By Mike LaBella
---- — Kevin Powers wasn’t looking to become a school principal, not until he got more experience as a teacher.
But the 27-year-old Haverhill native got a call from the Archdiocese of Chicago leaders earlier this year, saying they were in a jam and one of their most underperforming schools needed help.
It was a school in trouble both financially and educationally, they told Powers, who was teaching at another Archdiocese school. They said test scores at St. Margaret of Scotland Elementary School in Chicago’s south side were some of the worst in the district, parents were unhappy with many of the teachers, and the school was left without a leader after its principal quit early in the school year.
Powers happened to have experience working in just this kind of school.
“They said I was the guy they wanted,” said Powers, who was hired to become principal of St. Margaret at the end of April while he was still teaching at Our Lady of Charity Elementary School in Chicago.
“They definitely rushed my plan as becoming a principal wasn’t on my radar for another two or three years,” he said. “I love being in the classroom, but probably the biggest factor in a school’s success or failure is having a leader. And this school hasn’t had a leader who was a good fit for years.”
Powers didn’t waste any time giving his new school a spring cleaning. He cleaned out closets to make room for new curriculum and got rid of eight teachers who weren’t certified and weren’t doing their jobs, he said. He also fired a secretary who wasn’t doing her job and a janitor who wasn’t doing his.
Powers hired new certified teachers, whom he personally interviewed, and welcomed back four certified teachers he said he has faith in.
“They’re good teachers and are on board with what we want to accomplish,” he said. “Our motto this year is ‘A Brand New Day.’’’
After graduating from Haverhill High School in 2004, Powers was studying business at St. Anselm College, but during his junior year he worked as a volunteer in a special needs kindergarten classroom and fell in love with the work.
“I realized I didn’t want to be an accountant and have to sit at a desk for eight hours a day,” he said.
“It all fell into place my junior year,” he said. “I guess I wasn’t too late for the party.”
After graduating from St. Anselm he enrolled in a graduate teaching program at the University of Notre Dame. In return for an education, Powers taught at an inner-city Catholic school in Los Angeles for two years. Powers said the graduate program he was in, called Alliance for Catholic Education, provides teachers to inner-city Catholic schools across the country.
“I got a free master’s in education,’’ he said, “and that was fantastic.
“After serving two years in Los Angeles I decided to move to Chicago, where friends were moving to, so I sort of tagged along,” he said.
Powers taught for two years at St. Alphonsus Elementary School, which is in an affluent area of Chicago and serves children of professionals who work in the city, then taught for one year at Our Lady of Charity Elementary School, which he said serves low-income Latino families.
“It was the same kind of student population I worked with in Los Angeles,” he said.
St. Margaret of Scotland Elementary School is located on Chicago’s tough south side.
“It’s where all the gangs are and where shootings happen,” Powers said.
St. Margaret students are primarily low-income African Americans, many of whom come from divorced or broken homes. More than 90 percent qualify for free or reduced lunch, reflecting their families’ financial problems, Powers said.
Powers said a shooting last month took place about a quarter of a mile from his school, and just off the exit he takes every morning.
“A fruit vendor who stood there every day was shot and killed a few hours before I drove by,” he said. “He’d walk up and down while people waited at the light.”
Trouble came to St. Margaret recently — and left it without air conditioning.
“I happened to look up at the gymnasium roof and noticed something wasn’t right,” Powers said.
He grabbed a ladder, climbed onto the roof and discovered four air-conditioning units had been dismantled by thieves.
“They stripped them for scrap metal and it’s going to cost us $60,000 in repairs,” Powers said.
Parents are on board with his plans for the school, he said.
“One mom came in to transfer her daughter and, after I gave her a tour, she said she would keep her child here and that it really did seem like a brand new day,” Powers said.
Challenges for a 27-year-old principal
St. Margaret of Scotland Elementary School on Chicago’s tough south side.
Gangs and shootings are common in the area.
Students come from low-income families and divorced or broken homes.
Students were underperforming and parents were unhappy.
Thieves stole metal from school air conditioners, causing $60,000 in damage.