By Sanai Rashid
Principal Brady. We all know that he sends us emails from time to time, most of us met him on the Meet The Principal Zoom back in August, and for those of you who do hybrid learning, you might have even seen him at school! But many other Beacon students and I felt like we still didn’t know a lot about our new principal. It is indeed a wild and odd year to start as a new principal at a new school since there are little to no students and faculty in the building. Principal Brady hasn’t seen Beacon in its full glory, and the school we know seems more distant than ever.
I took it upon myself to interview Principal Brady over Zoom last week, to find all about our new leadership and the new changes he will bring to the school building. This interview shed light on how the school plans to recognize and adapt virtual learning — since it has made a major impact on student’s mental health, how Beacon plans to create a more inclusive environment for students of color, and many other pressing issues.
Before we could dig into all of those topics, I wanted to meet the “man behind the emails,” and learn why he applied to become a principal.
[Sanai] : Can you tell me a little bit about yourself and what initially attracted you to apply to become a principal at Beacon ?
[Brady] : I’ve known about Beacon for many, many years, and in fact, I’ve said this before, but my daughter did apply to Beacon and did not get in, but I’ve been a potential Beacon parent. Even from the parent perspective, it was a school that I admired. It reminds me of some of the experiences I’ve had throughout my education. I was definitely into theater, I’ve been a musician, so the arts emphasis resonates with me. I’ve also been a principal in a Consortium school for the last seven years, and even before that, the high school that I founded in the Bronx in 2005 — and I ran that school for six years, we were not a Consortium school, but we were in a pilot to become one. Basically, my entire career as an educator in New York has been aligned with the philosophy of Consortium schools and the belief that performance-based assessments and project-based learning are more authentic ways for students not only to learn but show what they know and are able to do. I definitely wanted to be in a Consortium school. Though I was in one, the decision to apply to come to Beacon had a lot to do with the resources, the student population with the facility, the veteran staff, the size of the school. There are many elements that are different from the school that I came from, that I found compelling. Also, knowing that there had been some challenges in the last few years and those were challenges that having done a lot of work in the area of racial equity and restorative justice, it felt like a chance to bring that work to a new community that was looking for those supports as well. That all informed my decision to apply for the position.
[Sanai] : This year has been an emotional roller coaster, filled with stress, anxiety, and uncertainty as we students tried to grapple with online learning and the sudden shift from our everyday lives. Before Covid-19 many students felt like school caused a negative toll on their mental health, and now as I’ve talked with friends and students at Beacon this rings truer than ever during virtual learning. What will you do to make sure students’ mental health is a priority at Beacon and does it tie in with the Beacon Counseling Team’s agenda?
[Brady] : That’s a great question and a real high priority for us. There are a lot of different components to that, some are in place already. We have a schoolwide goal on the School Leadership Team around mental health and wellness. There is not a single move or a single solution that you can make to address socioemotional support for students. I’ve met with our current guidance team and that includes counselors and social workers and Diane Kim, the RAP coordinator. They’re working with the PTA to create those Wellness workshops you might have been hearing about that are available for both parents and students. That is one aspect of in this remote environment, what can we do, providing information and space that have dialogue about mental health and socioemotional support. Some of the other pieces are around the workload, which I know are stressing out many people especially when school all day is on a screen and then homework and class assignments and a-synchronous work. In the case of juniors and seniors there are college applications and in some cases internships and things like that, that also occur remotely. We’ve added clubs now and clubs are remote. So, I have a lot of different thoughts about how we might make adjustments. It is just hard to avoid the screen. That’s a real challenge and I would welcome some thoughts from students about how can we continue to maintain high expectations, expectations that lead to the outcomes that our students and parents want to see for themselves. I’m not sure colleges have adjusted their expectations for applicants. While I want to find a balance for students that is sustainable, and doesn’t cause stress, anxiety, loss of sleep, depression, and all those other issues that young people are dealing with. I also would like to figure out how to do that without finding out that some months from now that the post-graduate plans have to be changed because we made adjustments. I feel that tension. I know there are things that we can do but I would welcome new ideas about what we could do with screen time to perhaps adjust workload but still get to those post-graduate outcomes students and parents expect.
[Sanai] : I remember there was a Wellness Workshop on Election stress. I thought that was super helpful. Even though it’s on virtual, there is a little bit of a difference when you are on Zoom and it’s more of a decompress, then doing school work and you are just talking to other people. That’s why I’ve loved that clubs have started up again. I’m still on a screen but I love that I get to talk about other things. Do you think there would be more workshops in the future, would it be a monthly occurrence?
[Brady] : Definitely. We are trying to do grade level meet-ups. When you look at what’s happening in some of the peer schools and selective high schools in the city you have a reduction in synchronous learning and screen time in comparison to many other schools. So we’ve already created a schedule that with the advisory check-in in the morning and the Wellness break in the middle of the day. I know they seem small but I also think they have a high benefit and high impact to mental health that I think we need to acknowledge. It could look a lot worse, that’s not an excuse to say that we can’t continue to make changes but it could look a lot more like straight zooms from 8-3:20 and at least we’ve avoided that.
This year has been filled with so many changes. So when Ms. Lacey announced she would be leaving the school, I’m sure a lot of us were in shock and apprehensive about so many new adjustments. In particular, when Ms. Lacey made her announcement, it was during the height of Black Lives Matter protests all over the country. My parents and I were surprised that Beacon chose yet another white person, a white male, to lead the school when this could’ve been a great chance to have a person of color lead the school. I decided to ask Mr. Brady his thoughts on this.
[Sanai] : After the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, there seems to be a push amongst our society for accountability, equality, and diversity in our politics, language, and school systems across the country. As a white male, how will you make sure that students of color are represented equally at Beacon when you haven’t lived through our experiences or fully know what it is like to be a person of color?
[Brady] : That’s a really great question and I appreciate it very much. I applied to the position with an understanding that there was work in that area to do. I know who I am and I know where I represent. I represent an identity that perhaps is not what many people wanted to see in the leadership role at Beacon. I’ve worked with populations of students in incredibly diverse populations of students both on the West Coast and the East Coast. So while through my personal experience, I can’t relate to the experience of a person of color, my professional experience has been in communities of color in New York for the last 20 years. I have a sense of how I as a white male can engage in that work, and that comes from experience professionally, not necessarily personally. I think too often people that look like me say the right things but don’t take the actions to make change. When I’ve had these conversations with young people about what changes need to happen at Beacon, particularly around diversity, equity and inclusion, I’m very careful to say I’ve done some of that work, I understand and believe in that work but you have to make sure that I am walking the talk. That it’s not just me saying this is what’s going to happen but you’re actually helping me stay on track and keep my eyes on that work. What I don’t want is for that work to fall by the wayside. I have energy for it. I have plans for how we can move that work forward, both in terms of diversifying students and staff, doing admissions and other pieces like that. I’m here because I want to be here. I’m here because I believe in DEI work, and have done it before and I know who I am, I know that the work is necessary not just for students but for adults, and for adults that look like me. We all have to engage in this work. I think one of the great tragedies I’m feeling is that the pandemic and the election have shifted attention away from societal calls for racial equity. Our focus is not on that and that I think is a great tragedy because there is so much momentum and such dire need. People are talking about racial equity in places and forums and groups that haven’t before. So, I think we really need to take advantage of this moment and push for change and I want to be a part of that push.
[Sanai] : As you might have known, in December of last year, the Black Student Union and Beacon United Nations held a sit-in at the school because numerous racist incidents had occurred and students felt that the school’s faculty did not properly address these issues. As a student who participated in the sit-in, and attended the diversity workshops each student union held, I saw firsthand how isolated other students of color felt at Beacon. Going forward, what will you do to ensure that the classroom environment at Beacon is inclusive to students of color? How will faculty be trained to do that virtually?
[Brady] : I am meeting regularly with BUU reps and I’ve found those meetings to be really rich and compelling and the representatives in that group come with a really thoughtful agenda, the pushing is the right kind of pushing. In other words it is pushing that is going to lead to change and action and I’m happy to be doing that regularly. The BUU reps identified Peer Connect last year as an organization that they wanted to work with to support the DEI work at Beacon. I happen to know one of the two founders of Peer Connect and I’ve worked with her before, quite a bit, so I was able to continue that conversation. Currently, we have Peer Connect under contract to work with students and staff and parents. The parent workshops start this month, the staff workshops started back in September and there are student pieces that we are rolling out. We’ve also started a multiple constituency equity team, a group that is focused specifically on things that we can do in the Beacon community to make it a more welcoming place for all students. That equity team will include students, staff and parents. We’ve got a vision of crafting a Anti-racist statement as a school organization, talking about the things that we believe in and what we intend to do to make sure Beacon is an anti-racist school. We’re re-examining the mission statement for the school, the original mission statement which is now 25 years old has some really beautiful components but it also has some that are no longer relevant in our environment. We are looking at re-aligning and re-revising the school mission statement with an eye towards equity, diversity and inclusion. Lastly, I think that what I’m doing in perpetration — they are virtual now, but I hope that they become face to face soon enough, I’m identifying who has not traditionally had a voice and access to leadership at Beacon and making sure I’m creating pathways for those voices to be heard. Informal and formal pathways. For example, one-to-one meetings with teachers but also creating focus groups of subsets of teachers, teachers of color, female teachers, LGBTQ identified teachers and their allies, trying to figure out ways that we can hear from voices who might have felt marginalized in the past so that we can use their feedback to make Beacon more welcoming for all.
Principal Brady also informed me that nine teachers have gone through the Respect for All training, a training for adults in school communities to receive concerns from everything from micro-aggressions to the more major concerns that led to the sit-in last year.
Re-reading the profile, which was sent to Beacon parents back in September, I learned that Principal Brady was an English teacher before he became an administrator. English class has always been my favorite subject in school, and I see a career in journalism in my future. So it was natural that I wanted to learn more about Principal Brady’s English teacher days!
[Sanai] : What are some of your favorite books and authors? Or what were some of your favorite books to teach students?
[Brady] : Wow. Right now, I’m reading Caste by Isabel Wilkerson which is along with the PTA DEI committee. It’s a recent publication and it’s brilliant. She’s brilliant. That’s nonfiction and that’s mostly what I read during the school year. One that I read not too long ago — I wish I put my list together, I’m trying to picture what’s next to my bed right now. I just finished The Burning, which is a novel that takes place in India and it’s a fascinating structure and I really enjoyed All the Light We Cannot See, and Half a Yellow Sun was one of my favorite ones. I really like epics and epics that follow multiple generations. I’ve traveled a lot but I really find that I’m drawn to settings that are less familiar like places I haven’t been or lived in. I like to read fiction to learn about people and places that are not familiar. I was so not ready for this question, I have too many answers!
[Sanai] : Don’t worry I always get stuck on book titles too! I did an interview with some English teachers at Beacon last year for the Beacon Beat because I appreciate how diverse the books we read in the school are. Over the summer sophomores like myself had to read Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates and currently, I’m reading James Baldwin in my class.
[Brady] : That was a great one, it’s jumping off of James Baldwin’s letter to his nephew. Having come from the James Baldwin School I read a lot of Baldwin while I was there and the students read a lot of Baldwin. That book but also all of James Baldwin’s fiction and non-fiction were in heavy rotation for me in the last few years. We had a great drama in the American family class that read different things like Fences, and used theories from DuBois to analyze the drama of the plays that we read.
[Sanai] : This year was actually the first time I have ever had a Black female teacher teaching my English class which is very reaffirming because writing can still be such a white space.
[Brady] : The interesting thing is — this is a fact for me is that every book on my shelf is by a person of color and I’d say that 80% are females of color and that is what I tend to read for fiction. I don’t know what that means and I don’t know how you can hear that coming from me. But I think that’s an interesting thing I’ve learned about myself. When I go into a bookstore or a library, the books I leave with tend to be books written by women of color.
[Sanai] : Maybe you’ll see one of my books there one day! I wish we could talk about books all day but I have one last question. What do you want Beacon students to know about you and how do you hope our school will look like with you as our new principal?
[Brady] : There is a lot that I think I bring to this work. I did not know I would be working in schools when I was in high school myself. I thought I would be something else, I didn’t know what yet. I was an artist, actor, and a musician, so I thought I would be in the arts. I’ve been a lot of different things, I became a teacher sort of later in my career a little bit, I was 29 when I started teaching full time. I think what I’ve found as I’ve moved through my life is that teachers in general, myself included, bring a lot of ourselves to the work. I’m here not just because I want to run a school. I’m here because I know the potential for a really dynamic education to be transformative. I know that the right relationships between adults and youth can really make that experience so much more rich and compelling. That’s what I like about being in schools. I like interacting, I like the relationships that are developed, I like having those conversations, the hard ones and the ones that push. One thing that I do miss with this approach to virtual learning is that it’s harder to have those conversations and I really look forward to when I can again. I think we’re able to actually add to our teaching toolboxes while we are teaching in remote learning but I really believe that once we are back into the normal way school is run, Beacon is going to be in some ways better for having had this experience. We are going to have teachers that learned new approaches that might be more appropriate for our current student population. They’ve had to switch their practice to think about different ways to reach young people and that’s really exciting to me. Beacon has been a great school, there are so many wonderful things that have happened here and I want those wonderful things to continue. I think I can bring a new flavor and new energy to that.