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Robert Littlefield, left, executive director of the Rhode Island Association of School Principals, presents the "2021 Outstanding First Year Principal" award to South Kingstown High School Principal Dr. Chip McGair during a surprise ceremony on Feb. 10.

SOUTH KINGSTOWN, R.I. — When he took the job as principal of South Kingstown High School in October 2019, just after a smooth start to the school year, Chip McGair made a prediction.

“Over time I think we’re going to become an even stronger team, and I’m happy to be at the helm of that,” he said at the time.

He didn’t know then how the school year would be upended the following spring by COVID-19. Everything changed — except his prediction that the high school would be stronger, and that he’d be happy to be there in the thick of it.

McGair, 44, a former STEM coordinator in South Kingstown, earned the Rhode Island Association of School Principals First-Year Principal of the Year award on Feb. 10.

“It’s been an absolute pleasure, it really has been,” McGair said. “I spent the majority of my career in a high school and to be able to be the principal of a school that’s this awesome, it means everything.”

The key to surviving “bumps” during the year, he said, is to work together as a team.

“We work through everything together,” he said.

It was teamwork that enabled the students and staff to switch to remote learning as COVID took hold.

It was teamwork that allowed the high school to hold a drive-through diploma ceremony for graduating seniors last June, with McGair handing diplomas to every one of the graduates.

It was teamwork that pushed McGair and the staff of about 120 to work from home last summer to prepare for returning the 711 of the 933 students to school in September.

“Getting everyone back in the building and having that buzz, seeing everyone, it’s just fantastic, that’s the best part,” he said. “That’s what’s been great, being able to have our kids back. They’re doing great following the COVID rules.”

They include taking students’ temperature when they arrive at 7:20 in the morning, mandatory mask-wearing and one-way hallways, among other things.

“Once a week we do testing as well,” he said. “It’s been amazing how everyone’s adapted to it. It’s so much better than being stuck at home all day trying to run a school that way.”

The surprise announcement took place in the high school’s main office, with several staff on hand to watch along with Supt. of Schools Linda Savastano and McGair’s family – his wife, Courtney and daughter, Hadley, 8.

Bob Littlefield, executive director of the Association of School Principals, presented the award. SKHS Assistant Principal Jonathan Rapport put in the nomination, and had the duty of arranging the small ceremony without letting the news slip to McGair, who found out only a couple of weeks ago that he was a finalist.

Savastano later reflected on McGair’s time at the high school and the qualities that make him worthy of the state award.

“We often hear that when someone enters education that they not only have the opportunity to lead but they have the obligation to become a leader. Chip exemplifies this obligation while showing us all that leadership is done through team performance,” she said.

“He is self-sacrificing as he works to mentor and to coach those around him to build capacity and leadership in his building and throughout the district. Chip clearly articulates his approach in a compelling fashion and provides strong evidence of using each student’s needs as a guiding value to inform organizational decisions. He also provides and supports an environment that empowers students and adults to assume leadership roles. He is truly a remarkable professional who challenges those around him while maintaining a contagious passion for the work that supports each and every student, every day.”

McGair is quick to list the many exciting things happening in the high school now.

“We have a senior skating event coming up, which is exciting, we have sports, and we were able to figure out that with testing, our band is able to play wind instruments again,” he said.

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