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Meet North Star Principal: Kerry Irons


Meet North Star Principal: Kerry Irons
By Noelle H. Lowery
Kerry Irons is coming full circle.
Two decades ago, she was parent volunteer in her son’s Kindergarten class at North Star Elementary. This spring, she was tapped to lead the Navigators as their new principal.

“I feel honored to have been chosen for this position,” says Irons, who has spent her entire 18- year career working in the Kodiak Island Borough School District. “I am totally excited about beginning to work with the students, families and educators at North Star. I’m a little nervous because my expectations are very high.”

New KIBSD Superintendent Larry LeDoux spearheaded Irons’ appointment. He employed a unique collaboration with North Star’s faculty and staff in choosing Irons for the position, providing the district and Kodiak community with a first-hand glimpse into his inclusive leadership style. 

“It is always important to involve teachers and staff in the selection of a principal,” LeDoux explains.  “Once engaged, they become committed to the success of the principal and feel empowered because ‘their voice counts.’ Great teams are built upon great collaboration.”

From sea squirts to children’s literature

Irons’ road to the principal’s office is anything but conventional. She grew up in Vermont, and attended college in Vermont and New Hampshire. While her first love was early English history, a chance summer class at the Shoals Marine lab in the Gulf of Maine changed the course of her life.

“I fell in love with marine invertebrate zoology, especially a small group of intriguing creatures called sea squirts. I set off to the University of Alberta and Friday Harbor Labs in Washington to earn a Master’s degree in sea squirt/developmental biology. I felt it was my destiny,” she remembers.

Along the way, she met her husband, Scott Smiley, who is a sea cucumber biologist. Together, they journeyed to San Francisco and then to Fairbanks, where Smiley worked for the University of Alaska Fairbanks. Then, in 1995, they made their way to Kodiak Island, which is where Irons was bitten by the education bug.  

“I was exploring ideas for a new career, since my previous one wasn’t an option here,” recalls Irons. “I volunteered in my son’s kindergarten classroom at North Star and absolutely loved getting to know the students. I was so amazed and intrigued by the diversity of their learning styles and their unique personalities.”

She decided to take an education course through the University of Alaska Southeast. The subject was children’s literature, and it “opened new and exciting doors” to a world of which she hardly had been aware. “THEN, from THAT point, there was no going back! I was completely captivated by learning how children learn, by the challenge of taking my background in science and engaging students in learning experiences that tapped into their curiosity about the world, and by making sure that every child, no matter what, learns to read,” she says.

To the principal’s office 

Fast forward 18 years. Irons spent 15 years in classrooms at North Star, Peterson and East elementary schools both as a classroom teacher in Kindergarten through 3rd grade and a reading teacher. She participated in the Alaska Statewide Mentor Project for two years. For the last three years, she served as an instructional support coordinator in KIBSD’s Department of Instruction. 

Irons’ resume alone was impressive enough to put her in the running to become North Star’s new principal. After all, says LeDoux, “I was looking for a principal who will create a learning community where every child, parent, staff member and teacher is valued. A principal that will facilitate instructional curiosity, risk-taking and academic growth. A principal that will facilitate a school that is emotionally, socially and academically safe. A principal that loves children and who is committed to their success. A principal that believes that there is no failure greater than one child and no success greater than one child…Kerry is all of the above.”

Still, LeDoux believes in a hiring process for new principals that involves parents, students, fellow administrators and teachers. He wants to personally visit with teachers and aides in a school to discuss the leadership and experience characteristics they desire in a new principal and to review the kinds of learning community challenges that a new principal will face.

When the need rose to hire a principal at North Star, LeDoux held an open forum with the North Star staff to discuss what they wanted in a new principal, and following that meeting, he created a small team to interview four internal candidates. In the end, Irons was the unanimous choice.

“Beyond her principal and leadership skills, (Kerry) has had years of experience with scientific research, a master teacher who provides a learning environment that encourages all students to learn,” LeDoux notes. “The twinkle in her eye as she facilitates learning motivates children, parents and her peers…I am so happy she will be joining the North Star team.  She will make a difference for children.”

Coming full circle

For Irons, the appointment to North Star Principal is very personal: “North Star is where I learned what it means and what it takes to be an effective teacher. I had a lot of powerful mentors and role models here. By moving into the principal position, I feel like I’m coming full circle, and giving back to the community that gave so much to me.”

From her direct work with students to her mentorship of new teachers to her involvement with curriculum development, Irons feels “a true sense that the students at North Star are our Kodiak kids.” She has developed a first-hand understanding of where students need to be as they move from elementary to middle school, and her work with the various cultures on the island will broaden her approach to what will and will not work at North Star.

In the coming school year, North Star will have many teachers in their first to third years of teaching, and Irons is confident that her work on the district level and in the state mentoring program provides her with “a good sense of how we need to support new teachers both from a classroom management angle and instructionally.”

“I have deepened my understanding of how to engage kids and help them gain more voice in their own learning,” Irons says of her time as an instructional support coordinator.

Already, she has held her first staff meeting, and has set three goals for her first year as principal at North Star:
  1. Focus on strengthening our community by building relationships through open, respectful, and responsive communication.
  2. Build leadership capacity at all levels with both students and staff.
  3. Support joyful learning.
She wants members of the North Star community to know that what they think and feel really matters to her. She welcomes feedback, especially when that feedback will make the school a better place for students and their families.

“From my perspective, North Star has always been a school filled with professionals who care deeply about the kids and families they serve,” Irons says. “Looking at the teachers and paraprofessionals gathered in the library (during the first staff meeting), I felt so positive and excited about the journey we’re embarking on. They will be an incredible group to work with. I can’t wait!”