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Q&A: What I’ve Learned on my Journey to Leadership

Katie Penkala (Chicago corps 2010) is a Teach For America alumni and founding school leader at KIPP Bold City High School in Jacksonville, Florida

A blonde woman wearing a black t-shirt.

By Courtney Salazar

July 26, 2021

Katie Penkala (TFA Chicago corps 2010), University of North Florida graduate, is getting ready to open up the doors for the first class of students at KIPP Bold City High School in Jacksonville. Katie will be the founding school leader for KIPP’s first high school in the state of Florida. With more than a decade of teaching and education leadership under her belt, Katie will have the opportunity to expand her impact on students in Jacksonville in her new leadership role. We sat down with Katie for a Q&A about the lessons she has learned on her journey to leadership. 

What are the top 3 lessons that you learned this year as a school leader?

Be flexible. If you do not bend, you will break. Find a way or make a way. I was a part of the KIPP Fisher Fellowship Program, a program for school leaders who are founding and building a new school. My program was all virtual and I did not get the chance to have residencies within other high schools across our network. Despite the challenges of operating in a virtual world, I found a way to network with other school leaders, gain ideas, get feedback, and build a school launch plan without ever physically meeting the people I was in the program with, or without ever physically visiting another school. Had we not flexed, I would have missed out on a ton of opportunities, chances to get feedback, and would not have a strong support network like I do now.

Know your “why." Our day-to-day this last year or so has not been "normal." What kept me going each day was my "why" - I constantly reflected each day as to why I was doing this work and what I needed to do to keep going. People need to know your “why” before they know your “how” or your “what”. Always start with, and know, your why.

 Feedback is a gift. Ask for it. Take it. Use it to get better.  

How did your experience this year shape your trajectory?

My experience this year as a Fisher Fellow has shaped my entire trajectory as a school leader. I was challenged to not only plan for year one of our school opening, but what will happen in years 2, 3, 4 and beyond to ensure our school is a success. The school I am planning is not "my" school, and my experiences this year have affirmed that I am building this school with our families and communities, not FOR our families and communities. It began with the naming of the school and will continue with class options, club options, the fight song, the alma mater, and more. This year has pushed my thinking and my views as to what being a principal is and is not, and has shaped how I would like families to be engaged at our school in year one and beyond.

How have you advocated for students this year?

One part of our school vision is that students have a voice in their high school. I wanted kids to be a part of building their high school and that began with naming the school, followed by having choice in the dress code, the classes offered, and the clubs offered. COVID made this slightly trickier, but Google forms, Google hangouts, and emails allowed students to have a voice in their high school.

I have also advocated for student needs by trying to find nonprofits and other organizations that will pour into our students and provide them services or experiences that they may need or want, and that our school is not yet equipped to offer. I am currently working to build even more partnerships.

What is something you’ve had to change this year to fit your students’ needs that was successful?

One thing I had to change for my current KIPPsters as well as new students who are planning on attending our high school is how to interact with myself, my assistant principal and how to find out information about the school. In a normal year, we could have in-person information sessions, I could visit classrooms, students would see me in the hallway and ask questions, and we would have visited the school choice expo to tell new students about our school and offerings. COVID changed our options and we had to pivot! We had virtual meetings on Zoom, live streamed meetings on Facebook, increased our FAQ section on our website, used bulletin boards at the school to communicate information to current students, and used Google in a variety of ways to get students' questions about the high school answered!