One by one, a dedicated principal is transforming schools from sleepy, underperformers to the top educational districts in the state.
He comes from New Zealand, and he’s not your average elementary school principal. With a shaved head and arms covered with tattoos, he looks more like the type of guy who skateboards in back alleys and runs with the gang. And to be fair, he does ride his skateboard through school corridors, offering high-fives to kids as he urges them to get a move on.
Hamish Brewer comes from a tough, poverty-stricken background. He remembers that a lot of mistakes were made in his education, but the good moments came from people who made school fun.
When he started working in the education sector, he wanted to break away from traditional approaches to elementary school. He comments:
“You know in education, we got a huge problem. We’ve got to move away from this archaic educational process where we build these schools on square boxes and kids fill these square boxes. The world isn’t square boxes no more. Times have changed, kids have changed, and we got to move with that. How far are you willing to go for a child?”
Transforming Occoquan Elementary
Becoming principal of Occoquan Elementary School gave him his opportunity. Occoquan is mostly a poor, immigrant community. When he arrived, the school was flagging. Test scores were poor and student motivation was low.
Brewer started with a few basic changes, including changing fluorescent lights to daylight bulbs and adding useful technology to each classroom. He created a fun, exciting space that kids looked forward to coming to each day. He added unlimited field trips to engage kids’ imaginations. And then his vibrant, powerful personality added the spice. He told the kids to be relentless and courageous and to strive for excellence.
Five years later, Occoquan had won five School of Excellence awards and was one of the best schools in the state.
Brewer has learned from experience what will work. “I think part of what makes my principalship and leadership style so successful is that I’m trying not to repeat the mistakes that were made for me. I was one of these kids.”
Time to Move On
But Brewer loves changing the status quo. Now that he’s shaken Occoquan back on track, he’s ready for a new challenge. The next privileged school is Fred Lynn Middle School, situated in a community with similar demographics and struggles to Occoquan.
Brewer begins by redecorating. Murals go up of inspiring figures like Martin Luther King, Barack Obama, and Steve Jobs. He views the school as his home and wants it to be a place where people feel comfortable. With his Kiwi accent coming out strongly, he welcomes parents and students, making all feel accepted and encouraged.
Even on day one, the school’s teachers notice a big difference. They rave about having a principal whom the students know and love. Brewer visits all the classrooms, speaks over the intercom, and even eats lunch with the kids. He wants all of the students to feel appreciated and loved.
He summarizes his main criteria: “Everything I do is about kids. Every decision I make comes back to ‘Was I better for kids today?’” He wants to give his students the best, not just what is good enough.
But despite his easy-going manner and the endless succession of high-fives, manners and politeness are big with Brewer. He insists that students respect their teachers and each other, modelling such respect himself. As he gives high-fives, he also tells tardy students to get to class quickly – there’s an exciting day ahead. Students become more confident, looking their teachers in the eye and saying ‘please’ and ‘thank you’.
Of course, the teachers are excited about this development. One exclaimed, “I feel alive again. I feel like, ‘Hey, this is why I became a teacher.’”
Brewer believes every student has amazing potential. He tells students that they have no business being average. They are to aim for greatness. “You have to be the answer. You have to be the change. You have to be relentless,” he announces at student assemblies.
It’s easy for us to wish that Brewer could go to every school in the nation. While that might not be possible, he does have big dreams for all kids. His approach may become one that we see replicated across America in the future.