Colonel Gray's Kevin Whitrow a Canadian outstanding principal

Jim Day jday@theguardian.pe.ca
Published on February 21, 2016

Colonel Gray High School principal Kevin Whitrow says he has not been bored a single day in his life during a 30-year career in education as both a teacher and administrator.

©THE GUARDIAN/Jim Day

National selection committee of The Learning Partnership grants honour for his collaborative work with staff

Kevin Whitrow went with his gut.

The principal of Colonel Gray High School in Charlottetown chose to invite the community to toss baseballs on the soccer pitch outside the school on a cool December afternoon.

He didn't know how people would respond. Maybe only a few would even bother to come out.

Hundreds came, though, glove in hand, to pay heartfelt tribute to Tanner Craswell and Mitch MacLean — two beloved young Island men gunned down in 2011 in Alberta where they were pursuing promising baseball careers.

Whitrow's instinct proved strong. His initiative hit home.

"I still have that vivid picture of people playing catch,'' he says.

INFOBOX: Principal profile

Queen Charlotte Intermediate School principal Parker Grimmer says the thoughtful, inspired move embodies Whitrow's character.

"He has a capacity to care and to care in an appropriate way, and his instincts are spot on,'' he says.

"He's a great listener. He has a great sense of humour. He leads by example. He leads quietly.''

Grimmer felt Whitrow was worthy to be counted among the country's top principals so he put the long-time administrator's name forward in Canada's Outstanding Principals program, an annual initiative of The Learning Partnership, a national charity that works to advance publicly funded education in the country.

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Other colleagues joined parents and community members in adding strong endorsements to the collective successful pitch.

A national selection committee recently gave Whitrow the nod, along with 39 other principals across Canada, to be celebrated for demonstrating innovation, having an entrepreneurial spirit and for employing creativity in finding solutions and opportunities.

"You can't have a great school without a great principal,'' says Akela Peoples, CEO and president of The Learning Partnership.

"It just doesn't happen.''

Whitrow is heralded for working collaboratively with staff members on building their skills and knowledge, creating a trusting and safe environment for innovation.

He introduced a new attendance and tracking program that provides another data set in addition to electronic marks. The program, used to target interventions for at-risk learners, is now being implemented across P.E.I.

Four years ago, Whitrow initiated a police program at Colonel Gray in conjunction with Charlottetown Police Services because, in his words, the school "was losing a lot of kids'' to drugs.

Programs dealing with Internet safety, citizenship and online bullying have also been developed at the high school.

Whitrow says a good deal of his role as principal is to model and create belief systems around how to best treat the students.

Students, he says, should expect to be treated with respect in a positive learning environment that is not adversarial.

"I have a one-line thing that always sticks in my head and that is that I influence the dignity of a student with every single contact,'' says Whitrow.

He is quick to deflect praise for joining the prestigious ranks of the National Academy of Canada's Outstanding Principals, which now boasts almost 400 members.

"Probably the overwhelming thing is just the humility that you realize you don't really do this alone at all — and you rely so heavily on vice principals and on teachers,'' he says.

Whitrow adds he is thrilled with the opportunity, thanks to his selection as a top-notch principal, to benefit from an exclusive five-day executive leadership training program at one of Canada's top business schools, the University of Toronto's Rotman School of Management.

Whitrow did not entertain thoughts of becoming an educator while growing up on a farm in Saskatchewan.

He was only a "fair'' student in high school.

Farm life seemed like his calling until he moved to Calgary and started studying cabinet making and carpentry in college.

Soon he came to realize he was more cut out for being around people in a teaching role than as a lifetime tradesman.

He would go on to teach for 10 years in Saskatchewan, primarily math and vocational — carpentry, welding and architectural drafting.

He and his wife, Margaret, a native Islander, then moved to P.E.I. with no work awaiting them.

Whitrow eventually found work as a substitute teacher at Birchwood Intermediate School in Charlottetown.

That would convert into a seven-year teaching stint at the school, followed by two years as vice-principal at Birchwood.

He moved on to Colonel Gray as vice-principal for four years and has been principal there for the past seven.

The 55-year-old principal needs no push to remain engaged and motivated as the school's top administrator.

"You feel like you come to work every day with the potential to make significant decisions and impacts on peoples' lives,'' he says.

"If you are content and doing well in a school, you tend to become part of the community and that tends to be a fairly stable situation.''

You can't have a great school without a great principal. Akela Peoples, CEO and president of The Learning Partnership

Snapshot of Kevin Whitrow:

- He lives in Charlottetown with his wife, Margaret.

- The couple has three daughters: Anna Marshall; Ellen Whitrow; Mary Whitrow.

- Whitrow will attend a gala on Tuesday, Feb. 23, at the Westing Harbour Castle Hotel in Toronto to be recognized as one of Canada's outstanding principals.

- On the one constant that remains a driving force for Whitrow in his 30-year career as an educator: "It is that connection with kids that really makes the enjoyment in the profession. It's what brings life to anything. If you get removed from that, you lose your energy source.''