Q&A: Battle High School principal and administrators discuss school's future

Wednesday, May 22, 2013 | 6:00 a.m. CDT; updated 6:36 p.m. CDT, Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Kim Presko, principal

What is your previous experience in education?

I have been in education now for 24 years. Twenty-three of those years have been serving as an educator here in Columbia. My last experience was 13 years as the principal at Oakland Junior High, which is also located on the northeast end of town. That's the same attendance area, or very similar, to Battle High School.

We did some amazing things with kids and having high expectations and building relationships. Those are some of the things I hope to bring as the principal over here — to do whatever it takes to help kids be successful. That doesn't always happen during the school day or during class time, but we're here to do whatever we can as adults to help our students reach success.

What made you excited about being the principal of the new school?

One of the things was just working with the kids at Oakland and knowing they were going to be the kids that are coming out to Battle. I wanted the students who were getting this opportunity to have a great opportunity. That was one of the reasons I threw my name in the hat to be interviewed for this position.

The other thing that's unique is that Muriel Battle, who our building is named after, hired me in this district 23 years ago. She was influential in some of my success as an early administrator, and it was my opportunity now to carry on her legacy and help this building be what I know she would want it to be.

Looking at this first year, what obstacles do you think Battle will face?

I think anytime you start something new, you have a great plan and you try to work that plan, but you don't think about all of the things that might happen. We'll have to problem-solve some things we didn't think about, and we'll have to be flexible enough to deal with those. I think we have thought about a lot of things. We've talked to a lot of people who have opened buildings in the last few years across our state and nation to see what things were on their plates.

We're going to take on a one-to-one pilot at our school, so we'll have lots of technology here. With that, there's going to be some growing pains for us and some things that we didn't think about.

I think we've done a nice job on collaborating with others who have been in our position and trying to figure out what their pitfalls were and to make sure those don't happen here.

What kind of culture do you want to create here at Battle?

We have talked to our kids, talked to our parents and talked to our teachers about what environment they want to create. As administrators, we can say, "This is what we want," but it's really about the people who inhabit this place that will create the feel.

Yes, we have a part in that. But it's amazing how excited people are about coming out here and how much they want this to be a welcoming and energetic environment.

Our mission is to prepare leaders of the future with academic excellence and social responsibility. It's not just about how well they can do on paper but how they use those skills then to effect other things in our society and be good citizens.

A group of teachers have come up with the Battle Charge, which is those things we value at Battle. So the C stands for "Challenge yourself," H is for "Honoring the legacy of Muriel Battle," A is for "Advocate for yourself," R is "being Respectful," G is "Giving back," and E is about "Engagement."

What qualities were you looking for when putting together a teaching staff?

I interviewed over 140 staff members for about 70 positions.

I was looking for someone who was about building relationships with kids, about collaborating with their peers and about having high expectations for students and themselves; for someone who was willing to do a little bit more than just being a teacher; that they saw their job as having a bigger purpose then just education, so they were really looking at building and molding and influencing an individual versus helping them be the best math student. It was about building a whole student, being student-centered, versus content-driven — though that is important, too.

What do you want the community to be saying about Battle High School a year from when it opens?

I think the community will be saying, "What a spirited and enthusiastic group of kids," and really thinking about the potential our kids have and how much they have accomplished in a year. And how much our building has accomplished in just one year.

The outside community will see the excitement that goes on at sporting events, the pride our kids and teachers have. But when they come in and feel it, they're going to be, like, "Every kid needs this opportunity. And how do we make this happen at all of our schools, not just this one?"

Matt Hale, athletics director

What is your previous experience in education and athletics?

I've been a head track and field coach for the past eight years. I started out at a class 3 school and was there for five years, as well as an athletics director there for the past two years. I was presented with the opportunity to coach Cape Central High School (in Cape Girardeau), a class 4 high school, track and field program. I took over that and was the track and field coach there for three years.

Just being a head coach, as well as my experiences with being an athletics director and being around sports my whole life, will help me bring those experiences to Columbia with fresh ideas.

What about the new high school made you excited to be the athletics director?

The biggest draw for me was starting a brand new high school. Very seldom in your career, in anybody's career, do you get to start a brand-new high school. Just being able to help build a program from the ground up with the great people I've been able to work with so far and starting fresh ideas and putting our own personal stamp on a brand-new school in this community was the biggest draw for me.

I really like Columbia, and the year that I've been up here has just been a great experience so far.

What goals are you wanting to build the athletic department on?

Our biggest goal here at Battle is to help prepare students personally, academically, as well as athletically; helping students not only learn about the game but learn about life. I think if we do that, that, in my opinion, is successful.

What classifications will Battle athletics be next year?

Next year, Battle will be class 4 in almost everything — in baseball, softball, basketball, football, track and field, cross country. Tennis has large school and small school; we'll be in the large school division. The following year we'll jump up another class. We'll be the biggest class in everything the following year with the exception of football. Football goes up to six classes, so we'll be in class five the following year.

How do you think Battle will compete within those classifications?

I think, as far as how we match up athletically, we'll be fine. Starting out the first year with competing in a lower classification than Hickman and Rock Bridge will benefit us because we're not going to have seniors our first year. That will be a challenge without that piece of leadership. We tell our juniors, "Hey, you get to be leaders for two years in a row."

We feel very confident in the coaching staff we've hired, in their abilities to lead our students. We'll be competitive. And that's what we want to be: competitive.

What qualities did you look for when hiring coaches?

The first quality we looked for is if they're great educators. We want all of our coaches to be first and foremost great teachers, because they have to be those advocates for students. If you're not a great teacher, in my opinion, you can't be a great coach. A great coach and a great teacher go hand-in-hand.

The second thing we looked at is, are they going to be advocates for our students?

The last piece we looked at was their overall ability as far as a coach is concerned. A lot of our coaches have had experiences coaching or playing in college, and some of them have even had experiences in playing professionally.

What do you want the community to be saying about Battle High School a year from when it opens?

I want them to be saying, "This is a program that is all about students, and preparing the students, not only athletically, but most importantly personally and academically." I feel like if the only thing they're saying is, "Wow, they're winning a bunch of games," I don't feel like we've done our job as a school. I want them to be saying, "Not only are they winning a bunch of games, but the students and athletes that are coming through Battle are great kids. They're prepared for life after high school and are being positive role models in the community."

Leigh Spence, guidance director

What is your previous experience? 

This is my 17th year with Columbia Public Schools. I did some grant writing and grant management the first few years. My past 10 years I was at Hickman High School as a guidance counselor. I had a great experience, and I loved the opportunity to work with students from really diverse backgrounds. That was a great launching pad for this job.

This job will include seeing many of the same students. We have a portion coming from Hickman, so I do already feel like I know some of the families that will be joining us. It is a similar demographic, so I'm looking forward with the opportunity to work with similar students in a beautiful, new facility.

Why were you interested in coming to the new high school?

I loved Hickman and was very happy there. I was looking to have a management position and an opportunity to lead a team of counselors. To have a chance to help shape a program was very exciting to me.

I was at a place where I felt like I had learned great, wonderful things at Hickman and could take that with me to be able to take something from scratch and help build it. It is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to start a brand-new high school.

What apprehensions do you have for the first year? What are you excited about?

I probably should have more apprehensions than I actually do. I'm so excited to get the students out here. We're very fortunate to have the opportunity to work for a year before the students get to us. That's been wonderful to start to put things in place for them.

Part of the anxiety is, "Is everything in place as it needs to be?" We know there will be some things we need to address as students get here and we see where the holes are we need to fill.

But we have a great team of people, so I'm mostly really excited for the students to arrive. It's a lonely building without students in it. It's beautiful, but it's just a shell right now. We're looking forward to the kids getting here.

What is Spartan Leadership? How will programs in guidance help create a culture at Battle?

We are very interested in having a diverse group of students involved in leadership at Battle. Because we're starting from scratch, we feel we can mold it in a way that's really representative of our student body.

Our first step in that direction was selection of our Spartan Leadership Team of 30 students who filled out an application, did an interview, worked together on a group project and were selected by a group of faculty members that will be here at Battle.

Those students will be ambassadors for our school. They'll be representatives for us to the media, peer role models, introduce new students to Battle and be tour guides as the community wants to come see our beautiful facilities.

What goals do you have for the first year?

One of our main goals in the guidance department is to make sure our students are feeling comfortable here in a new building. Obviously our students are transitioning, some from high schools they already feel bonded to. It's a little traumatic to make that change, but most of them seem to be very, very excited about being a part of something new.

What do you want the community to be saying about Battle High School a year from when it opens?

I am really hopeful that Battle will be a state-of-the-art school, not only in terms of the facility, but also in terms of the instruction, in terms of the sense of community that we have here.

Of course, when you are an existing high school that's been around for 40 years or 100 years, as many high schools in the state of Missouri have been, then you already have a culture in place. You have traditions. You have that sense of community.

For us, that first year is going to be establishing ourselves in that way, not only athletically and through participation in activities, but also just being close-knit as a group. There's development that has to take place.

I'm hoping after one year people will say, "Oh, Battle, that school is really cool and close-knit. Those students really support each other."

Andrew McCarthy, assistant principal

How long have you been an administrator in Columbia Public Schools?

This is my eighth year at Hickman. I've taught for five years and been an assistant principal for three. I came to Columbia in 2000 to get my undergraduate degree and haven't left. I did my assistant teaching here. I grew up in the culture here. I hope that the knowledge and experiences I've had here can help me to be a more effective leader.

I'm one of two administrators coming with some high school experiences. I think that is unique and will add to our knowledge as an administrative team.

What made you interested in pursing a role at Battle?

The initial excitement was opening a brand-new high school. I don't think many people get that opportunity in their careers, unless they transfer to another district. That was a huge attraction force.

When I met Dr. Presko, part of me thought that I wanted that different experience under a different leader to become the best leader I can be. Looking down the road, I'm thinking, if I want to be a principal one day, multiple experiences under different people and with different grade levels is an incredibly exciting opportunity.

When we started hiring the staff, there was this excitement and idea among everyone to do whatever it takes to help our kids.

Do you have any apprehensions?

When you talk about building a community or culture at a school, you're talking about that being a whole staff-initiated event. One disadvantage is that we won't see each other as a whole faculty until the beginning of school next year. That's going to be a challenge for us as far as policy — procedures and handbooks — things that we need to put together.

How do we build that as a community? Committee meetings will be going on, but as a large staff we won't see each other 'til next fall. I'm apprehensive for how we'll manage that throughout the summer and that conversation between all of us — because it's going to take all of us.

How do you personally want to try to create a culture at Battle?

We as a teaching staff can write mission statements and vision statements, but the student voice is not heard. We have created a couple of avenues for that to occur.

There's a student leadership team that was selected and an advisory council that Dr. Presko oversees. We're asking them to come to the table and say their ideas for Battle High School and what they can do. That's the crucial piece.

We have a parent committee; we have teachers on board. But let's make sure that our students are on board and that they're as excited as us. I hope as an assistant principal I can help facilitate that dialogue that gets the student voice inserted into our community and culture.

What do you want the community to be saying about Battle High School a year from when it opens?

"That's a great school that supports kids, that is building tradition, that has a community-culture to it, that just attracts you to that building." But we can also step back and say, "what are some things we didn't do right and improve upon?" There are things we can do even better our second year.

Jacob Sirna, assistant principal

What is your past experience working in education?

This is my third year as an assistant principal in Columbia Public Schools. Before coming to Columbia, I worked for eight years as a social studies teacher at Oak Park High School in Kansas City, Mo.

I think my previous experiences will help during this exciting transition because I have worked closely with the students and families that will be opening Battle High School. While I’ve been working with eight and ninth grades for the past three years, a majority of my work experience was at the high school level.

Why do you want to be an assistant principal at Battle High School?

I want to be involved in opening Battle High School because I see it as a once-in-a-lifetime experience and opportunity. The idea that we will all be part of creating the “Battle Culture” that will both shape and reflect our community is empowering.

I’m most excited to work cooperatively with our student body and watch them grow as they work to develop the culture and traditions that will be Battle High School.

The only apprehension I have is the lurking thought that we might possibly forget something during the process of planning for the school’s opening. I want this to be a powerful and positive experience for everyone involved.

What kind of environment do you want to create at Battle?

I think we all want to create an environment where we are meeting the needs of all our students. I think we do this by saying yes to students and constantly reflecting on our own practices to ensure our number one focus when making decisions is what is best for students.

What have you talked about on the Traditions Committee so far? Has anything been decided on or presented, as far as Homecoming or other traditions?

We have divided our focus so far on three categories: traditions recognizing students; traditions recognizing staff; annual events and traditions. We have some great ideas that we have presented to the staff and are eager to share them with students. No decisions have been finalized, and we have not tackled Homecoming yet because we know that student input for this tradition will be critical.

How do you, as a member of the first administrative staff, want to shape the future of Battle High School?

I think it is important that, as an administrator of any school, I remain focused on serving our student body, parents, and staff. I can best help shape the future of Battle High School by maintaining a positive attitude and helping keep our focus on our mission and vision.

Darlene Grant, assistant principal

What school are you coming from? How long have you been there?

I have been the assistant principal at Smithton (Middle School) for the past seven years.

What is your role at Battle?

I am one of three assistant principals, who thrives on her service to students and parents.

Why did you want to come to Battle?

I am honored continue the legacy of Muriel Williams Battle. Dr. Battle was my principal when I was a student at West Junior High School. Her endless support of Columbia Public School students, families and the community is without measure.

Dr. Battle later hired me for my first teaching job at West Junior High. She showed a confidence in me that I was still trying to find in myself. Once I became a member of her faculty, she took me under her wing and helped nurture my career.

It is with gratitude and adoration that I serve as a part of the high school named in her honor.

What kind of environment do you want to create at Battle?

I would like to be a part of creating a learning environment where students are supported and encouraged to challenge themselves academically. As a member of the Battle staff, I also intend to promote a culture of dignity and respect for all.

My wish is for Battle is that it is a school where students continue the legacy of service, engagement, accountability and determination demonstrated by Muriel Battle.

How will you create this? Battle will become a strong, successful school through the collective and committed collaboration, conversation and work of staff, students, parents and the community.

I believe all have a stake in the journey. This has already been demonstrated by the work being done just to open Battle. Administrators, faculty, students and parents at Battle have hit the ground running and worked very closely to ensure the success of Battle High School.

What are you most excited about?

I am blessed to continue my work with students, parents and the community and to do it in such a historical way. How many educators can say they had a part in opening a high school named after their mentor and the person who nurtured their career?

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