Cindy Gallagher

Cindy Gallagher started as Keene High School’s principal smack in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Keene High School’s new principal has some difficulties ahead as she transitions into the role, but the long-time educator says she enjoys a challenge.

Cindy Gallagher started as Keene High’s top administrator just as the district was gearing up to reopen under several changes implemented due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In May, she was hired from a pool of 27 applicants to replace former Principal Jim Logan, who announced in February that he intended to step down.

“It’s a really different way to be a new principal in a building this size,” she said of the school, which has about 1,360 students and 220 staff. “Everybody is working really hard to keep these kids safe and get them educated.”

Gallagher, 55, is a native of Pittsburgh who has lived in Newport since 1999. She has held a number of administrative and teaching roles. Prior to making the move to Keene High, she served as superintendent of the Newport School District from January 2015 to June 2019, after having worked there in various capacities over the previous 12 years.

Before that, she taught various subjects in the social sciences as an adjunct professor at several higher-learning institutions, including Smith College in Northampton, Mass., and Washington State University in Pullman, Wash., and was a tenured psychology professor at New England College in Henniker. For about five years, she also worked as an independent education consultant, helping schools study their school climates and reduce bullying.

A first-generation college student, Gallagher has been involved in the education sector for most of her life. She holds a bachelor’s degree in business administration from Quinnipiac College (now University) in Hamden, Conn., and a master’s in student affairs and leadership from the University of Massachusetts Amherst, where she also earned a doctorate in social justice education and adult development.

Though she never practiced, she also earned a law degree from what is now the University of New Hampshire Franklin Pierce School of Law.

While some educators develop a passion for social justice issues based on their experiences in the classroom, Gallagher said it was her dedication to social justice that led her to the classroom in the first place.

“The social justice issues is what made me passionate about education,” she said. “I look at education as a tool for equity.”

Prior to being hired, Gallagher, who at the time was director of the school of education at Franklin Pierce University, gave an example of what this means.

“So, if equity is about job security, then we have education processes set up to take people to careers,” she said during a public meeting held virtually in May with Keene High School staff and N.H. School Administrative Unit 29 administrators. “If equity is about getting students to read because we’re in the younger grades, then we have processes to do that.”

Just a couple of days later, when she was hired, Superintendent Robert Malay said he expected Gallagher would bring a great deal to the table as Keene High’s new principal.

“With her wealth of experience, I am confident that she will be a valuable asset to Keene High School, the staff, families and most importantly the students,” Malay said in a news release.

Speaking to The Sentinel Wednesday, Gallagher said she was drawn to education based on past experiences in classrooms that she felt were troubling, particularly around the way schools measured education. At Keene High, she’s working with staff to implement themed events around Black History Month and National Coming Out Day, as well as anti-bullying and other initiatives to celebrate diversity in the school.

Additionally, she said she’s already had conversations with students on topics such as Pride Month, policies for the use of preferred pronouns and other matters that students may be dealing with.

“An educational setting gives us opportunities to teach people how to do these kinds of questions and dialogues in a civil way,” she said.

She also said she enjoys working with children who have challenges of their own to overcome. They include students with disabilities or behavioral issues, Gallagher said, explaining that she treasures the moment when she sees a lesson really click with a student who is struggling.

“When I started teaching is when every lightbulb in my head would go off,” she said. “When I watched a student get something, like really get it, to see their lightbulb go off became a personal challenge for me.”

In her new role, she plans to help the district in its shift to grading students based on what they know and what they can show their teachers versus what they can memorize and repeat on a test.

However, she said, the pandemic has slowed that process, costing faculty several professional development opportunities where these changes would have been worked on.

When it comes to helping the school navigate the outbreak, Gallagher said one of the greatest challenges at the moment is the size of Keene High, which doesn’t have enough space to allow all students to return while still maintaining social distancing. She has yet to have a full, in-person staff meeting.

However, she noted, there are opportunities for improving practices at the school. As long as teachers and students are required to engage in remote learning, she said she hopes they can use the skills developed during that process to improve their lessons moving forward.

“I don’t want a pandemic to continue in any way,” she said. “But I am hopeful that our teachers are learning how to use technology in a way that supports their education.”

Mia Summerson can be reached at 352-1234, extension 1435, or msummerson@keenesentinel.com. Follow her on Twitter

@MiaSummerson.