Leading the way

by Jill Ragar Esfeld
Special to The Leaven

Though she stands barely as tall as her youngest students, Immaculata High School’s new principal, Helen Schwinn, has earned a reputation as a no-nonsense disciplinarian and a powerhouse of accomplishment.

As administrator of this Leavenworth school with an enrollment of only 122, Schwinn wears many hats; she is the end of the line for almost every question and problem.

But she’s getting things done at record speed, and the enthusiasm she exudes when she talks about the future is infectious.

In short, Immaculata High School is going places.

And Schwinn is leading the way.

“She truly has a vision of where we want to see Immaculata in five years,” said Barbara Ferrara, director of the Leavenworth regional Catholic school system. “She’s come in and immediately gotten to work. And she just seems to be plowing right ahead.”

Schwinn came to her new position with an impressive 23-year background in education — the last 20 teaching biology at Lansing High School.

Though she received her master’s degree in administration more that 10 years ago, for a long time she found her teaching and family life challenging enough.

When she did finally decide to make the change, her children were the main impetus behind the school she chose to be a part of.

Two good reasons

Ten years ago, Schwinn gave birth to her and her husband Joe’s first child — daughter Sarah Jo. When she was just two years old, Sarah Jo developed leukemia.

Schwinn was pregnant with her second child at the time, and her son Zachary came into the world in possession of a miracle. At four months old, he saved his sister’s life through a bone-marrow transplant.

It’s not hard to imagine how precious these children are to Schwinn, or that they were the biggest force behind her decision to apply for the position of principal at Immaculata.

Now in fifth and third grade respectively at Xavier Elementary School in Leavenworth, Sarah Jo and Zachary are expected to attend Immaculata someday. When Schwinn saw an ad for the principal position, she felt God calling her to make a difference.

“I started thinking about my kids,” she said. “Rather than hoping [Immaculata] becomes what I want it to be for them, I thought I could be the one to change it.”

After 23 years in the public school system, Schwinn knew Immaculata’s advantages and felt she was uniquely qualified to envision how the high school could become more competitive in what it had to offer students.

“I want it to be the best,” she said. “I think that’s what all parents want for their kids, and I want it for everybody’s kids.”

Schwinn was hired last January. Since then, she said she has been motivated by a clear feeling of God’s hand at her back.

“Because of things that have happened and decisions I’ve made, I see God in this,” she said. “I just know God put me here because this is where he needs me to be. I see God in the people I’m with, and I sense a lot of hope and spirit in Immaculata.”

Friends in need

In the course of her transition, Schwinn found a kindred spirit in Ferrara, who had recently been promoted to her position from that of development director. The two spent many evenings together talking over staffing and budget issues.

“I was going through assisting in writing the budget as well, so it was a new experience for both of us,” recalled Ferrara. “I truly think we helped each other a lot. But because I’d been in the system a little longer, I could help her with some direction.”

Schwinn also got support from Immaculata secretary Melody Spencer, who has been with the school for 18 years, and from activities director Pat Moran, who started teaching at Immaculata in 1964 — the year Schwinn was born.

“Melody was there all summer, every single day, answering questions and being so cooperative,” Schwinn said. “And you’d think [Pat] would have been exhausted after May, but he was there every day, too, which was just amazing to me.”

Most of the faculty also came in throughout the summer to prepare for the new school year. Schwinn soon came to realize she had an outstanding group to work with at Immaculata.

“What I’ve noticed is whether they’re questioning me or agreeing with me, both are very vital and necessary,” she said. “And even if they disagree with me, I appreciate the fact that they’ve been very gentle about guiding me differently or making a suggestion.”

The right foot

Schwinn knew, starting the school year, that she had to make a first impression as a strong disciplinarian. So she made a point of enforcing the rules of the high school’s handbook — some of which had not been strictly enforced before. “These are not new rules,” Schwinn told the students.

“These are the rules.”

“It’s hard because it’s new to them,” she said. “I’ve taken away some of their freedom. But that freedom is not most conducive to their best education.”

After morning prayer, Schwinn writes notices for students who are tardy. Then she and dean of students Dan Schmidt tour each classroom, making certain things are running smoothly and students are abiding by the uniform code.

With each tour, Schwinn becomes more impressed with her faculty.

“I slip in and out of the classrooms and . . . there’s some very good teaching going on in every one of them,” she said.

In between classroom visits, Schwinn puts out fires — and there are many. Students, teachers, parents and staff all come to her with their problems and concerns.

When the second week of school began, she made out a to-do list. As her days speed by, she doesn’t get at much on the list. But it’s still an improvement, she said, because the first week she didn’t even have time to make the list out!

Amid her everyday responsibilities, Schwinn works to implement improvements to the school.

“I’ve created altered schedules [for special-event days] to try to maximize the minutes of every classroom without eliminating a class,” she explained.

“I’ve been ordering new textbooks” she added, “and I’m leading the way to get all of our dual-level courses, which used to be offered through Kansas City Kansas Community College, to be university credits through the University of Saint Mary.”

The future is bright

Ferrara has a unique view of Schwinn’s progress, because her son is a freshman at Immaculata. So far, she’s impressed.

“She’s been very well-received — [she’s] very respected by the parents and students alike,” she said. “She seems to have really won them all over. And from what I understand, she’s getting into the classrooms and interacting with the students and teachers.”

Schwinn’s goals are simple.

“I hope Immaculata keeps marching forward and attracting students,” she said. “I hope we’re able to develop young adults who will go out in that world and do good for others because of their talents and abilities that are God-given.”

If her goal is simple, Schwinn’s method is equally so.

She has to get to know her students better.

So when she has a rare free moment, Schwinn grabs a yearbook in her office and tries to put names to faces.

“I want to learn their names, go to their games, cheer for them,” she said. “I want to get to know them and let them know me as a person — let them know I’m here for them.”

She needs them to know, Schwinn concluded, “that I’m their number one fan.”

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