Melissa Kim '97

 

teaching principles

%1129%right%Melissa Kim '97 is no stranger to new frontiers,personal or professional.

As a third grader, she crossed her first frontier when her father moved the family from Seoul, South Korea, to Yardley, Pennsylvania, to pursue his postdoctoral work and give his daughters more life choices Kim found herself immersed in a new culture and in a new language.

When Kim became principal two years ago of Washington, D.C.'s 800-student Alice Deal Junior High, she encountered another frontier. "There are a lot of women principals at the elementary level, but not at the middle school and certainly not many Asian women principals," Kim said. "I don't have a network like that. I've always been the only Asian kid doing something."

Her example as a minority woman doing professional work is a powerful one for the immigrant and minority children in her hallways, she says. She firmly believes many underprivileged kids struggle because they don't see role models in leadership positions.

She is shouldering impressive burdens for a 31-year-old educator. As Alice Deal's principal, she has plenty to contend with just to run the school.

But beginning this summer, she also has to manage a two-year, $43-million renovation that will transform her school from a traditional grades seven to nine junior high into a contemporary grades six to eight middle school.

As a sociology major at Colby, Kim wasn't sure she wanted to work in education as her father had done. International business sounded interesting, and she got a serious job offer senior year. But she also had done a student practicum in a "dynamite" Waterville fifth-grade classroom.

Kim decided she could have an international business career later and went off to work in the Washington, D.C., schools with Teach for America. "I was going to do it for a few years, but it hooked me," she said.

Ten years later Kim has held positions in several D.C. schools and in Arlington, Virginia, prior to taking over Alice Deal in the city's Tenleytown section.

Although she earned her stripes in the classroom, Kim says she prefers the greater reach she now has as an administrator. "As a principal I impact many more students and families by being a teacher for the teachers," she explained via e-mail. "I still love teaching students as well. When I go in to observe classrooms, I often jump in and support the teacher's lesson."

It was while working at Shadd Elementary School, also in D.C., that Kim saw how dedication, high expectation, and teamwork can change educational experiences for children. Shadd had performed miserably for nine consecutive years when the superintendent shut it down and hired all new staff,including Kim.

"The whole school culture from top to bottom was a mess," Kim said, and the new staff teamed up to turn things around. In Kim's five years at Shadd, test scores went up and parents became more involved. It was no mystery how the staff made Shadd work, Kim says, and she has taken those lessons with her.

"I think the difference is that the teachers went in with a shared purpose. There was the fact that we all wanted to be there. We put in long hours, cried together, yelled and screamed together. We went into the community. On Saturday we would go in and pick up students and take them to basketball games."

The attitude towards learning was, "We're not going to let go of you 'til you get it," Kim said. "It was a beautiful thing."

She earned her master's in educational administration while at Shadd and then launched her administrative career through a program called New Leaders for New Schools at Washington's Capital Hill Cluster School.

Eventually Kim would like to be an urban superintendent where she can set direction for an entire school district. In preparation, she commutes to the University of Pennsylvania for executive doctoral classes.

Meanwhile she still enjoys running a school. "It's a lot of fun still. It's challenging, certainly," she said.

And when things get tough? Kim reminds herself, "You didn't choose it because it's easy."

,Julia Hanauer-Milne