These are unprecedented times for school administrators, educators and students. It’s as if they’re penning the opening chapters to a new book.
As Walter Kelly opens his initial education door in the area as the new principal at Mercer Island High School, the Waco, Texas, native is ready to tackle the remote learning realm with his colleagues during the COVID-19 pandemic.
He brings more than 20 years of school administrative and teaching experience into his new job, one that is now vastly different than before.
“This is one of those point-shift moments professionally in what we do in schools, and those crises sometimes create some great innovation,” Kelly, 52, said in a Zoom interview from his home last week.
“The hopes are we learn something from this from an educational standpoint,” added Kelly, who takes over for Vicki Puckett, the MIHS principal for the past eight years.
Along with helping students absorb maximum knowledge from their online classes, Kelly wants connectivity and communication to flow freely between the instructors, students and administrators.
For the adults, there’s an online coffee question-and-answer meeting every morning for all staff members, and once a week there’s another — sometimes more social — lunchtime or after-school gathering. Students get involved by engaging with each other during Islander hour. Kelly meets weekly with student representatives, and he joined another staff member in distributing National Merit Semifinalist awards to students at their front doors.
To further extend the lines of communication, the school runs videos to keep everyone informed of recent news. Kelly even briefly sported a costume snail’s head to kick off his welcoming message to students. MIHS freshmen were safely brought into the fold with socially distanced self-guided tours of the school building, said Kelly, adding that school officers were present to lend a hand.
Kelly said that via Decision Tree, they’re watching to see what the COVID-19 infection rate is in the region, what other schools are doing and what state leaders are guiding them to do as far as full in-person learning. They have a plan and they’ll be ready when the time comes, Kelly said.
The school district wants to proceed with caution, and “at the same time, we’re hungry to see students back,” said Kelly, adding that about 10 students are served in person to meet their specific educational needs, and about 20-30 staff members are choosing to work on site each day.
Kelly said he misses the excitement level that comes with the job of being a school principal. The constant rush of students buzzing about the building is what feeds and motivates educators, he added.
“It’s almost like how do you really repurpose your work to make sure that you’re continuing service even when you’re not getting that constant feed of emotional reaction?” said Kelly, who studied pre-med at Baylor University and did his graduate work at the University of Texas at Austin.
While in Austin, Kelly — whose mother is a retired professor — began dating his future wife, Jill, an education major who thought he would enjoy teaching. Plus, he needed something to delve into after his professor dropped his masters students to go on a sabbatical to Sweden.
Kelly’s first educational gig was at a school in Coolidge, Texas, where he taught six science subjects and coached four sports. He fell in love with the teaching world from the get-go, he said. With Jill still in Austin, he moved back there for the next five years to continue teaching and eventually — bolstered by Jill’s encouragement again — turned toward education administration.
MIHS marks the fifth school on Kelly’s journey as a principal.
“This worked out beautifully for both of us,” said Kelly, noting that Jill is an associate principal at West Mercer and Lakeridge elementary schools. Their son Owen, 13, is an eighth-grader at Islander Middle School.
The couple wanted to move to an attractive area where they’d like to remain living when Owen rolls through his high school years. They looked at other cities in the Pacific Northwest and in the Bay Area of Northern California.
Kelly interviewed for the job remotely about eight months ago and traveled to Mercer Island as one of the finalists in the middle of March. The family moved to the area in the middle of June.
He’s ready to continue the tradition of delivering an impactful education on the Island.
Teaching is a noble profession, Kelly said, adding that it’s important “that we do everything at the school to maximize teaching and learning moments. Kind of a flywheel, and once you get that rolling, it’s an amazing thing to watch happen with students and teachers.”