Pop Quiz: Principal McKissack

Welcome back to the POP QUIZ! This is a regular, yet totally unexpected, feature where we ask students, parents, staff, our friends, and partners to answer a few questions about what they are learning, reading, and thinking about. Today we feature Principal McKissack, who is the new Principal at Hillside Middle School.

Principal Atiba McKissack hails from Detroit. He came to Kalamazoo in 1991 after graduating from Cass Technical High School. “My mom dropped me off and told me not to come back until I finished school. I ended up going to WMU for eight years…for a four year degree. [He chuckles.] I’m what I call an unintentional educator. It was not part of my master plan—I had plans to be an aeronautical engineer—but nothing brings me more joy than being in education.”

After doing a pre-internship in English at Milwood Middle School and his teaching internship at Milwood and South (not yet Maple Street Magnet School) he moved back to Detroit. A year and a half into teaching, he received a phone call from the legendary Dorothy Young, then principal at Hillside Middle School. “She brought me back as a sub. This was confirmation enough for me that I should be back in Kalamazoo. I’ve always loved the Kalamazoo Public Schools.”

Since that phone call, Mr. McKissack was reacquainted with and married the woman who would become his wife and has enjoyed serving Kalamazoo Public School students in various positions: ‘a stint’ as a drama teacher, technology support for the district, assistant principal at Loy Norrix and most recently, their dean of students.

Alright, Principal McKissack: pencil out, eyes on your own paper. Good luck.

With Hillside Students
Principal McKissack with a few Hillside Middle School students (from left to right): Jasmine Anderson, Jenny Morales, Devin Fox, and Khendal Moore.

 POP QUIZ

What is something interesting you’ve recently learned? 

It’s called the “101 Percent Principle.” The term comes from the book, The Leader’s Heart by John Maxwell. The principle is this: find that one percent that you can agree on and then devote 100 percent of your attention to that one percent. Too much time is spent focusing on what doesn’t work. Instead, it’s important to really devote time on identified potential rather than a problem. We need to spend time affirming kids for what they’re doing right, building them up and, in the process, we can then work on those other things that need support. Education is more than just math or science. It’s about the whole child…character building, social emotional growth, and affirming and growing potential.

Do you see Communities In Schools working with the community to address the needs of the whole child?

Absolutely! One of the reasons I value Communities In Schools is because they remove those barriers that keep kids from feeling whole.

As a principal, I have a wonderful senior site coordinator, Ms. [Precious] Miller I turn to. I can connect students to her with ease and their needs can be met. It just makes our work as educators easier. Ms. [Katherine] Williams, our after school coordinator, Ms. [Terra] Mosqueda, our VISTA, they are all so responsive. They never say no. They say, How can we help? What is the student’s name? Send them down to us. I keep my Communities In Schools folder right in front of me. [Principal McKissack jumps up from the conference table, runs over to his desk, and plucks a folder off of his desk.] Here it is!

Principal McKissack

Communities In Schools remove burdens that get in the way of education, whether it’s helping kids get glasses, getting food from the food pantry, it’s all done in a way that maintains the dignity of the child. It’s important that student know they can have needs without having to feel needy. They can feel whole and CIS helps them do that. Communities In Schools is living up to what they say they do and it’s so appreciated here at Hillside.

What are you currently reading?

We Beat the Streets, which is part of our whole school read. I’m also reading Intentional Living by John Maxwell. Maxwell’s book was gifted to me by [Loy Norrix Principal] Mr. Prewitt. Intentional Living lays out how to teach kids about compassion, decision-making, and how they can build long lasting friendships. It’s interesting, because in reading these two books at the same time I see parallels between them. The three male characters in We Beat the Streets face many challenges but are able to become successful—all three become doctors—through intentional living. They support each other.

Books

You read pretty deep stuff.

I’m not a strong reader so I read a lot. I model for my kids, both my students and my children. It’s important to read. I’m always asking my students what they are reading. If they don’t have an answer for me, I ask them about their interests. It’s a good way to help them figure out what books will meets their interests. It’s a great way to start a conversation.

Recently, Hillside was well represented at the second annual MLK “Courage to Create” Celebration. A number of your students made it to the semi-finalist round, reading their work at Western Michigan University and taking a number of top prizes in the poetry competition.

Oh, that was wonderful. Just the pride I had in my students. Not the winning part, but I was overjoyed by the hard work they put into getting there—the reading, studying, the questions they asked. They didn’t give up. And at the event, even though they were nervous and scared—feeling what anyone would feel in that kind of situation, of giving a performance—they didn’t give up. They worked really hard.

Principal McKissack out at WMU with Hillside students and staff
At Western Michigan University during the MLK “Courage to Create” Celebration.

What do you want to be when you grow up?

I want to inspire the minds that will change the world. Honestly, I’ve come so far beyond where I thought I’d be that I have spent a lot of time looking back. I was told way early that I couldn’t go to college.

How horrible. Who told you that?

His last name was Albatross.

Albatross. How ironic.

He owned the Coney Island in Detroit. I remember it well. I was sitting at the counter. Other kids were there. He laughed at me when I said I’m going to college. I’m glad he did though. From that point forward I never forgot that moment. Sometimes God places barriers in your way so you can become stronger by overcoming them. I’m actually grateful. College was not an easy road for me but I did it.

Photo Principal McKissack carries with him, of the building where, as a boy, he was told he couldn’t go to college.
Photo Principal McKissack carries with him, of the building where, as a boy, he was told he couldn’t go to college.

Behind every successful student is a caring adult. Who has been your caring adult?

My caring adult was—and still is—my mother. She saw more in me than I saw in myself and she wouldn’t let me forget that. She was the one who motivated me and to this day she motivates me. Today also happens to be her birthday.

Happy birthday to your mom! And thank you, Principal McKissack!