With her prayer book in her purse, St. Irene Catholic School Principal Maureen White thought she was headed to church Tuesday to join students for the Stations of the Cross.
So she naturally seemed a little confused when she spotted the red balloons inside the Warrenville church and signs reading, "You are a rock star" and "You are our hero."
The school's roughly 150 students and dozens of colleagues and parents filled the pews for a surprise ceremony to announce White had won the Bishop Roger L. Kaffer Outstanding Principal of the Year Award.
Officials from Lewis University's College of Education presented the award, which honors principals in the Diocese of Joliet who demonstrate instructional leadership and promote Catholic ideals and service. White is the fourth recipient of the award inspired by the late Kaffer, who was principal of Providence Catholic High School in New Lenox.
"This is not an award for me. This is an award for you," White told students. "You are my inspiration. You give me scathingly brilliant ideas to make it harder for you at school. You give me countless ideas for service projects; so many that I wish we could do them all."
Teachers praised White's aggressive leadership in strengthening curriculum, expanding extracurricular offerings and adding technology. She also has shepherded the school with a take-charge attitude through unexpected challenges, they say.
Staff members have been recognizing her commitment to the intimate school even before the formal award, hosting a "Maureen Appreciation Day" on the first Tuesday of every month to mark her 20th year at St. Irene -- a large portion of the school's 60th anniversary celebration. White was a junior high language arts teacher before serving as the principal for the past 12 years.
"You have a defined gift for fostering and empowering a purpose-filled faculty while providing strong direction and accountability," Assistant Principal Barbara Houston said during the ceremony.
Houston said White has challenged faculty by implementing new standards and other pilot programs.
"You had a way of making us all reach a higher level," Houston said.
Houston partnered with the school's administrative assistant, Julie Duquette, to nominate White. Duquette, whose four sons were students of White when she was a language arts teacher, highlighted White's response to emergencies. When a flood swamped the school's lower level, the principal hunted for volunteers to clean up and preserve what school equipment could be saved.
Duquette says White is devoted to service projects year-round, including a drive for the food pantry at St. Irene Church. A "penny war" between two student teams, named after two students at the school who have diabetes, raised money for the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation.
After the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, a resident wanted to send paper angels commemorating the victims that eventually decorated a Christmas tree at ground zero in New York. White decided to expand the program by designating St. Irene as "angel headquarters," where schools in the diocese could drop off angels handcrafted by students. The effort produced 20,000 angels only a short time after White began as principal.
"It was the first thing where she had to kind of step up and do something and that was her reaction," Duquette said.
Larry Wiers, director of school partnerships at Lewis University's College of Education and chairman of the award committee, agreed.
"She navigated the school through some really difficult times," Wiers said.
Rev. Jim Antiporek, pastor of St. Irene, said White teaches the community "how important it is to serve the needs of others."
"It's not about what's easy for her," Antiporek said. "It's not about what's good for her. It's about the children. It's about the faculty."
"Children really need to understand that the world is far larger than themselves and the needs are great" White said. "If we can do a little bit to make a difference in someone else's life, than you've done something wonderful."