Oakland principal looks ahead to her new role leading Battle High

Wednesday, March 28, 2012 | 6:00 a.m. CDT
Kim Presko, principal of Oakland Junior High School, directs traffic during lunch hour while eighth-graders Tristan Perry, left, and Tyler Rod wait to get their food on Feb. 7. Presko was selected to serve as the principal for the new Battle High School, which is set to open in 2013.

COLUMBIA — The late Muriel Battle, namesake of Columbia's next public high school, was the district's first African-American principal and its first female assistant superintendent. 

Similarly, Kim Presko, who will be the first principal at Battle High School, is a pioneer.

"One of the things I try to emulate in what Muriel Battle did is this exact feeling she gave to people — to make people feel like they can change the world," Presko said. "It can be one student at a time, but if you can impact a life, that's great."

Presko, principal at Oakland Junior High School, has a sentimental tie to her future school: Battle hired her as a math teacher at West Junior High School in 1990. And Presko plans to make sure future Battle Spartans know who Battle was.

She wants to show "Battle Within," a documentary focusing on Battle's husband, Eliot Battle, and has spoken to daughter Donna Battle about showcasing souvenirs that reflect her mother's influence. Presko also would like to talk with Eliot Battle about his wife and her values.

"I just want to infuse some of her personality into the atmosphere," Presko said.

The most important aspect of a school is the opportunity to create a place for students to learn academics but also grow into good citizens, she said.

When she was hired at West Junior, Presko became involved with activities outside the classroom — teaching basketball, creating a peer mediation program and participating in a drug-free awareness program — and she gravitated toward leadership opportunities. 

She said that although she's always had inclinations to lead, she became particularly aware of them at MU. As an undergraduate, she had been pursuing business at the suggestion of a high school counselor who told her she wouldn't make enough money studying education. 

But she began working with fifth- and sixth-graders in a weekend program with the city's Parks and Recreation Department. Her earlier feelings for education returned, and she couldn't ignore them. She got her bachelor's, master's and doctoral degrees in education from MU.

"A lot of people in education come into it because of their heart, and that's what I ended up doing," Presko said. 

She grew up in northern Kansas City and is the youngest of seven children. She said that as a first-generation college student, she realized the importance of education from parents who were first-generation high school students.

"It's like my dad said, 'You can get an education and work your brain, or don’t get an education and you'll work your body and when you're older, you'll just be in pain.' I always listened to that," she said. 

Presko credits her sixth-grade science teacher, Barbara Doyle, with inspiring her outlook on education. Doyle's devotion to her students sparked Presko's initial interest in education.

Presko said that whenever there was free time, Doyle asked her about herself, not just about her work. Presko babysat for Doyle's family and went to her for help when she needed it.

"She became more than just a teacher for me," Presko said. "That's what's important — having teachers who care about the students themselves, not just the curriculum."

Presko has to wait another year and a half before she walks the halls of Battle full time. However, she’s been to the construction site in northeastern Columbia and made several hires. She is already thinking of school improvement plans. 

Presko said that when she visits Battle, she's picky — assessing the placement of outlets and future access to clicker technology, a way for students to answer questions in class and interact. 

In August 2013, Battle will be the city's most recent public high school to open. Currently, Rock Bridge High School is the most recent. It opened in the 1970s. Presko knows that Battle will be in the limelight in the weeks around its opening, and she wants to encourage an open, "picnic" atmosphere. 

"We have to be welcoming," she said. "It's for the community, and we want to show off all the things we want to do." 

Meanwhile, Presko continues to run Oakland.

Her friend Kerrie Bloss has known Presko for almost five years through the Columbia Sunrise Southwest Rotary Club. Bloss said Presko is genuinely interested in the school and the growth of the kids. 

"You never hear her (complain), 'Oh no, I have to be at the school until 10 tonight,'" Bloss said. 

Presko approaches being an educator as a humbling experience, and she feels it even more keenly with the opportunity to lead Battle in its first years. 

"It's not about me — it's not about the recognition or any of that," she said. "I think being the principal at the new building, and having people believing in you to do just that, is even more humbling."

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