Immaculate Conception School lies in the heart of a nationally renowned academic community, and Don Mills wants to see the school fully reflect its surroundings.
"Ithaca has such a wealth of educational resources," remarked Mills, who began as Immaculate Conception’s principal July 1. He said he aims to increase access to facilities and services at Cornell University and Ithaca College, noting, for instance, that his new school’s music curriculum is run by Ithaca College’s prestigious music department. Mills also plans to tap into local contacts he built up while principal of Ithaca High School from 2009-11, to assist in such areas as marketing and promotion.
However, he stressed that Immaculate Conception is already rock-solid in one vital area — "the whole idea that everything is built on Catholic values. Those are certainly cornerstones here," said Mills, a lifelong Catholic. "The spirituality that I typically had outside the school system, now that’s actually going to be a part of it."
Mills, who will turn 48 on Aug. 21, is a Southern Tier native. He grew up in Bath where he belonged to St. Mary Parish, graduating in 1984 from Haverling High School. He received his bachelor’s degree in biology from St. Bonaventure University and a master’s degree in educational administration from Rowan University in Glassboro, N.J.
From 1991-2002 he taught science at Cumberland Regional High School in Seabrook, N.J. From 2002-07 he was assistant principal at Williamsville South High School near Buffalo. His first principal’s position was at Niagara Wheatfield High School from 2007-09; he then spent the next two years as principal of Ithaca High before beginning in 2012 as a financial advisor for AXA Equitable in Syracuse.
Mills is getting married Sept. 28 to his longtime girlfriend, Lorie. He currently resides in Oswego — some 75 miles away — but plans to eventually move closer to Ithaca. In the meantime, he said he’s looking forward to "a lot of good reflection time riding up Route 34."
Mills’ new duties mark his first professional experience outside of public high schools. At Immaculate Conception he succeeds Diana Oravec, who stepped down this past spring after eight years as principal. Mills credits his predecessor with enabling him to step into a positive environment.
"That atmosphere has a lot to do with her, keeping the core sense of values intact," Mills said of Oravec.
Mills takes over a school that’s experiencing one of the most challenging stretches in its 129-year history. As of Aug. 1, 87 students were registered for the 2013-14 school year, 34 of whom will be prekindergartners. That leaves 53 youths for kindergarten through sixth grade — an average of less than eight students per grade, resulting in combined classrooms. Six years ago, the school’s seventh and eighth grades were discontinued due to low numbers.
To ensure a stronger future, a strategic plan — described by Mills as "very well thought out" — was presented in early June to the school community. Mills said one of the plan’s chief aims is to swell enrollment to the point that Immaculate Conception can return to all single-grade classrooms. Crucial to this goal, he said, will be a strong marketing campaign and better success at retaining students who start in pre-K at Immaculate Conception.
Mills said he favors a collaborative approach in his position, noting that he’s always had an open-door policy for students, parents and faculty — even at Ithaca High "where I had 1,500 students and their parents," he said. He welcomes Immaculate Conception’s comparatively smaller environment, saying it will allow him to visit classrooms more often.
"I’m very much looking forward to knowing everybody on a first-name basis," said Mills, who held a "meet the principal day" July 30 for current and prospective Immaculate Conception students and families. "I’m really excited and looking forward to the school year."
Already, Mills’ efforts have made an impression on Father Jeff Tunnicliff, pastor of Immaculate Conception Parish.
"He brings great enthusiasm to our school. Even before his official start he was already working to get to know the school and researching ideas to implement our new strategic plan," Father Tunnicliff said. "Don is a great match for our mission and values."