South Kingstown High School is a place focused on learning, said Principal Robert McCarthy. But it has clearly been more than that during McCarthy’s 10-year tenure.
The beloved principal, known to many simply as “Bob,” will leave this month to take a job as principal at an American school in Rome in July. During South Kingstown High School’s commencement ceremony June 15, graduate after graduate hugged him, including one whose bear hug lifted McCarthy off the ground.
“In general, it’s about relationships,” McCarthy said in an interview. “I’m just continually amazed at the kids. Kids here have been so willing to speak to me and involve me in the school community.”
McCarthy mentioned many events at the high school he’s been proud to be a part of, from SKPades – a series of skits that showcase the talents of the junior class and give them the opportunity to poke fun at the school’s administration, including him, its facilities and the senior class – to an “extreme makeover” clean up day, to school plays and sporting events.
“As we bid farewell to the leader of our flagship school I would like to acknowledge the dedication, service and leadership of Principal Robert McCarthy for over 10 years to the students, families and staff of South Kingstown,” Superintendent Kristen Stringfellow said, during the commencement ceremony. “I am sure that nearly everyone in the community has a sincere personal connection to Bob McCarthy and is grateful for all that you have invested in our community and school. I would like to personally thank Bob for his service and wish him and his family the very best in this new journey in their life.”
McCarthy came to SKHS in 2005, after serving as principal of East Greenwich High School for six years. He was attracted to the job because of the opportunity to work close to his South Kingstown home, and also because of the opportunity to work with a student body that was larger and more diverse.
“We really have made a lot of strides in terms of challenging all kids,” McCarthy said. “What we hear anecdotally from kids is that teachers and the school in general have very high expectations for students. We’ve increased the number of opportunities for teachers to work with each other, and we’ve tried to encourage teachers who want to try something new.
During his tenure, the high school added common planning time Wednesday mornings, when students arrive an hour later, so teams of teachers have time to collaborate. Graduation rates increased, and tardiness decreased. His work was often about creating connections, and encouraging students to find an adult in the building they could turn to for guidance and advice.
That was clear when popular teacher Missy Stark died days before graduation in 2012, and McCarthy boarded the bus taking seniors on their class trip, to announce the news himself. He wanted the students to hear it from him, he said, not from the Internet, or via text message. Later in the week, as students talked about decorating their mortarboards to honor Stark, McCarthy reminded them as sad as the news was, they needed to remember commencement was about them.
In 2012, New England Association of Schools and Colleges gave the school its highest level of accreditation. “There is a profound partnership among the faculty, staff, students, and parents and a commitment to a student-centered school,” the evaluators wrote at that time. But along the way, staffing and electives also were reduced, as the district’s enrollment declined.
“We want kids, when they come through as seniors, to feel the school continues to get better and better,” McCarthy said. “That notion of continuous improvement is something we’ve been able to achieve, and that manifests itself in a lot of different ways: in the number of clubs we have that kids started, in our [Advanced Placement test] scores, in the number of kids taking AP courses.”
McCarthy said the creation of the annual Extreme Makeover Day was one of his fondest memories because it brought the whole community together to improve the school. During one day each spring, students, faculty and staff clean the building and do small improvement projects, like cleaning the courtyard or painting walls. He said he can’t keep track of all his favorite memories or student success stories, but mentioned a few: this year’s student musical, “Shrek,” the Night of the Arts that showcases the work of art department students, the science fair and more. Graduation is his favorite day of the year, he said, as he watches students he got to know over the past four years move on to new successes.
“I try to be visible,” McCarthy said. “That’s not always easy for an administrator to do. I try to encourage kids to talk to me if they have issues, and then we explores ways we can address that issue, whether it’s a personal one or an institutional one. I go around to all the freshman classes and speak to them about the school.”
This year, he gave the Presidential Award to senior Hunter Silvestri, one of those students who had an issue to address. In 2013, when Silvestri was a sophomore, the school planned to change its daily class schedule to try to reduce tardiness. Silvestri circulated a petition that received more than 600 signatures to protest the change, which brought media attention to the school. Rather than squashing the movement, McCarthy told the Independent he was glad Silvestri came forward to advocate for students, and said he was “looking forward to having him and others participate.”
Of course, nothing’s more visible than a principal riding on a scooter, McCarthy’s preferred mode of transportation. He joked he’s not just riding around on the scooter simply because he’s moving to Rome, where scooters are popular, but because he just got it fixed and rides it to school.
“I’m going to miss the culture here, the relationships I’ve developed with teachers, parents and kids. Leaving is definitely bittersweet,” McCarthy said. “But I think we are always telling kids to take risks and to follow their passion and to put themselves in opportunities that might be challenging, so they can grow. I’d like to think that I’m here sort of ‘walking the walk.’ Traveling is a passion for me. Going to a new school will be a good opportunity to work with a new culture and different challenges.”