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Penacook Elementary principal to retire

For Linda McAllister, describing a typical day at work is difficult. That’s because as principal of Penacook Elementary School, there’s no such thing as a typical day.

“No matter how you prepare for this job, you’re never totally prepared for it, because in principalships every day is different,” she said.

Yesterday, for example, her mind was on today’s snow storm and whether that would mean a cancellation or early release and how each of the families and kids would handle that. Next week, it will be something completely different.

“It’s constantly thinking on your feet . . . it’s very challenging for all of us that you always have to be thinking and be a few steps ahead,” she said.

Come this summer, however, McAllister will have a bit more time to relax. Last month, she told the administration that she plans to retire at the end of this school year, and the search is now on for her replacement.

McAllister is in her eighth year as Penacook Elementary’s principal. Before that, she was an assistant principal in Hooksett and has been in education for more than 30 years, teaching in a number of districts. Her colleagues describe her as someone who is able to juggle many tasks at once and is attentive to all the needs of a very diverse population of students.

“When you’re principal of a building, there’s myriad groups that you need to keep happy,” said Nancy Webster, district coordinator for the International Baccalaureate Primary Years Program. Those groups include students, parents, the community, staff members and other administrators. “She’s just able to keep a lot of issues and initiatives and people on her plate and keep things moving forward.”

Penacook Elementary is the largest of the Merrimack Valley School District’s five elementary schools. It has a preschool program and a larger special education program that brings in students from other district towns, Webster said. When Webster was pursing a degree in administration, she chose McAllister as her mentor because she was impressed with her ability to handle all of the different groups. That diverse population often means there are challenges that arise through the day, such as crises with special education students or others, but McAllister is always there to help solve the problem, Webster said.

“There isn’t a day that goes by that she doesn’t have to run interference, sometimes in a crisis situation with those kids, and she just is always calm and very clear about how the situation needs to be handled,” Webster said.

Implementing the IB program has been a major initiative in the district for about five years. McAllister said being involved with that process and seeing the positive changes is one thing that most defines her time at Penacook Elementary. As the program coordinator, Webster has worked with each of the principals. McAllister, and all of the principals, have always focused on what’s best for the students as the district moves forward with IB, Webster said, and she always conveyed to her staff the importance of preparing kids to succeed in an ever-changing world.

“It’s going to be very difficult to replace her ability to see the big picture and find the steps to get there and her calm demeanor and her persistence,” Webster said.

Karen Palmisano, a special education teacher, also noted McAllister’s ability to cater to the needs of all students in the school. McAllister has been an advocate for inclusive education, which puts special education students in the same classroom as regular education students, and she makes sure teachers and students have the resources to handle that, Palmisano said.

“I think she cares about each individual, student and staff member,” Palmisano said. “She is willing to put in as many hours as needed, she’s there late at night, first thing in the morning. I think she’s willing to listen.”

The district recently began advertising the vacant position, and will search for McAllister’s replacement alongside a replacement for Webster and Salisbury Principal Sandy Davis, who is also retiring at the end of the year. Applications are due in early March and the school board hopes to hire someone by mid-April.

McAllister hasn’t planned exactly what’s next for her yet – she’s focused more on tomorrow rather than next year.

“In this job you really don’t even have time to think about where you’re going,” she said.

She and her husband live in Concord, and they’d like to do more traveling. She also recently started volunteering with Family Promise, a group that works with the homeless. It’s an exciting time in the education field, she said, and in her retirement she may find other ways to stay involved. Soon she’ll have a lot more time to figure it all out.

“I think that I’m in a place where I feel really good about my work. There’s never a day that I haven’t wanted to come in, and I still feel that way,” she said. “I don’t think I’m done, but there (are) so many opportunities out there – there’s this whole huge world.”

(Kathleen Ronayne can be reached at 369-3309 or or on Twitter at @kronayne.)

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