Pop Quiz: Katherine Williamson

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 Katherine Williamson, who is in her second year as the Communities In Schools After School Coordinator at Hillside Middle School. We had a chance to meet up with her several weeks ago.

Katherine has strong ties to the Kalamazoo Public Schools (KPS). All four of her children attended Hillside and all graduated from KPS. Upon retiring from teaching—she taught English for 18 years in KPS (15 years at Loy Norrix and three at Phoenix High School)—she found herself drawn to Communities In Schools (CIS).

“I felt like I could use my background as an educator in the CIS After School Program. It’s very different from teaching and I’ve had to get used to that. I’m enjoying working with my Youth Development Workers. They are very creative in coming up with ways to help the kids. I enjoy working with them on how to structure a lesson, how to work with the kids, and plan for the enrichment clubs we offer. Right now we have weight training, recycling, and we also always seem to have a creative arts program going. Thanks to a partnership with the Kalamazoo Civic Theatre, Nick Thornton comes on a weekly basis to work with students on things like improvisation, body movement, and voice projection. The students love it.”

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

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What is something interesting you’ve recently learned?

I was very interested to learn that the State EPA in Flint knew about the lead poisoning in the water and didn’t do anything about it. I’m really dismayed by all the information coming out. I keep thinking about all those children.

What are you currently reading?

Outlander by Diana Gabaldon. While it’s very interesting, I’m not as in love with it as everybody else I know is. But the Gaelic in it, the language, that makes it appealing to me. I also read We Beat the Streets over break and liked it very much. I’m excited that we are reading it as a school.

What’s your favorite word right now?

The word I keep thinking this week is egregious, especially in light of all that’s coming out about Flint. I also learned a new word while reading the book Outlander. Reticule.

Never heard of it.

It’s a net purse that women used to carry.

What do you want to be when you grow up?

I want to be a wise old woman. That’s my aspiration. I was listening to a Toni Morrison interview on NPR recently and she mentioned being a grouchy old woman. She’s 84 and still writing. I don’t want to be grouchy but I’d like to grow up and be as wise as Toni Morrison.

She wrote The Bluest Eye. Did you read that?

Yes, I’ve read most of her books. She’s one of my favorite authors. I read Home, one of her newer books, over break and that was really good.

Her writing is beautiful and complicated. She’s not an easy read.

Right. She’s very much of a scholar. She taught at Princeton for many years.

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

My partner, Deb Rhinard. She’s a social worker so I feel like I’ve learned a lot about what I do from her. She’s amazingly compassionate. She helps me remember to be compassionate. I can do that for her, too. There’s a lot of bad stuff in the world and she helps me refocus on the things that we can do to help.

Thank you, Katherine!

In the weeks to come you can look forward to learning more about other members of the wonderful CIS Site Team at Hillside. If you missed the recent post about Principal McKissack, you can read it by clicking here.

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.


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.


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!