YOUNGSTOWN Schools' principals represent new breed
The three men fill the city's critical need for male principals in its 13 elementary schools.
By RON COLE
VINDICATOR EDUCATION WRITER
YOUNGSTOWN -- Bruce Palmer, Ken Ekis and Michael Schubert traveled uniquely separate paths to get to where they are today.
Palmer was shot four times as a Youngstown police officer before turning to a career in education.
Ekis started out as a custodian in an elementary school in Poland and later returned as principal.
Schubert taught for a decade in Charleston, S.C., where he survived Hurricane Hugo.
The former cop, janitor and Southerner come together this school year as the newest group of elementary school principals in the Youngstown city schools.
Palmer takes over as head of Bennett Elementary School. Ekis will lead Jackson Elementary, and Schubert is principal of Taft Elementary.
In a school system that traditionally hires most of its principals from within its own ranks, Palmer, Ekis and Schubert represent a new breed of educational leader for the city schools.
All three come from outside the city: Palmer was principal of Reed Middle School in Campbell last year; Schubert was intermediate school principal in Southeast schools in Ravenna; Ekis was principal of McKinley Elementary School in Poland.
The trio also fills a critical need for male principals in the city's 13 elementary schools. Last year, the district had none.
More importantly, the hirings also may mark another turning point of sorts for a school system that for so many years has struggled academically and financially.
It's proof, some educators observe, that the region's largest school district has weathered the storm and is now in the position of attracting experienced, qualified leaders from outside.
"They come in knowing the kinds of challenges that they're going to be dealing with, and they still come," said Germaine Bennett, the district's personnel director. "To me, that's encouraging.
"If we were so much of a sinking ship as some people want to think we are, who wants to jump on that? So, we're not sinking as fast as some people might think."
A look at the new breed:
A native of Mingo Junction, Palmer became a Youngstown police officer in 1986 and was shot four times during a narcotics raid in 1989.
Two years later, he left police work, got a bachelor's degree in education at Youngstown State University and landed a teaching job at Jackson-Milton High School. He moved to the Campbell schools three years later, then bounced to Boardman as an assistant principal and back to Campbell two years ago.
But he always wanted to come back to the city, so he jumped at the chance when the elementary school jobs opened.
"As I worked for the police department, I became attached to those in the city of Youngstown, and I just wanted to continue to help our young kids," he said.
"They need some direction. They need some motivation. But they also need somebody who really cares about them."
So Palmer, 42, finds himself at the head of the 400-student Bennett Elementary School in the same South Side neighborhood he used to patrol as a policeman.
"The neighborhood is still the same," he said. "There are good people everywhere. I'm excited to be here. I feel like I'm home again."
Of the three new principals, Ekis is the old pro.
After 13 years teaching elementary physical education in the Austintown schools and 11 years as a junior varsity basketball coach, Ekis spent the past 13 years as a principal in Crestview, Twinsburg and Poland, the last six at McKinley Elementary.
The McKinley job was a homecoming for Ekis, who was a custodian at the school when he was working his way through YSU.
"It really helped me to appreciate the bus drivers, custodians, cooks, secretaries," Ekis said last week from his new school.
"We're all family. We all have a part to do, and no one person is more important than the others. As a matter of fact, there's a parking space reserved out here for the principal, and I'm going to have the custodian paint over it because I don't deserve that more than anyone else."
Saving for college
At the age of 51, Ekis retired at the end of last school year, but he sought the Youngstown job for two practical reasons: His two high school children plan to go to college.
"The little bit I had saved is about half of what I thought I had," he said.
Though Poland and Youngstown have their differences, Ekis said he anticipates a smooth transition.
"I'm very impressed with the work ethic of the people here," he said. "In Poland, our test scores were pretty good, but I never professed to be a better principal than the people in the city, nor did I say that our teachers were better. We were maybe a little more fortunate to have kids that came to us a little more ready for school."
He added: "Kids basically have similar needs. They need to be surrounded by a core of people who care about them."
You could say Schubert's education career began with a whirl.
A year after graduating from Edinboro State University of Pennsylvania in 1988, he took a teaching job in Charleston, S.C.
A month later, Hurricane Hugo slammed into the city with 120 mph winds.
"Being from Pennsylvania, I went through tornadoes," he said. "That was nothing. A hurricane, it was a solid 18 hours of stress. I just couldn't take it."
A native of Girard, Pa., near Erie, Schubert spent 10 years in Charleston's inner-city schools as well as a year in Chapel Hill, N.C., before moving to the Southeast local schools in Ravenna three years ago.
"My family's in Erie, and my wife's family is in Pittsburgh," said the 37-year-old father of two (with a third child expected next month).
"So, an hour and 15 minutes in each direction is fine with me."
Hoping to improve
He was in various administrative jobs at Southeast but wanted to return to an urban school environment.
"You read a lot of things about Youngstown schools, and you want to do something about it," he said.
"I know how good these teachers are here. Everyone's a professional. They need to be treated with more respect, and my goal is to be part of this team."
Schubert, who also holds a master's degree from The Citadel, said he's impressed with the school system's unflinching commitment to academic improvement.
"It's nice seeing a school district that's working toward a goal," he said. "You know what the goal is, and you know where you're going, and everything seems to be channeled toward that direction."