Principal John Briquelet — a finalist for the National Association of Secondary School Principals’ 2023 Principal of the Year — is a change agent.
He’s been in a high-performing school that “really had a hot rod engine but wasn’t racing.” By the time he left, the school was in high gear with better assessment scores than a high-performing cross-town rival, loads more school spirit and higher graduation and college-entry rates.
As principal at another high school, he reduced an extremely high suspension rate by more than 75%. “To me, taking a kid away from their education is the last resort,” he says. He helped generate improvements in assessment scores and graduation rates.
His hardest challenge
At a different high school — a high-performing magnet school — a subtle undercurrent of racism came to the fore after a misguided teacher’s lesson on slavery and a racist online incident among students a little later.
Principal Briquelet convened a committee of parents, students, teachers, alumni and district office staff, and they brought in the California Conference for Equality and Justice to provide more than a dozen hours of training each for the entire student body and the staff. He repeated the training for the new cohort of kids who started the following year and continued staff training to ensure that instruction was inclusive and anti-racist and that the students had equity. All the while, the students continued to do well academically.
“It all really needed to be brought out into the light. Then we were able to dig in and start doing something about it. We had kids say they finally felt heard,” he says. He’s aware the problem hasn’t disappeared. “People want us to account for 40-plus years of racism. I can’t undo that. But if you will trust me and support me where you can, so help me God, we will move this. And we did.”
Today, Briquelet is one of the founders and chancellor of Oxford Preparatory Academy, a just-opened, blank-slate public middle school where the instruction is based upon the theory of multiple intelligences and every child is seen as gifted. He says the ripples from the pandemic — student learning deficits plus issues with socialization and depression — are top of mind, and he and his staff are leaning heavily on data analysis to form next steps.
“As soon as we have any indication that a student is struggling, we’ll get the parent involved, meet individually with the student, and possibly as a team, looking at what intervention strategies to use. Like most schools, we’re busting our tails to really make sure the kids are where they should be by continually monitoring and supporting wherever we can,” he says.
Principal helps create school culture
Building or reshaping school culture has been key to Briquelet’s success as principal at every stop. At a school where students showed little respect for others or their environs, trash was tossed everywhere. Briquelet says the fix was partly holding kids accountable, “but it was also a lot about loving. I’d walk the campus and see a group of kids where an area was really clean. I walk over and go, ‘Hey, I really appreciate that. You know, I’m glad you show pride in your campus. This little zone is yours. Keep it clean, guys!’ And then the next day I showed up with pizza for them. It was recognition that we cared about them and that it was important to us to not to be wading through trash and that we wanted to be represented better than this.” He says similar efforts by him and the rest of the staff led to “a pretty substantial change.”
When students protested a rigid no-hats rule on game days or for presentations, Briquelet sat down with the staff and students to better understand the concerns, and he made a deal with students to relax the policy by homing in on gang indications. “You’re gonna be able to wear the hats you’d like to wear as long as they don’t break our rules,” he told them. “The kids loved it. And, I’ll tell you, we had fewer kids violating the policy when we relaxed it by far than we ever did when we had a strict no.”
Briquelet says creating a strong culture requires building mutual respect and trust and “just loving them up.” In his experience, that has led to students who are kinder and more supportive of each other, and respectful of others and their surroundings.
But he can’t succeed without a partnership that includes the teachers, staff and others.
With the earlier issues on racism at the school, Briquelet leaned heavily on the school’s Black Alumni Association and Latino parent organization. “They really informed my efforts and gave me support and pushed me forward” through a disconcerting time, he says.
“You’ve gotta have the guts to do this stuff, and the kids have to come first — always,” he says. “Have the courage to stay the course, ‘cause it gets tough sometimes.”
Helps to have an administrators’ network
It helps to be connected with others — be they community groups or local or regional principals and other administrators. “The weight of the [principal’s] job can be immense.” When mentoring aspiring administrators, “I try to clarify that the weight is heavier when you’re the principal. You don’t get to put it down. It’s with you in the afternoon when you go home. It’s with you on the weekend. Something goes wrong. That’s on you.”
Maintaining that community of peers allows for continued learning and a feeling of not being so alone with that weight. ”I think a lot of them fear calling and asking a question. I always had people I knew I could call. Talk to your fellow principals. That’s vital. Find people you can talk to and commiserate with.
“We problem-solve together. We talk about the ins and outs of what’s going on on our campuses, things we’ve done that have been really successful. Most of the administrators I communicate with appreciate the opportunity to learn from each other,” he says.
As a Principal of the Year finalist, Briquelet’s pool of peers has widened, and he’s looking forward to connecting with others through the National Association of Secondary School Principals.
“That collegiality, that collaboration, is essential,” he says.
Opinions expressed by SmartBrief contributors are their own.