2021-22 in review with Principal Brady Smith

By Sanai Rashid and Sammy Bovitz

2021-22 was a time of great change in the Beacon community. A return to in-person schooling marked many challenges as well as milestones. To recap it all, we talked to Beacon Principal Brady Smith about the year as a whole. The following is a transcript of our conversation, edited for clarity.

Beacon Beat: To start off, what’s one challenge that you faced this year that you did not expect?

Principal Brady: I’ll say that I expected this year to be easier than last year, and I don’t think it was. So, I found that a little bit surprising and unexpected. We’ve never had a year like last year or this year, so all the experience I had in schools felt like it wasn’t useful. There weren’t prior experiences, at least not specific ones, that helped any of us get through the last couple years.

I thought that coming back in person– the joy of being together, the personal interactions– would make the year feel so much better. It did, but there were also so many more challenges than I anticipated. 

BB: Is there anything specifically that you didn’t anticipate, or was it more generally overwhelming than anticipated?

PB: Well it mostly had to do with the challenges that students were facing, both academically and emotionally, and the frequency that students were struggling. I think our community has a lot of different supports in place, but the number of students that struggled in so many different ways really overwhelmed us and our systems. 

I think of my work as very relational, but that’s hard to do when the list of people you need to speak to is so long– and by speak to, I mean support, and console, and counsel, and pay attention to. The best day is when I have a chance to have a few different one-on-one conversations and feel like they’re helpful to people, and it’s been hard to do this year since there’s such great need. 

BB: We’re going to go back now to the very beginning of the year now, to September. There were a lot of problems with scheduling and students needing a place for lunch. Looking back now, how do you think that transition went, and is there anything would you do differently in retrospect?

PB: I’ve learned a ton, and there’s many things that I and our team would do differently. The structures are super important– having the programs, the room assignments, the functional technology. We left so abruptly that we didn’t necessarily know what needed to be attended to upon return. Chemicals that expired, technology that needed fixing– I mean, we’re still updating Chromebooks– and stuff like that.

Now that we’ve had a more “normal year,” I’m looking to next year already. Much of my attention is putting systems and structures for next year to make Beacon better, smoother, more equitable, and overall a better experience for everybody. We didn’t get to do that a year ago, and so I felt the effect of that missing period of time for us to make sure we’re all on the same page for next year. There’s a million things I would do differently. 

BB: We made it through the first semester, but then PBA week came in January and there were a lot of different concerns about that. One of our writers, Anna Mintzer, even wrote an article about it. There’s still a general concern that Beacon is straying from its consortium-based philosophy. How did the concerns over PBA week play out for you in particular, and how do you plan to “let Beacon be Beacon” while adding your own spin to the curriculum?

PB: I’ve had lots of conversations about how Beacon is and is not a typical consortium school. It’s by far the largest, and that is a significant thing. PBAs are very individualized, and so trying to do authentic PBA panels as outlined in the state-given waiver is difficult. Previous schools in the consortium that I’ve worked with are smaller, so you can manage to calendar 30 minutes for every student with two caring adults who’ve all read the paper in advance– you know, the ideal panel. 

We’re still grappling with how to make the ideal happen with 1,500 students.  That’s a very real challenge for Beacon, the scale. I don’t know if we’ve strayed from the consortium, but we may not be the textbook consortium school. 

Another thing is, consortium schools believe in teacher-designed curriculum, and obviously AP classes are not teacher-designed. So there’s great debate about AP classes and whether they are appropriate for a consortium school. We have students and parents that want them, we have teachers that want to teach them, the curriculum is demanding and rigorous. But they’re not teacher designed, and therefore the pacing can’t be adjusted or creativity can’t be added– and they culminate in a test. So basically everything about APs is the opposite of the consortium.

If we said we’re not going to have AP anymore, there would be a lot of people unhappy with that decision. It’s not just up to me or the teachers to decide what we should do, we want to engage parent and student voices. Then we have outside influences like superintendents and the DOE. There’s a lot of pressure that we have to bear that makes some of those decisions true dilemmas. It’s a series of tradeoffs, not one solution. We’re moving in the direction of realigning with that consortium philosophy, but that takes time and commitment from teachers, parents, and students. 

BB: You answered some of this already, but here’s a follow-up on that from Anna. She asks, “why are additional AP courses being added to the course listing, despite claims that this addition will contrast with Beacon’s consortium-focused curriculum”?

PB: It’s a really good question that others are definitely asking. Again, it’s a dilemma. I’m very well aware of the reasons for and against more APs. AP French, for example, we already have AP Spanish, so it would be a parallel track for our advanced language classes. AP Environmental Science is, from what I understand, a curriculum that is closer aligned with the values of our school community, and requires a little bit less lab time– which is something we struggle with, because we have just three labs in the building. We’re trying to think of demanding and compelling science courses that don’t require significant lab time, and that’s a rationale in favor of AP Environmental Science. We also have a very powerful Environmental Justice Club, and general student activisim around climate justice. 

To be clear, none of the previous schools that I worked at had AP classes, so this is not something that I brought to Beacon or supported before coming to Beacon. But we’re paying a lot of rightful attention to equity, and for a lot of students, getting that pre-college credit for doing well in an AP class and passing an exam makes a significant difference in their college career. That’s something that hadn’t been a part of my thinking about AP that now makes it a little bit more confusing– it does help our students who are struggling to pay for college, for example, and might have a few credits under their belt before they get there.

BB: To switch gears a bit, what were you most proud to see Beacon accomplish this year?

PB: Most proud is hard, because there were many things that made me proud this year. But most of them are little moments, because I think the big things are more obvious. Moments like attending a basketball game and seeing a player help a player from the other team get off the court when they had fallen, seeing students set up a free lending library, and just when I see students help each other. This is especially when I go to performances, and students are so incredibly supportive. Every performance we’ve managed to have this year– the bands, the dance shows, the theater– the response has been supportive, and feels like the world I want to live in. 

BB: Now we have another student question– which is from a 9th grader, Kyra. She asks: Many students are unable to handle eating in the cafeteria due to how  anxiety-inducing it is, and eating in hallways is their only current solution. Is there an alternative place we could eat since you no longer want students in the hallways?

PB: We don’t have that much space here, and my inclination is always to try and work out reasonable solutions with students. This is a student issue, and I think the hard part is that any sort of decision or policy takes one incident to undo it, even after 100 days of students following the rules. Many schools make the policy around that one incident— no more eating in the hallway, or whatever. I try not to make policy in that way.

The flip side is that it’s not a right, it’s a responsibility. I think Beacon students are capable of understanding and supporting this in any way they can, but sometimes there are occurrences that people bring to me. We’re trying to find that sweet spot, and I think a lot of those things are better established at the beginning of the year. So, I’m hopeful that we can re-establish expectations on how to use spaces other than the cafeteria responsibly next September, and even create more student spaces like the senior cellar area if used and monitored well.

BB: Throughout the year, Beacon continued its reputation as a school full of activism and advocacy for change locally, nationally, and intentionally. During these protests and learning periods, you had to carefully juggle your own political views as well as your job as the principal of Beacon. How did you balance those two responsibilities, and is there anything you’d change next year?

PB: My role has a political element to it, and I recognize that my words matter more than I might think. The question’s a good one, but it gives me pause… I want to be careful with what I say here so I can continue to support student activists, which I do.

In my personal life, I’m not shy at all at saying what I believe. I have family who are very active politically, but at school we have to have a safety-first approach. Making sure people are safely and responsibly engaging in protest, ideally with parent support, is what I try to do. Some schools say there’s risk, and we want to be risk-averse, so no one leaves for a walkout. I think that we need to negotiate acceptable risk and responsibility on part of our students, because you’re going to be out in the world soon enough, standing up for what you believe in while doing so in a way that doesn’t put you in too much risk. 

BB: To wrap up, what question would you ask yourself, as a principal and person, one year from now?

PB: As a person, I would ask myself: did I help others? It’s easy to get lost in the day-to-day, just keeping things running. When I go home at night, the moments that stay with me are the moments where I had a conversation with one or two students and felt like we got to know each other better, and to a better place. Whether it’s with the table tennis club or advisory, I try to build in those opportunities because there are weeks in the school year that have gone by without direct engagement with students except in passing, and those are the worst weeks for me. 

Professionally, I would also ask: have we made a difference? I’m not interested in maintaining the status quo. Our systems need analysis and interrogating. If we’re not trying to make a difference, we’re part of maintaining the status quo. I ask myself that all the time, because when I no longer am or no longer have the energy to do that, is when I will step away from this job. 

BB: Thanks so much for your time.