Hedi Belkaoui, the new principal of Queen of Peace High School, is too busy getting ready for the new school year to focus on the fact that he made history as the first man to lead the girls Catholic high school in Burbank, which was founded in 1962.
At 33, Belkaoui, a native of Chicago and graduate of St. Ignatius High School, is also among the youngest heads of the school. He succeeds Mary Kay Nickels, who retired in June after five years at the helm.
Belkaoui has been busy working in the field of education for the past 11 years, since earning a bachelor of arts degree in social science from Benedictine University in River Forest. He also earned a masters of arts degree in education in 2009 from the university founded by the same order of nuns that sponsors Queen of Peace, the Sinsinawan Dominicans.
“I would call them opportunities rather than challenges,” said Belkaoui, when asked about low enrollment and other issues faced by Queen of Peace. He said the school’s struggles with dwindling enrollment is a common problem for many area Catholic schools.
But he talks optimistically about turning that trend around.
“There were 325 students enrolled at the school, last year, and we are expecting about that many this year,” he said, adding that registration is still open.
He doesn’t see being the first male principal as a challenge, and foresees no problems. Belkaoi said he was drawn to Queen of Peace, locted at 7659 S. Linder Ave. in Burbank, because he has a strong attachment to the Sinsinawan Dominicans.
“My mother was a professor at Dominican University, and I basically grew up there. As a child, I roamed the campus, and the sisters got to be like second mothers, and aunts and grandmothers to me,” he explained.
“I have such profound respect for the Sinsinawan Dominicans. This is an opportunity to continue their mission of scholarship and social justice, providing young women with a diverse learning environment and challenging curriculum.”
The new principal said Queen of Peace is differentiating itself by expanding its curriculum, particularly in the area of engineering. A few years ago, the school began providing all students with laptop computers, giving them access to software such as AutoCAD, a drafting and design program.
The second year of implementing Project Lead the Way’s STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) program is also about to start. To include the ongoing “Arts Without Borders” program, Art has also been added, making it STEAM.
PLTW, a non-profit organization, provides “rigorous and innovative STEM education curricular programs used in middle and high schools across the United States,” according to information on the Queen of Peace website.
In “Arts Without Borders,” students participate in cultural and fine arts experiences offered throughout the Chicago area. They are exposed to different disciplines, and work on quarterly project incorporating all departments and technology.
Belkaoui said PLTW students get hands-on experience, with many participating in robotics teams that compete against other schools.
“We want these young women to be able to get scholarships and make use of the opportunities, going on to universities and high-paying careers using these technology skills,” he said.
Queen of Peace added two engineering electives, supplementing the traditional math and science classes this year. Belkaoui said the school focuses on integrating the STEAM courses throughout the curriculum.
The new principal’s work experience is as diverse as the curriculum he oversees. He began his career in 2004, teaching at Morton West High School, and then Providence St. Mel, a private K-12 school in Chicago where 100 percent of seniors usually attend four-year colleges and universities. From there, he was tapped to become a dean at Providence Englewood Charter School, also in Chicago.
He and his wife, Heidy, then spent two years in Cambodia, where he was principal of the Jay Pritzker Academy in Siem Reap. Most recently, he was director of Young Scholars Kenderton, a school in North Philadelphia, Pa.
As opening day approaches, he has been busy ensuring everything is in order. “I am looking forward to the year, meeting the students and seeing them take advantage of these opportunities. That is what I am excited about,” he said.