Mentor principals have played a critical role in the success of the Latino Enrollment Institute (LEI) since the program’s inception in 2012. The experience, accountability, and personal attention that these leaders provide has been a defining characteristic of the LEI, helping Catholic school principals—and their teams— institute lasting changes.
After schools attend the LEI summer conference, mentor principals maintain regular contact with the 4-6 school leaders in their group through monthly video conference calls. These conversations, which focus on various themes related to Latino outreach, recruitment, and enrollment, are an opportunity for school leaders to learn from one another and receive real-time consultation and feedback from their mentor on some of the things that they’re doing in their school.
The commitment of our LEI mentors, most of whom are still active Catholic school principals themselves, is truly the engine that drives the LEI. These Mentor Spotlight pieces are intended to be a fun way to help you get to know these incredible school leaders—both professionally and personally—who dedicate so much of their lives to this mission.
This month, we highlight Jeanne Von Feldt, who currently serves as the principal of All Saints Catholic School in Davenport, Iowa. We initially discovered the great work that Jeanne was doing when researching schools that had been successful in serving Latino students and families. We invited her to attend the LEI summer conference in 2016 as a member of cohort 5 and it didn't take long for us to realize why All Saints was a thriving and diverse Catholic school community under her leadership. Jeanne's infectious personality, demonstrated success at the school level, and her heart for this mission, made her the perfect addition to our team of LEI mentors, which she joined in 2017. Since then, Jeanne has helped mentor more than 20 Catholic schools looking to similarly embrace the growing Latino population in their communities and grow enrollment.
Read the interview with Jeanne Von Feldt below.
Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?
I grew up in a very Irish Catholic Family and there was never any question as to whether or not we would attend Catholic Schools. I am the oldest of five children and all five of us have degrees in education. We didn’t have much money, but we didn’t even realize it as we were a very happy and close-knit family. I, to this day, am extremely close to all of my family.
I remember running for Student Council President in High School and my opponents were all boys, so I was hesitant. My father said, “Jeanne, you can do anything you want as we are all the same. Why wouldn’t you want to run for this election? You are as good as anyone else.” That really remained with me as I continued to also be very involved in student government roles in college.
I received a Bachelor’s Degree in Elementary Education from Marycrest College in Davenport, Iowa, and I was an elementary teacher and then an alternative education teacher for many years. Twenty years ago I received my Masters in Education from Marian College in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, so all of my education has been with Catholic Schools.
I was married to Ed Von Feldt for 52 super years! He passed away a year ago very unexpectedly to Pulmonary Fibrosis. He loved my work with the Latino Enrollment Institute and came to Notre Dame with me as my grant writer when I first became involved with the LEI. We have two children, Katie and Patrick, and four grandchildren, who live eight miles apart in Chicago. These beautiful grandchildren fill me with so much joy!
I am also a huge Iowa Hawkeye fan. I remember growing up and going to many Iowa football games on Saturdays and I honestly thought that everyone did that! My Dad, of course, working for the University of Iowa, always wanted the Hawkeyes to win in every sport. I remember the only opponent they secretly cheered for against the Hawkeyes was Notre Dame!
How have you been moved and inspired by the work of the LEI?
I have been amazed and truly blessed to be involved with the LEI. The commitment and dedication of the administrators and teachers that I have met have truly moved me. Whether it be a very small school or a huge school, everyone feels the same about Catholic education and bringing more Latino children to their school. I feel so privileged to work with such great leaders at the LEI and also to work with wonderful educational leaders and administrators across the United States. I learn so much from them!
What advice do you have for school leaders hoping to invite and welcome more Latino families into their schools?
I would say to any school leader that wants to invite and welcome more Latino students to their school is to always smile - as that really is a universal language! A smile denotes a sense of welcome, a sense of appreciation for the person in front of you, and a sense of invitation. My Spanish is very limited, but I do try and my Hispanic families really chuckle with me as they know that I am trying! I attend mass in Spanish and attend many Hispanic community celebrations, but I have really found that showing kindness and warmth to everyone I meet is the best welcome I can give anyone.
Describe two ways All Saints Catholic School Celebrates culture and language.
We host a Culture Fair every two years, and the goal of the fair is to raise individual student awareness about their own culture, the culture of their family, and to reflect on how that culture contributes to their individuality. Each student has a poster board with pictures and explanations about their heritage. The students can also bring in food, clothing, and music, or do a performance that reflects their heritage. We try to educate or share individual cultures with the greater school community in hopes of creating an understanding of the similarities and differences amongst cultures of the world. Our last Culture Fair happened before the pandemic and the crowd was huge, especially around the food areas and the dance performances!
Tell us about a key event that involves the community.
We are very proud of our Veteran Day’s Celebration at All Saints Catholic School. We invite 150 veterans as well as community leaders to attend a special program performed for them by all of our students. Our lunch staff make a lunch complete with homemade pies and all enjoy it! We are fortunate to have the Rock Island Arsenal just a few miles away from us, and some of their personnel come in their uniforms along with other veterans of all ages and visit with our students in their classrooms. Our middle school chorus is always asked to sing the national anthem at the September 11th gathering. We have a remembrance ceremony at the Arsenal as well. We have been recognized by the Catholic Teacher Magazine for our community service with the veterans and we are extremely proud of this.
I would say to any school leader that wants to invite and welcome more Latino students to their school is to always smile - as that really is a universal language! A smile denotes a sense of welcome, a sense of appreciation for the person in front of you, and a sense of invitation.
What is a source of hope for you in this role at All Saints?
Our enrollment at All Saints has really increased. Ten years ago, this school was struggling and there were rumors that it might close when I first arrived. The entire staff really worked together to market this incredible school. My late husband wrote grants for us and our technology really improved (with the help of a great technology director). We even have a virtual science reality lab in our school! Our parents are our best ambassadors, and as of last year, we were the largest Catholic elementary school in the Davenport Diocese and certainly the most diverse. We have large groups of Hispanic, Vietnamese, African American, and Caucasian students in our school, and I couldn’t be happier walking in the richness of diversity!
I just love talking and bragging about All Saints Catholic School and the great educational and religious opportunities that we offer our students. I enjoy giving tours to prospective parents, and when they sign up to enroll their child or children, I am thrilled. I have been known to recruit families when I am having dinner in a restaurant or even on an elevator!
Before becoming a principal, what was the most unusual or interesting job you’ve ever had?
I helped open up a charter school in Wisconsin as the lead teacher. At this particular school, some of our students would come to our school during the day and then they would return to jail in the evenings. It was a very difficult job, but at the same time very rewarding when some of these students received their high school diplomas.
Also, at one time I was a realtor and listed and sold houses. Believe me, being in Catholic education is so much better!
Who is someone who has been a hero to you, and why are you choosing this person?
My father, Ed O’Brien, is definitely my hero. He had an 8th grade education and then had to quit school to work on his family’s farm. Eventually he became the equipment manager at the University of Iowa where he met athletes from all over the country and, believe it or not, these young men were extremely homesick. He became their “dad” and touched their lives with his warmth, kindness, and great sense of humor. Eventually he became an “Honorary Iowa Letterman” and was presented with this award in front of 60,000 people at an Iowa football game. That was one of my proudest moments as his daughter.
If you could meet anyone in the world, living or deceased, who would it be and why?
In 1978, I was able to meet and have dinner at a banquet with Jesse Owens because of my husband’s work with the Wisconsin Administrators Association. He was a very kind and gentle person and I would so love to see him again as I now know so much more about him. When he was at Ohio State he had to live off campus with other African–American athletes and when he traveled with the team, he was only allowed to eat at black-only restaurants and stay at black-only hotels. He is most known for winning four gold medals at the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin. These victories were a blow to Hitler as he wanted to use the Games to demonstrate Aryan superiority. Rather than protest “Hitler’s Games,” Owens used his position in the spotlight to display greatness and compassion. But he wasn’t treated like a huge superstar when he came back to America.
I was amazed that after his success at the Olympics there was a parade and reception for him. He had to ride the freight elevator at the Waldorf-Astoria to get to the reception. After that he worked at a dry cleaners and as a gas station attendant to earn a living. Eventually after many struggles he became a US goodwill ambassador and traveled the world. What an inspiring man!
What makes you laugh the most?
I have two Irish brothers who are just characters and I love to hear their stories about some of their adventures growing up! I love being with my two children and hearing about their families and my granddaughters.
When you were a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?
I grew up in an era when a woman could only be a nurse, a teacher, or a secretary. Look how far we have come! Fifteen years ago, a little girl tugged at my skirt and said, “I didn’t know that girls could be principals.” I shall never forget that moment. I am so very happy that my daughter and my four granddaughters can aspire to do what they would like to do with hard work! I always tell them to dream big!
More about Jeanne Von Feldt...
Jeanne Von Feldt is in her eleventh year as principal of All Saints Catholic School in Davenport, Iowa. All Saints is a PreK-8 school with an enrollment of 465 students. Since 2011, the school’s Hispanic population has grown from 35 students to 135 students. Prior to being an administrator at All Saints, she was an associate principal at Regina Elementary School in Iowa City, Iowa. Before that, she was a principal in Merrill, Wisconsin, where she was also the District Administrator for Integrating Technology Standards, the District Coordinator of the English Language Learner Program, the District Gifted and Talented Coordinator, and was president of the Administrative Leadership Team. Before becoming an administrator, Jeanne helped to open up a charter high school in Wisconsin Rapids, Wisconsin, where she was the lead teacher. She also served as an elementary teacher in the Milwaukee Public School System. All Saints Catholic School has received two national awards from Catholic Teacher Magazine in Technology Innovation and Total Community Involvement including Fundraising. Jeanne received her Master’s Degree in Educational Leadership from Marian University, and a B.S. in Elementary Education from Marycrest College in Davenport, Iowa.
If you're interested in learning how to recruit, enroll, and better serve Latino children in your school, as well as work with an incredible mentor like Jeanne Von Feldt, consider joining the LEI!