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Andy Farley knows Brookfield East High School in Brookfield, Wisconsin, as a student, parent, social studies teacher, basketball coach, and principal. Farley’s decade-long success leading his alma mater, highlighted by his emphasis on promoting child well-being, closing achievement gaps, and encouraging advanced coursework—99% of last year’s senior class completed at least one college credit-bearing course—earned him the 2024 National Secondary Principal of the Year Award. Presented by the National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP), the award recognizes outstanding principals’ exemplary contributions to their schools, staff, students, and the profession.

Part of the School District of Elmbrook in suburban Milwaukee, Brookfield East was recognized as a 2023 National Blue Ribbon School of Excellence by the U.S. Department of Education. Farley was awarded the 2023 Terrel H. Bell Award for Outstanding School Leadership.

He credits a talented staff and his ability to “stay out of everyone’s way” for the success at Brookfield East. He spoke to ASBJ Senior Editor Michelle Healy about other difference makers at the school, including the “power of transformational teams,” a curriculum aligned to emphasize reading and writing, and the contributions of student leaders. School culture also is critical to the school’s success, Farley says, noting, “One of my favorite core values that our staff developed 10 years ago is ‘Our culture is our strength.’”

How does being principal of Brookfield East today compare with being principal in 2013 when you first assumed the role?

The volume of programming accessible to all kids is very different today. Ninety-nine percent of the students of our senior class last year completed at least one college credit-bearing course before they graduated. The ability to access rigorous college-credit-bearing courses while in high school and successfully complete them, that level of programming didn’t exist here 10 years ago. Also, as teaching and learning continues to evolve, we have had the facilities to match that changing education. For example, in the last two years, some student leadership teams pitched a library renovation project that is right in the hub of our building. It has a college commons feel where kids gather, and ideas gather, and there’s a collision of kids and adults together. We have a student-run coffee shop that generates $50,000 in revenue each year, offering interested students great business skill development. Student leaders have solved operational challenges such as cafeteria capacity, and their leadership continues to grow. One of our core values is “Our Kids Will Change the World.” They’re doing it every day here and building the skills, knowledge, and confidence to change not only the world today but also, more importantly, tomorrow.

What does it take to be a successful principal?

Hire amazing. Build strong teams and stay out of everyone’s way. First on your list of job duties is who you put in front of kids every day. We take that seriously and spend a lot of time focused on it. We hire people who see themselves as the greatest driver of a student’s academic success, who build a classroom environment where students feel safe, physically and psychologically, are stretched to an appropriate next challenge, and are supported by amazing coaches, teachers, and advisors. The ability to build strong, transformational teams is also important. Every teacher-leader here is part of a PLC (professional learning community) and on a team where they successfully impact the engagement and learning of students whom they may not even have in a class. Another driver of success is our focus on literacy. We’ve aligned our professional development, aligned our training, aligned our commitment to reading and writing in every class every day in every content area. We know everybody wants to come to a place where they feel that they can grow to their full potential, and we continue to work relentlessly to build that culture.

Along with the successes, what kinds of challenges do you and your team face?

Post-pandemic, we’re aware that mental health challenges have grown. As those stressors and that anxiety have developed, so has maintaining our focus on student wellness. Our Hope Squad plays a significant role in this area. These student-nominated leaders initially focused on suicide prevention, but another of their missions is reducing the stigma around mental health. They are champions of comprehensive wellness. Research tells us that students in need of support are two to three times more likely to go to a peer, so we train this really amazing group of peer leaders to be champions for their peers and champions for our community. 

Our staff is amazing in that they care for every student as an individual. Another challenge is obviously social media, and how do you right-size the impact technology can have in classrooms and in students’ lives while also recognizing the threats and the possibilities of negative impact.

What has Brookfield East learned about closing achievement gaps?

We are in tune with some of that research around improvement science. I think we’ve really moved the needle on student learning when we hyper-focus on reading and writing. That sounds fundamental, but we want to build those skills in every student, and those are lifelong academic skills. The ability to deepen learning as a result of being a better reader and the ability to communicate more effectively as a result of being a better writer is where we continue to emphasize and align our work. When you look at cutting skill gaps, it starts with school culture so that all students feel like they belong; all students feel like this is their home.

Given the reports citing more public school principals quitting, any advice for keeping them on the job and up-and-coming principals in the pipeline? 

We’re keenly aware of those statistics, and we need to energize around what’s possible in schools. Our communities need schools more now than ever. We are so thrilled to do everything we can to reinvigorate a talent pipeline for educators, for principals who want to build something special within their communities. Schools are the foundation of communities, and we need to continue to encourage great people and great future leaders to the pathway of education.

(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)

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