Long-time Bijou School counselor Presnal named principal
District 11 hired from within this spring when it chose Coronado High School Assistant Principal David Engstrom as principal for 2010-11.
The district followed a similar course recently in naming Kathryn Presnal principal of the Bijou School. The alternate four-year high school is in the former Whittier Elementary building at 2904 W. Kiowa St. Presnal has been the counselor at Bijou for all but three semesters since 2002 - she was essentially its first counselor.
(For the record, D-11 Assistant Superintendent Mary Thurman said this week the district was not seeking an in-house hire, but Presnal's experience with the school was one of the main points in the hiring decision.)
In a recent interview, the new principal discussed strategies she's developed over the years to be effective at an alternative high school.
As a start, by the second week of school every year, she said she makes a point of learning the first name of all 135 Bijou students. After that, she explained it's a matter of getting to know them individually, which can be a challenge because students in alternative schools - often because of difficult backgrounds - tend to be withdrawn, to the point of making themselves emotionally “invisible.”
“I tend to take kids who are longshots,” Presnal said. “I try to put them in places where they have a chance to shine… In other schools, they're written off.”
The new principal has spent all her educational years in District 11, working in alternative education (those other three semesters having been assigned to the Tesla Educational Opportunity Center during 2008 and 2009).
Before coming to D-11, she had pursued other careers, initially based on a love of sports dating back to her high school days in Indianapolis, Ind., where she played on her volleyball, basketball and tennis teams. Her first masters' degree was in sports administration.
From the mid-1980s until the late '90s, Presnal worked with companies developing drug-testing programs for athletes. Simultaneously, on the side, she started coaching. “I fell in love with working with kids,” she said. “I was sure that was my next step.”
For her job, Presnal also visited Colorado and the Olympic Training Center. So, in the late '90s, when she decided it was time for a change and relocation in her life, Colorado was a somewhat familiar area.
She spent about five years in the San Luis Valley. Attending Adams State University, she obtained her second masters in 2000, this time in counseling. Partly in conjunction with the college, she worked in community mental health, mainly in a program called “family preservation.” It helped her develop an appreciation for the problems some families face, she recalled. This experience has helped her for Bijou. “After working family preservation, nothing scares you,” she said.
After another, briefer stint in drug-testing, helping the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency get started in Colorado Springs, Presnal decided to try being a school counselor. She submitted applications around the area, then got a call from Bijou Principal Wayne Hutchison, who had co-founded the school in 1995.
“I really enjoyed working with Wayne,” Presnal said. She soon realized that in a small school like Bijou (which traditionally limits itself to 135 students) “a counselor is like another administrator.”
The position was also pretty new. The school had never had a counselor until the year before she started, so Presnal had a large say in defining its role. She brought in people who could speak knowledgeably about issues some students faced, such as HIV or STDs; met with students personally; used team-building to get kids out of their shells; and even wangled funding once for a student trip to Denver, where she was surprised to find that some of them had never been to the city, been to a hotel and/or swum in a pool.
About three years ago, Hutchison told Presnal he was thinking of retiring and wanted her to replace him. She warmed to the idea, and eventually enrolled in a program that allows district employees to earn what's known as a “principal's license.”
Looking ahead to her first year at the helm, she said she plans to retain the school's sensitivity to individual students - even insisting that teachers keep trying to reach kids who resist it at first - but also to insist on a level of academic rigor that's consistent and not “haphazard.” Bijou students have never scored well on the Colorado Student Assessment Program (CSAP), for example. “I don't think education is only about test scores,” she said, “but we have to make sure when students come here we prepare them to be sucessful in life, not just hamburger flippers.”
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