School & District Management Q&A

For the Principal of the Year, Academic Success Starts With Listening to Students

By Evie Blad — October 23, 2023 5 min read
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A healthy, collaborative school culture is a springboard that propels students to academic excellence—and teachers to professional growth, said Andrew Farley, principal of Brookfield East High School, in Brookfield, Wisc.

The National Association of Secondary School Principals named Farley its 2024 Principal of the Year on Oct. 20, citing his efforts to close the achievement gap, elevate student voice, and promote student mental health.

Formerly a social studies teacher, Farley is now in his 11th year leading the school he graduated from, even working with some of the same teachers who were there when he was a student.

When he returned to his school from an awards ceremony in Washington Monday, Farley was greeted by a celebratory parade that included students, a marching band, and cheerleaders.

He spoke with Education Week about what motivates him and why he believes child well-being and academic excellence go hand in hand.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Brookfield East has also been recognized as a National Blue Ribbon School for your efforts to close the achievement gap. How do you approach that work?

It starts with a school culture where every student feels safe, every student feels appropriately challenged, and they’re supported throughout their four-year journey and beyond by an amazing series of educators.

You have to have a culture of high expectations. You have to have rigorous educational experiences in every classroom, every day. And you have to have a combination of instructional strategies that are grounded in an instructional framework that all teachers believe in.

Academic and human excellence, which is our mission at Brookfield East, is a total school experience. Our Principal’s Cabinet [a group of students who inform school decision-making] has really done an amazing job of framing what that means: being better tomorrow than you were today. And I think that really empowers learners and educators.

You have a Principal’s Cabinet of 50 students who help set priorities, inform policy, and provide feedback to school leaders. How do you incorporate their voices?

The cabinet is an amazing team that makes sure that any changes that we make don’t counter the strengths of our school, and they also work relentlessly to find opportunities to enhance the student learning experience.

They presented a library renovation project for $600,000 to our school board, and that vote was 7-0 to support that increased expenditure to fund a different learning environment. [The students] led us to a finish line of what’s really the academic arena for our school.

A couple of years ago, we added a resource period. It’s about a 30-minute period, where students have the opportunity to sign up to meet with the teacher [or tutor, college recruiter, or other school support] who most meets their daily academic needs the night before.Our students created that idea, and it’s been a game changer within our schedule for student achievement and engagement.

How has that student-centered approach affected other areas of your school building?

We’re fortunate to live in a community that really values education and really values the student experience. And with that comes facility upgrades and programming upgrades to match how we want to prepare kids for a globally competitive environment.

For example, we’ve built the Spartan Union, a student-run, teacher-supported coffee shop where students learn entrepreneurial skills while running a business. It’s a fully functioning coffee shop, and they deliver to classrooms during open periods and are frequently open for large public events.

Kids who plan to run entrepreneurial businesses in their careers work with kids who want to learn job skills to be successful beyond East. And they generate $50,000 in revenue a year that goes back into the school to support clubs, community service activities, and programs.

Ninety-nine percent of recent graduates took at least one college credit-bearing course in high school. How did you get there?

Our school district provides up to 18 credits of college-credit coursework for students. We provide college coursework in every one of our 13 departments as capstone learning experiences. We offer 25 different AP courses without prerequisites.

We also provide students the ability to access industry-related credentials, including 12 cohorts of students in our certified nursing assistant program.

We want to provide kids college and career coursework in areas they are really passionate about. That’s important.

Your school created a “Hope Squad” led by students following concerns about mental health and suicidality. How did that come together?

We are so passionate about the Hope Squad program, which was started in Utah with the goal of reducing suicidal ideation and to promoting wellness within school communities. Every year in Wisconsin, by law, we do suicide-awareness training for all schools. Our Hope Squad students now lead that training. Very few schools across the country trust their students to do that.

They are committed to student wellness mentally, physically, nutrition, hydration, and sleep. And they’re really our spokespeople for what wellness looks like, sounds like, and feels like. And they even lead a lot of trainings for our staff.

We were the first Hope Squad in the state of Wisconsin, and now we are up to 150 Hope squads throughout the state.

Some members of the public seem to view child well-being and academic excellence as competing priorities in schools. How do you respond to that?

I think they’re intertwined. Academic and human excellence means meeting the needs of all kids, every day, and in all areas. So we talk about engagement, we talk about academic success, we talk about wellness, and we talk about community.

It’s a tough time in education and a tough time for school leaders. How would you encourage your colleagues reading this?

Principals have this amazing ability and capacity to rally teams around what schools should look like. A school culture that values every learner sees them as a leader. A school culture that values every educator sees them as the most important person in the students’ learning during these four formative years.

If we can rally teams and teachers and students and communities around what’s possible in schools, the end results are limitless.

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