One of the first questions asked of the three finalists for the Burlington High School principal position at Thursday night’s community forum didn’t sugarcoat the challenges the school has seen over the past few years.
“BHS has experienced trauma as a learning community in the recent past,” hiring committee member Bonnie Johnson-Aten told the candidates. “What steps would you take to rebuild a culture of inclusion and trust? How would you foster a community of accountability and high expectations?”
Burlington High School has had a particularly tumultuous year. Not only did it have to navigate remote learning forced by the pandemic, but it also had to move buildings after the former high school was found to have dangerously high levels of carcinogens this past fall. Adding to this, its former principal, Noel Green, abruptly resigned in January, adding to a growing history of cyclical turnover in BHS’s leadership.
Throughout the hour-and-a-half-long forum, the finalists — Lauren McBride, Steven Berbeco and Gregory Kirkland — frequently made reference to their visions of growth and rebuilding for the high school.
In response to Johnson-Aten’s question, McBride said she wants to build relationships with the staff in the school to recognize the history of what they’ve been through at BHS. McBride has also been through these challenges with them — she spent three years as an assistant principal at BHS before becoming interim principal after Green’s departure. She previously taught at an elementary school and worked in the Massachusetts Department of Education.
“I think it’s listening,” McBride said, “and allowing people space to be able to talk about their experience and know that their experience is real and matters.”
Berbeco said he wants to guide students and staff with trauma-informed leadership methods to help community members trust each other again and foster a sense of inclusion. Berbeco most recently served as deputy commissioner of the Child Development Division in the Vermont Department for Children and Families.
He left the role in January 2021, according to his LinkedIn. He previously worked as superintendent of the Hopi Junior Senior High School in Arizona and taught various subjects at the high school level.
“I consider myself a servant leader,” Berbeco said. “Servant leadership, for me, is anticipating the needs of the people around me and removing obstacles, in the best case, before they even know that they’re there. Servant leadership, for me, is active listening and thoughtful communication.”
Kirkland said he wants to build relationships with students specifically to recognize what they’ve gone through in recent years at BHS and to intervene in any personal traumas that may be inhibiting their ability to learn in school.
Kirkland is a former health and physical education teacher and sports coach. He held multiple administrative roles overseeing special education and physical education programming in a Georgia school district. He most recently served as an assistant principal.
“It’s not even so much the obvious traumas that we know about. The more damaging traumas are the traumas that we do not know about,” Kirkland said. “And so that’s where establishing relationships with students, with teachers, building the trust with them, is important.”
The candidates also were quizzed on how they think Burlington High School should imbed educational equity into its instruction. Burlington is known to be one of the most diverse school districts in the state.
Kirkland said Burlington High School needs to ensure that all students are on the same playing field. To do this, he said, teachers need resources to provide equitable learning opportunities, such as translated materials for English language learner students. “You need to know who your students are and what their individual needs are,” he said.
Berbeco echoed Kirkand’s message that teachers need resources to provide education equitably. Berbeco said “public education has historically done a terrible job of this.” He said special education programming is one area where he thinks equitable education is excelling as students have personalized learning programs. He thinks this model should be expanded to more students.
McBride said teachers need to make sure that students and their families are “seen, heard and valued” to ensure equitable instruction. She pointed to a family advisory committee that BHS has instituted that allows families to serve as a “think tank” within the school to guide the needs of students.
The finalists were asked how they envision themselves working with teachers “as educators, as colleagues and as people.”
Kirkland said he would treat and respect teachers as professionals. He said he has witnessed teachers burnout from the profession due to a lack of support from the school system. He said he wants to create a culture where every teacher views their students like a child of their own when educating them.
McBride said she wants to “lead with relationships,” and get to know faculty and staff. She also said she wants to ensure that teachers have access to professional development opportunities and that they feel comfortable having conversations with her about their professional goal setting.
Berbeco said he doesn’t think the best schools are those that have the most money. Rather, the best schools are those that have the best relationships between teachers and administrators, he said. He said he wants to support the teachers around him to lean into their strengths and cultivate them as educators.
The hiring committee is gathering feedback from the community about the candidates through an online form and is expected to make a recommendation on who should become BHS’ next principal to Superintendent Tom Flanagan by early next week, according to Burlington School District spokesperson Russ Elek.
Flanagan is expected to interview the final candidates and make a recommendation to the Burlington School Board in May. The board will then vote on the candidate.
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