A Connecticut high school principal who is guided by the philosophy, “Just Love Them.” A Texas school leader who swears by a culture of high expectations for students and staff. And a California educator, who waded into uncomfortable and controversial racial issues to improve the schooling environment for marginalized students.
Those three school leaders are the finalists for the National Principal of the Year, an annual award for middle and high school principals who’ve led successful school programs. They are:
- Donna Hayward, of Haddam-Killingworth High School, in Higganum, Conn.;
- David Arencibia, of Colleyville Middle School, in Colleyville, Texas; and
- John Briquelet, the founding leader of Oxford Preparatory Academy, a new charter middle school in Aliso Viejo, Calif., who, until last school year was the principal of Whitney High School, in Cerritos, Calif.
The winner of the award, which is given by the National Association of Secondary School Principals, will be announced next month.
A focus on the school’s climate
“Humbled is the word that comes to mind,” said Hayward, who’s been in her current position since 2014. “I couldn’t believe it; there are so many fantastic leaders just in my state alone.”
Under Hayward’s leadership, Haddam-Killingworth High School won a National Blue Ribbon Award in 2018. Hayward also introduced a blended-learning program and 14 new courses to the school’s schedule.
But she’s equally proud of the family atmosphere that she’s created for students and staff, one that encourages them to bring their creative energies to school.
“Sometimes I’m the cheerleader; sometimes, I’m the money-getter; sometimes I’m the coach. But really it’s trying to let them run with their good plans and their good ideas, then showing up to support them—whatever that looks like.”
Hayward’s “Just Love them” philosophy undergirds her work.
“[Parents] are bringing us their babies, and above all else, truly, they just need us to love them,” she said. “The parents need me to care about their kids enough so that I can figure out what’s right for them.”
She also focuses on building relationships with students, as exemplified with her work with a senior who had his post-high school plans laid out—he’s already a farmer—and didn’t see much use to continuing to attend classes. She made a deal with him: Improve your grades, finish your essays, and you can park your tractor on the field during the graduation ceremony, where everyone would have to walk past.
“It’s a million little stories,” she said. “You just do what needs to be done.”
Focusing on school culture
Arencibia, whose school was named a Texas School to Watch in 2020 and a National PTA School of Excellence, which spotlights partnerships between schools and parents, was also surprised to hear he’d made the final cut.
He cites the school’s culture, as well as its core values —“positivity, team, strength, and growth mindset”— for the gains during his tenure. Those are layered on top of an already high-performing program, Arencibia said.
“We had very high expectations,” he said. “We built a solid leadership team, and we hired the best. I was actively seeking the best teachers in and around our area—even outside of the state.”
Students “literally run into the building” because they’re excited to be at school, he said. And parent-community support is so strong that PTA members outnumber students, he said.
Student voice is also an integral part of running the school.
“We really lift up our kids as leaders,” Arencibia said. “They can go and give feedback on just about everything—down to the music that we play for passing periods on Fridays.”
A data wall, where administrators track each student’s progress on both academic and social-emotional benchmarks, helps educators reach students whose numbers are heading in the wrong direction, Arencibia said.
“It’s not a specific program” that’s resulted in the school’s success, he said. “It’s the culture-building and the high expectations. There’s no silver bullet.”
Boldly confronting racial issues
John Briquelet, the founding leader of Oxford Preparatory Academy, led Whitney High School in ABC Unified district since 2016.
Whitney High School was named California’s top high school for three of the six years Briquelet was its principal. He hired additional counselors and expanded AP offerings, as well as a CTE pathway in artificial intelligence. Working with a school committee and with staff at Cerritos College, Briquelet launched an early-college pathway program to help underrepresented students take college courses while still in high school.
But his biggest challenge was addressing racial insensitivity on campus.
A 2017 lesson on the Middle Passage, where teachers would act as slave ship captains and students would be asked to bind their wrists to mimic slaves, sparked parents’ ire.
“It was clear that kids were hurt, but were afraid to say anything,” he said.
After immediately putting a stop to the lesson, Briquelet got to work, seeking out professional development for staff on cultural proficiency and equity. Amid addressing that issue, another racial incident, this time with online posts targeting Black students, emerged.
The school brought in a professional development provider to train staff. Briquelet also established a committee and engaged the California Conference on Equality and Justice, an organization that focuses on anti-bias and conflict resolution, to work with the school community, including parents.
While most of the training took place during the pandemic, he said he is positive the efforts improved students’ experiences at school.
“The most meaningful work we did was on equity and cultural proficiency,” he said. “It made a difference in how they felt about being on campus.”
“There was a recognition by parents and students that we were actively responding, and we were communicating around equity and making sure that everyone was welcome,” said Briquelet, whose career spans more than 30 years. “I definitely felt good about what we did, but the work is not over by any stretch. That has to be an ongoing process.”
The three principals are their respective state’s principals of the year.