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Former Palo Alto school administrator dies in scuba diving accident

Colleagues remember Kathleen Meagher as a supportive, inclusive, 'unflappable'

Kathleen Meagher, a former teacher and administrator in the Palo Alto school district, died on Tuesday, Dec. 15, in a scuba diving accident in the Caribbean, her mother confirmed Monday.

Meagher was on vacation with her partner, Ann Dunkin, in Saint Kitts and Neves in the Carribbean, Joan Meagher told the Weekly. Dunkin was not with her at the time of the accident.

Meagher (pronounced "Maw-r") first joined Palo Alto Unified School District as a first-grade teacher at Fairmeadow Elementary School in 1995. She left in 2004 to serve as assistant principal at Los Altos High School but returned in 2007 to become Duveneck Elementary School's principal. Three years later, she was promoted to director of elementary education, a position she held until 2014 when she left to become the director of secondary education for Arlington Public Schools in Arlington, Virginia.

Current and past district officials who worked with Meagher remembered her this week as a committed educator, supportive mentor and tireless advocate for students.

Former Palo Alto Unified Superintendent Kevin Skelly, who worked with Meagher throughout his seven-year tenure in the district, said all of her colleagues told him to promote her to director of elementary education, noting: "'This is the right person for this job.'"

She was a "wonderful educator, really thoughtful about what kids need, just really worked well with the other elementary principals in terms of building a sense of a learning community among the leadership," Skelly told the Weekly Monday, pulling up a letter of recommendation he recently wrote for her. "She was constantly trying to improve her own skills, her own talents. (She was a) very caring person, just a thorough professional the whole way."

Meagher's contributions to the school district, Skelly said, were "sizable." He and others mentioned in particular her work transforming professional development in the district. Meagher, along with Kelly Bikle, the district's professional learning coordinator, and a team of teachers on special assignment (TOSAs), designed Powerful Practices, an entire day of learning for teachers, with speakers and breakout sessions on everything from Common Core to mindfulness and technology. Powerful Practices took place for the third year this year in October, with many sessions led by Palo Alto teachers and staff themselves.

Bikle wrote in an email that the process behind creating the new professional-development event exemplified the kind of leader Meagher was: trusting yet challenging, collaborative and supportive.

"The inspiration for the day came from the TOSA team and Kathleen supported the work, embracing the challenge and uncertainty of trying something completely new. She supported the TOSAs by honoring their ideas but also asking hard questions and pointing out potential issues," Bikle said. "She knew that the TOSAs knew the teachers (since they work at sites every day) and trusted their instincts. She could provide leadership and direction and didn't need the 'credit' for the idea."

Katie Kinnaman, a member of that group of TOSAs now serving as principal of Gardner Bullis School in Los Altos, described Meagher as a "tremendous mentor" who contributed to Kinnaman's own decision to become a principal.

She was also "unflappable," Kinnaman said, with an uncanny ability to listen to people with focus.

"I think one of the things I most admired about her (was that) professionally, when we're pulled in so many different directions, she had that ability to be very focused on you at the moment or whoever she was talking with or interacting with. I really admired that and try to emulate that myself," she said.

Kinnaman said that core group of TOSAs got together last Thursday to "spend time together in her memory."

"She was a really important leader for us," Kinnaman said.

Both Bikle and Skelly cited Meagher as instrumental in bringing a Columbia University's Teachers College writing program to the district, which "transformed how writing is taught in elementary school," Bikle said. That work continues today, with a new emphasis on reading.

With a commitment to supporting students of color, Meagher brought to Palo Alto the National Equity Project, an Oakland-based organization that works with schools to better support historically underrepresented students, Skelly said. She also sat on an advisory committee that redesigned the district's K-5 progress reports.

Last April, when she announced her impending departure from Palo Alto, Skelly told the Weekly that "her efforts on behalf of students and staff will be felt for years to come."

Others also mentioned Meagher's sense of humor — "a wonderful asset in public education," said school board member Camille Townsend.

"Obviously there are so many things that are a testament to her commitment to education, but I do think that her good humor and ability to smile through a lot was lovely and something to be noted," Townsend said.

Joan Meagher told the Weekly that "she could find humor in just about any situation."

She also said that her daughter "went into administration because she felt that she could make more changes and be of more help to children, than just being in the classroom. ... But she did miss the kids."

Through her work in Palo Alto, Meagher met Dunkin, the district's former chief technology officer. Meagher and Dunkin lived together in Washington, D.C.

Meagher was born on July 30, 1962, in Cheshire, Connecticut. She grew up there and graduated from Cheshire High School in 1980. She then attended Boston College, where she majored in education and received a bachelor's degree in 1984.

After that, she moved to California, where she taught in Moreno Valley as a fourth-grade teacher, Joan Meagher said. She next taught in the Riverside Unified School District and at the same time earned a master's degree in educational counseling from California State University San Bernardino.

Her next job was in Palo Alto Unified, and she continued her external education by obtaining a master's degree in school administration from Santa Clara University in 2004.

In Arlington, Meagher was working on her doctorate in education at the College of William & Mary, her mother said. She had just completed her comprehensive exams and was working on her dissertation.

She is survived by her partner, Ann Dunkin of Washington, D.C.; her parents, Richard and Joan Meagher of Folsom, California; her sister, Sharon Meagher of Philadelphia; her brother Rick (Angela) Meagher of Sacramento; two nieces, Alison and Andrea; and other extended family.

A memorial service will be held on Monday, Dec. 28, at 11 a.m. at the Church of the Nativity, 210 Oak Grove Ave., Menlo Park. A service will also be held in Arlington in January.

Memorial donations can be made to an endowment fund that Dunkin and the Meaghers are establishing at William & Mary School of Education. Checks can be sent to the College of William & Mary, P.O. Box 1693, Williamsburg, VA 23187 ("In Memory of Kathleen Meagher" should be noted on the check). Donations can also be made online at, selecting School of Education and noting in the "In Memory of" comment field "Kathleen Meagher, School of Education."

Editorial Assistant Sam Sciolla contributed reporting to this story.

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14 people like this
Posted by Carrie Manley
a resident of Midtown
on Dec 22, 2015 at 11:30 am

To Ms. Dunkin, deepest condolences.

9 people like this
Posted by Badsah Mukherji
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Dec 22, 2015 at 12:38 pm

This is shocking. Ms. Meagher was Duveneck's principal for part of the time my daughters attended the elementary school. We knew her not just as a dedicated educator, but also as a good human being. She would frequently wait at the Channing & Heather crosswalk to make sure the kids were safe and to greet us. She always had a smile on her face. And she was accessible and approachable, always ready to listen to parents' concerns. Our thoughts go out to Ms. Dunkin and the rest of Ms. Meagher's family.

12 people like this
Posted by Parent
a resident of Green Acres
on Dec 22, 2015 at 2:00 pm

In the midst of much controversy in the district, the one thing our community agreed on was the quality of our elementary schools. Deepest sympathies to Ann Dunkin and Meagher's extended family.

12 people like this
Posted by Mom
a resident of Duveneck School
on Dec 23, 2015 at 10:16 am

As a parent who worked with Kathleen, [portion removed.] She did seem to care about children, however, and was warm and friendly outwardly. Many of her decisions were positive for the children.

13 people like this
Posted by Mixed feelings
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 23, 2015 at 11:08 am

[Portion removed.] I always presume these people dedicate themselves to our children, and so I mourn her passing. She had a lot more to give and a lot more life to live. [Portion removed.]

4 people like this
Posted by Midtown parent
a resident of Midtown
on Jan 1, 2016 at 7:08 pm

I had the great privilege of working with Kathleen on a district committee during her last year in PAUSD. As a parent, I thought she was a huge bright spot in the district administration and was sad to see her leave. She was smart, insightful, an amazing listener, and had a real knack for building consensus when there were disparate perspectives. My deepest condolences to Ms. Dunkin and the Meagher family.

18 people like this
Posted by Horrified
a resident of another community
on Jan 3, 2016 at 8:10 am

I'm one of Kathleen's colleagues in Arlington. We miss her terribly and I thought I'd look at the press coverage. Wish I hadn't. I'm astonished that anyone could give themselves the screen name "mixed feelings" when commenting on the death of a 53 year old woman. I'm sure that if you lost your life in a tragic accident you would not expect people to have "mixed feelings" about it. I can only imagine what horrible comments were redacted from your post. And seven likes? And no one calling you on this? What kind of community is Palo Alto? How awful.

2 people like this
Posted by Horrified redux
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jan 4, 2016 at 1:54 pm

Please don't take the callous comments you find here as representative of PA as a whole. There is a whole community of grieving people here who cared deeply for Kathleen as well. [Portion removed.]

5 people like this
Posted by Parent
a resident of Green Acres
on Jan 4, 2016 at 11:35 pm

I've posted on TS before and had very innocent things redacted that I couldn't understand, where the redactions made the post seem like I'd said something horrible. Sometimes the moderator redacts just for personal details just for privacy reasons. I've even been excoriated myself under that exact situation, where a redacted post made it seem like I'd said something horrible when it wasn't the case.

I think if the comment had been really horrible, the moderator would have taken the comment away completely, I've seen that. I wish you had made your comment to the moderator, because now everyone will interpret the deletion as something horrible. I think the person saying that she had a lot more to give and a lot more life to live means the sentiment was generally good. This is a very sad tragedy, and feel really sad for Ann Dunkin, too.

Posted by Name hidden
a resident of Old Palo Alto

on Sep 26, 2017 at 12:27 am

Due to repeated violations of our Terms of Use, comments from this poster are automatically removed. Why?

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