PETERBOROUGH — Heather McKillop can’t wait to have all students back at ConVal Regional High School.
“I’m so excited,” said McKillop, who is in her first year as the Peterborough school’s principal. “Community has always been important to me, school community. Having the opportunity to have all students that choose to join us in the same place, I think, will help us feel more like that united front that we are.”
And it looks like McKillop, a 35-year-old Peterborough resident, will soon get her wish. After operating under a hybrid model all year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, ConVal High plans to offer full in-person classes beginning April 5, Superintendent Kimberly Rizzo Saunders announced this week.
Students who have chosen to learn remotely throughout the year can continue to do so, but McKillop said she still looks forward to interacting with more students on a regular basis.
“It’s going to be wonderful,” she said. “... And I think it’s important, too, that we continue to listen to our students. It will be a shift. Students haven’t been in school, all together, now for over a year. So, it will be a transition having everybody back in. I think a lot of students are excited and ready, and we will be ready with support.”
The coronavirus pandemic has dominated McKillop’s first year at ConVal — which enrolls about 700 students from Antrim, Bennington, Dublin, Francestown, Greenfield, Hancock, Peterborough, Sharon and Temple. But she said she is eager to begin looking beyond the public health crisis, and sees a bright future for herself at ConVal.
“I’m not looking to go anywhere else,” she said. “I want to be here. I love this community, our ConVal community, our nine towns.”
McKillop was born in Washington, D.C., but moved around a lot as a child because her father, Tom, served in the U.S. Army Special Forces. She spent the most time in Nashua, where she lived for her four years at Nashua Senior High School.
“I do remember it being very difficult leaving in middle school,” she said. “I was in Medfield, Mass. I remember having to leave 8th grade from there, transitioning to Nashua in 9th grade, and that being really difficult, being at the end of middle school and hoping to transition to high school with my friends.”
The summer before starting high school, McKillop’s parents signed her up for a soccer camp, which helped her make friends ahead of the new school year. Athletics continued to expand her social circles throughout high school, McKillop said. In addition to soccer in the fall, she ran indoor track in the winter and played lacrosse in the spring.
She continued her lacrosse career at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Conn., where she earned a bachelor’s degree in English, and later a master’s in teaching. But she knew long before college that she wanted to be an educator, and has fond memories of playing school as a child with her younger brother, Tom, and wanting to teach him everything she knew.
“As soon as I knew how to ride a bike, I remember the first time I kind of put him on a bike and just pushed him, and he fell and cried,” McKillop said. “And we kept doing that until he could ride his bike. So, I’ve always had a love of learning, and it didn’t take me long to figure out that teaching would be what I wanted to do with my life.”
After college, McKillop stayed at Sacred Heart, where she took the newly created job of assistant director of academic support services for student athletes. The position also allowed her to be an assistant lacrosse coach at the university, and work as an adjunct instructor.
“So it was a unique opportunity, and I loved it,” McKillop said. “However, after a few years, I thought to myself, ‘I don’t want to regret [not taking] the opportunity of becoming a high school English teacher,’ because that was something I wanted to do for a long time. And I felt like I was at a point where I was going to stay in college athletics, that was going to be my trajectory, or I needed to try this.”
So, she made the leap to Bunnell High School in Stratford, Conn., where she worked for five years, while also continuing as an adjunct instructor at Housatonic Community College in Bridgeport, Conn.
“I loved being a part of the high school community, and being at the community college,” McKillop said. “Lacrosse has also been a large part of my life, so I was also coaching lacrosse.”
After a few years, her principal at Bunnell, Nancy Dowling, encouraged McKillop to pursue her school administrator certification, and she returned to Sacred Heart University to earn that degree, which qualifies her to hold public school positions from assistant principal up through assistant superintendent. Shortly after that, she saw a job opening as an assistant principal at Nashua High School North.
“And at the time, I had been commuting at least one weekend a month from Connecticut to New Hampshire, because I was very close with my grandmother [Therese McKillop], who wasn’t doing too well, who lived in Nashua,” she said. “So I was already traveling to see family often, so I applied for that position, and was grateful to earn that.”
McKillop spent three years as one of four assistant principals at Nashua North, where she was responsible for about 425 students. During her time there, McKillop moved to Peterborough, in large part, she said, because of her love for outdoor activities like hiking, biking and running. It was also a good in-between point for McKillop and her wife, Jeanette McKillop, who works at Franklin Pierce University in Rindge. The two are parents to a 15-month-old son, Mason.
Heather McKillop didn’t intend to leave Nashua North, but while she was on a walk one evening last year, some neighbors told her that ConVal was looking for a new high school principal. The school’s previous principal, Michelle Voto, left at the end of last school year to take a position as the director of adult education for N.H. School Administrative Unit 16 in Exeter.
“I love where I live. I love this region,” McKillop said. “And since I heard the position [at ConVal] was open, I started doing my research. I went online and looked up information on the district, and everything that I read seemed in alignment with my values and beliefs.”
Those values, McKillop said, include the district’s student-centered approach to education, and attention to detail and communication, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The school board unanimously approved McKillop’s hiring last June, and she officially began in the role July 1. McKillop hit the ground running, starting almost immediately to help the district develop its reopening plan.
“I would say from July right until we reopened, it was day in, day out crafting the best thing that we can do, knowing that if we had to monitor and adjust to meet the needs [of students, families and staff], that we would do that,” she said.
Thankfully, McKillop said, ConVal high school has been able to stick to its reopening plan throughout the year, never having to switch to fully remote learning, except for a transition to virtual classes over the holiday season, which was built into the plan.
“So I’m grateful that the plan has been able to be implemented with fidelity,” she said.
Overall, McKillop said her first year at ConVal has been exciting, but challenging. The biggest challenge, she said, is how much time she needs to dedicate to COVID-19 plans and protocols. The job ahead — helping guide students, families and staff beyond a life-altering public health emergency — is important, McKillop said, and she’s enthused about doing this work at ConVal.
“I’m excited to be here,” she said. “I’m hopeful for the future of ConVal.”