One of Brian Huff’s greatest strengths as a school principal is not something he does, but something he does not do: micromanage.
By TRACI ANGEL
Special to The Star
Those who work with Huff at Raytown High School point to his collaborative approach to bringing teachers, students, parents and the community together.
“He believes in the power of shared leadership,” said Raytown Central Middle School principal Jamie Sadich, who was assistant principal at the high school for five years.
“I am what I am because he helped foster that growth. He listens. And just knowing that my desire was to become a head principal, he helped me. As a principal, I can tell you it’s not easy to let go of that control.”
Huff’s philosophy of allowing others to take charge has resulted in positive changes for the both the school and students, say those who work with him.
The Missouri Association of Secondary School Principals has recognized this, naming him the 2013 Missouri High School Principal of the Year. He received the award on March 25.
Huff said Raytown High as a whole deserves most of the recognition.
“Nobody is going to give a great principal award to a school that is failing,” Huff said. “We have staff members that work and encourage students and hold their hand when they are crying. I’m a part of that team of about 150 people, including custodians and cooks.”
Sadich nominated Huff as a colleague and then voted for him as part of a selection committee to submit his name for the statewide honor.
In the five years she worked at Raytown High, she watched Huff embrace challenges and tackle a literacy initiative that included incorporating a national focus of nonfiction reading in every class, including physical education.
“He knows it takes all parts of the community and he’s not going to make a decision for the building without (input from) students, staff and parents and community,” Sadich said.
Huff is more comfortable talking about the accomplishments of the Building Leadership Team, which has a representative from each department plus other staff members. The team tackles ongoing problems and helps to monitor the school improvement plan, for instance.
Team members are now charged with changing room assignments to accommodate departmental changes and to put some teachers closer together.
“A room shift and can be emotional and that’s something we give to the BLT,” Huff said.
Instruction aims to take students past books and memorization.
“We want students to become deeper thinkers in life,” he said. “In the past, using math as an example, we see repetition in simple equations. Now we take it to another level. We give them a gas bill and they are thinking about energy savings and the effect on energy consumption. That’s much more applicable.”
Raytown High School is becoming increasingly diverse. Current state estimates are that 44 percent of students are black, 42 percent are white and 10 percent are Hispanic – and just over half receive free/reduced lunches.
Some educators use such information as a socioeconomic scapegoat for low test scores or classroom challenges. Huff sees such explanations as bigotry.
“… Dr. Huff accepts no excuses,” Raytown science teacher Christy Darter wrote in a recommendation letter. “He requires that all staff members set high expectations for themselves and for their students. Differences in student social and economic circumstances and backgrounds are not accepted as explanation for differences in student achievement levels.”
People do well despite their circumstances all the time, Huff said.
“You can go really easy on kids or do things to help them feel better about themselves (and their backgrounds), but all that stuff we can’t control,” he said. “We can make adjustments, but we can’t use that and make it an excuse.”
Schools have an opportunity to motivate students to see beyond where they are right now, he said.
“I believe students will rise to the level of expectations and get beyond that whole mindset,” he said. “The most successful (outcome) is if you can get students to look at education as a way to get them places.”
Raytown assistant superintendent Steve Shelton was Huff’s predecessor at Raytown High, so he knows the challenges Huff faces and the impact Huff has made.
“Brian will pass the praise around and say he received help with the leadership team, but he created a culture of collaboration and teamwork so teachers see the solution as a collective and not just falling squarely on their shoulders,” Shelton said.
The parent-teacher conference is an orchestrated effort that goes beyond the status quo. The student’s future career outline is part of the discussion.
“He’s done an outstanding job structuring that conversation,” Shelton said.
But what sets Huff apart is a demeanor that lets others step up, Shelton added.
“He leads by example and operates and functions how he wants the staff and students to function,” Shelton said. “He’s willing to let other people have the answers. It doesn’t matter who has answer as long as someone does. It can come from the principal, cook or first-year teacher.”
Huff was assistant principal at Grandview Middle School from 1997 to 2004 and was principal at Hillcrest School in Nigeria before taking his Raytown post in 2007.