The preschool center sits across the street from the elementary school and opened a new playground recently. It figures prominently in her retirement hopes and dreams.
“Right now, I’m the director of elementary and preschools,” she said. “I’m hoping (this fall) to move into an office across the street part-time as preschool director and really work on giving them more of my time and energy and keep connected with children and families.”
The parish plans to celebrate her retirement as elementary school principal June 4 with an open house reception following Sunday Masses. Blentlinger’s daughter and son-in-law booked a family Alaskan cruise a few weeks after that, to give her a well-deserved vacation.
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