Bearing a warm smile, Principal Kathy Knezevic of Holly Grove Elementary walked through the halls of her school and greeted every student and teacher she passed with a friendly hello.
“Hey, Principal K!” they all chimed back.
Holly Grove Elementary School, located in Holly Springs, has served as a year-round Wake County public school for more than a decade. Knezevic has been the head principal for three years, managing more than 1,100 children and 80 staff members.
Knezevic, who immigrated to the United States from Greece at the age of 17, prides herself on her deep-rooted passion for education. She initially wanted to pursue economics, but after her mother told her she would be a wonderful teacher, she switched paths.
“Being Greek — the Greeks started the education system — so I think it was instilled in me growing up that the only thing, if anything, that we can give to our kids is education,” said Knezevic.
After receiving her masters in school administration from North Carolina State University, she worked in three schools in Wake County before starting at Holly Grove: Davis Drive Elementary, Mills Park Elementary, and Washington Elementary.
“Every school I’ve been in in Wake County has been very different as far as the demographics and the needs, but just as challenging and wonderful as the students learn and grow,” Knezevic said.
The nontraditional calendar has been a challenge for Knezevic in her three years at Holly Grove. The school is on a year-round schedule, which means there is no three-month summer vacation, but instead shorter breaks are interspersed in a 12-month school calendar. The school year starts in mid-July and runs through June.
“We’re going 12 months out of the year,” said Knezevic. “By the time you get the results of what you put in place, you have to look ahead and move on. For traditional schools, they have the summer to reflect but [here] it’s not like that. I tell my staff that we’re human, we’re going to make mistakes, but we always aim to make mistakes in the best interest of the kids, and it’s all going to wash out in the end.”
Holly Grove is also, like most schools, challenged by bullying. According to StopBullying.gov, about 49 percent of American students in grades 4-12 report being bullied in the past month.
At Holly Grove, bullying is “treated very seriously,” said Knezevic. “[Holly Grove] is a PBIS — positive behavior intervention school — so we try to intervene early so there is more awareness of what behaviors are not acceptable. We have a zero bullying policy. We have assemblies we do with the kids, and I have two wonderful counselors that go into the classrooms with the kids and do lessons on what’s acceptable and what’s not, and in cases where it does still exist, we take it very seriously. We call the parents and we tell them, and we have consequences for that because it’s just not okay.”
Despite these challenges, Knezevic still looks forward to each day as Holly Grove’s principal. “I love what I do. I think this is me. I get up happy in the morning that I’m going to work.”
Knezevic said there was a moment she knew she was in the right career path after a parent asked her to help fill out a form to enroll her child in school.
“Afterwards, she told me, ‘I’m illiterate,’ and she couldn’t read the registration form for her kid, to fill it in,” Knezevic said. “And I just — my gosh — I know multiple languages, and it’s not even my mother language, and there are people that can’t pick up a newspaper and can’t read to fill out applications for jobs, and that just kind of solidified for me the importance of education.”
Knezevic said that literacy helps build the foundation that makes her so passionate about working in elementary schools.
“It’s all about foundation…making sure that my babies, when they leave here in fifth grade, are solid when they go into middle school,” she said. “So far, the feedback we have from the middle school is that all our kids are very successful, even the kids that have struggled here. And it’s all about growth, and I know that we get a grade every year, but last year our school was, for the first time, an A-plus school for Wake County — one of six schools — so we’re very proud of it.”
She said the exciting part of her job is that each day she comes into work not knowing what to expect from the day.
“Our day is very fluid, very changing, because we deal with babies and sometimes it’s days full of discipline and sometimes it’s days full of parent meetings, sometimes — we don’t have very many quiet days, but once in a while, we have those too — and you know, we’ll take it,” Knezevic said. “It’s a busy place.”
She has what she calls a “meat and potatoes” way of managing her teachers. She does not micromanage.
“My philosophy is, when I come in for an announced observation, it’s like I’m coming to your house for dinner,” Knezevic said. “And when you know I’m coming, I expect the china, the silver, crystal, you know, five-course meal. When I’m unannounced, I want meat and potatoes. I want to come in and see what you do every day for those babies, and I’m a firm believer that this is sacred, what we do, and I don’t take it lightly.”
Knezevic believes that the best way to combat any challenges in the school is to “getting the right people on your team.”
Knezevic says she always looks for passion in her staff, saying, “You can teach people the curriculum; you can’t teach people to love kids or be excited making sure that their kids grow. That has always been my driving force. I think the rest takes care of itself.”
Assistant Principal Nichole McCullers said Knezevic is a joy to work with.
“She is amazing, and the kids love her — especially her frequent flyers,” McCullers said.
Knezevic’s “frequent flyers” are a group of boys who normally have problems behaving throughout the school day. Each day at recess, Knezevic takes a walk around the track outside with them and asks them about their day. Other students have noticed the group and latched on as well.
After one lap, one of the boys said, “Can we walk one more Principal ‘K’?”
She said her plan for improving Holly Grove is to have more interaction between teachers and parents.
“Even with us here, we get busy with teaching and meetings and grades, everything that we do all day, and I don’t think we do our part to reach out to the parents and say, ‘Hey, so and so had a fantastic day today,” Knezevic said. “I think that the parents — you know, every time the phone rings and they see Wake County Public Schools, and they’re just, ‘Ugh,’ you know, they get that feeling — so, we want to change that.”
Knezevic’s job is not always focused solely on education.
“We have had losses of a child, somebody’s child,” Knezevic said. “We’ve had losses of husbands. Parents and extended family is one thing — that’s the progression of life — but having to deal with an infant’s death or a husband’s untimely death, that was one of the hardest. But it brought us more together as a group, as a community.”
Knezevic said she wakes up every morning looking forward to seeing her babies the most.
“I tell my staff and my PTA that I have two kids of my own but I’ve been blessed with almost 1,200 kids here, and I take it very seriously that they get the best education possible, that they are equipped for whatever the future holds for them,” she said.