Dr. Kathryn “Katie” Baal’s hearty and highly contagious laugh fills the dining area at Fuel in Wilmette.
The Loyola Academy principal — a St. Ignatius College Prep graduate and a former science teacher at the school in Chicago — had just finished recalling the day, in 2011, when she was formally introduced to the faculty and staff at the Jesuit college prep school in Wilmette.
“I am so happy,” Baal, beaming and upbeat, proclaimed to nearly 200 folks back then. “So happy to be back here at … St. Ignatius.”
Baal’s audience responded with a snicker or two, followed by a steady stream of laughter.
“I was told,” the 45-year-old educator says to me, “that the mistake I made that day made me look human.”
The first female principal at Loyola Academy orders coffee, scrambled eggs and a side of mixed fruit at Fuel. I had invited Baal to join me for breakfast, in part, because of an apple — a Golden Apple, specifically. The leader of the diverse student body of 2,000, hailing from more the 75 Chicago-area zip codes, emerged as one of seven Golden Apple’s Stanley C. Golder Leadership Award finalists last month for her initiative, dedication, perseverance and innovation.
“We’re going through a lot of exciting changes at Loyola Academy, involving mostly health and wellness,” Baal, a Wilmette resident since the start of the 2016-17 academic year, says, noting the school features 20 support groups, 21 counselors, a school psychologist and three literacy teachers. “Part of our mission is to help our students find balance. Kids these days … they’re trying to do it all, but that’s not always possible. Our students are dedicated, passionate and committed. We’re helping them become the people they’ve been called to be, supporting their efforts to better the world.
“As St. Ignatius [of Loyola] said, ‘Set the world on fire, dream big,’ ” Baal adds.
Baal doused her original post-St. Mary’s [Indiana] College plan to attend medical school after teaching for two years (1994-96) in the ACE (Alliance for Catholic Education) program. Her first post: high school geometry teacher, in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
“I did not like geometry when I was a student,” Baal admits. “I enjoyed algebra, calculus. But I looked at the opportunity as a challenge — to help kids understand geometry and to like it better than I did. I was scared, quite nervous, on my first day. I was way away from home, dealing with 100-degree temperatures and teaching a subject I didn’t particularly enjoy.”
Baal, pulling down $600 per month, adjusted and embraced the other “hats” that came with the position, including service club leader and concession-stand volunteer at sporting events.
“The students laughed at my accent, but I was fine with that,” Baal says. “I became a role model for my students; they respected me. I remember realizing, ‘I am here to do God’s work.’ I fell in love with teaching in Louisiana, and I love teenagers; adolescents bring me joy, especially when I get to see them thrive in their elements. I also find them fun and funny.”
Baal earned her Master of Arts in Teaching degree from the University of Notre Dame and received her doctorate in Education Leadership and Policy Studies from Loyola University in Chicago. The native of Beverly (Chicago neighborhood) and diehard Chicago White Sox fan — she had tutored a daughter of former White Sox first baseman and hitting coach Greg Walker — was the science department chair at Downers Grove South High School for seven years before answering the call to shepherd teachers, staffers and learners at Loyola Academy.
“I believe one of my strengths as a principal is seeing the big picture and bringing it to life. That’s the science enthusiast in me.”
Baal asked her faculty members last summer to read Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, a book by Bryan Stevenson. Baal had read it on a beach in Michigan City, Indiana.
Author James Clear’s summary of Stevenson’s book, in three sentences: “The true measure of our character is how we treat the poor, the disfavored, the accused, the incarcerated and the condemned. Simply punishing the broken only ensures that they remain broken and we do, too. Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.”
Baal assigned Loyola Academy’s juniors and seniors to read the book last fall.
“The book’s message,” Baal says, “is similar to our school’s mission. I knew, while reading it on that beach, I had to do what I could to get Bryan to speak at our school.”
On November 30, 2017, a week after Thanksgiving Day, the Loyola Academy community gathered at the school to hear Bryan Stevenson speak.
His words moved everyone.