COLUMBIA — Barbara Cole, principal of St. John Neumann School, won the Dr. Robert J. Kealey Distinguished Principal Award for the South Atlantic region.
Cole found out about the honor during a surprise ceremony held Dec. 15 at the school. Sister Julia Hutchinson, superintendent of education for the Diocese of Charleston, presented it in front of Cole’s husband Nick, her mother Kay Ryback, the entire student body, staff and other school principals.
The award is given annually by the National Catholic Educational Association to 12 Catholic school principals from around the nation who show distinguished achievement in leadership, and promote Catholic values and academic excellence.
Sister Julia, a Sister of Notre Dame, read a congratulatory letter from Msgr. Martin T. Laughlin, diocesan administrator.
“Your strong educational leadership is evidenced throughout St. John Neumann … you not only touch hearts and minds in your community, but reach out to Catholic schools throughout the diocese,” he wrote.
Cole knew Sister Julia had nominated her for the award because she filled out an application packet, but the win was a surprise.
“She is a wonderful example of what can happen within a school and a diocese when a talented woman spreads her gifts in this ministry of Catholic education,” Sister Julia said.
Cole told the crowd that she sees her work as a special gift from God.
“By joining with you here at the school in prayer every day, I know how blessed I am,” she said. “This shows what can happen if you surround yourself with wonderful people. This is a dream school, and I believe God made it happen for me to be here. You challenge me every day to be a better person.”
Assistant principal Gayle Mitchiner said Cole’s attention to every student at the school is part of what earned her the award. She said the principal regularly writes notes to students about their accomplishments, and also writes notes to staff members praising them for their work and encouraging them to pursue achievements.
“It’s a privilege and an honor to speak for the group of staff who have benefited from your leadership,” Mitchiner said.
Cole became principal at St. John Neumann in 2000. Previously, she was principal of St. Anthony School in Florence for two years. She is originally from Illinois, and worked for several years in the school system of the Diocese of Peoria.
“This honor really shows the hard work that everybody does here,” Cole said afterward. “I know this is a principal’s award, but to me I wouldn’t have earned it without the faculty, the staff, the parents and the children here. It’s an honor we’ve all won.”
Cole said 2008 has been a banner year for the school, located off Polo Road. St. John Neumann was named a 2008 National Blue Ribbon School, the only one in the state to win this year. St. John also received an Inviting Schools Fidelity Award from the International Alliance for Invitational Education, and a certificate of accreditation by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools.
“This has just been an unbelievable year,” Cole said.
She will receive her award at the NCEA national convention in Anaheim, Calif., in April. She will also become one of three principals nominated for the U.S. Department of Education’s National Distinguished Principal Program in the private school division.