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This Denver assistant principal builds relationships and heads off misbehavior with bow ties

Paul Hudson/Creative Commons
Fernando Branch
Fernando Branch

Today, we launch a new series called “How I Lead,” which features principals and assistant principals from across Colorado who have been recognized for their work. It is a companion to our popular “How I Teach” series, in which distinguished teachers tell us how they approach their jobs.

Fernando Branch, high school assistant principal at Denver’s Noel Community Arts School, still remembers Ms. Mannis.

When he was in sixth grade, the teacher worked with him on spelling and grammar every day after school, driving 45 minutes across Memphis to drop him off at home afterwards. Eventually, the extra help landed him on the honor roll for the first time.

Branch says Ms. Mannis’ commitment helped him overcome the dyslexia that haunted him throughout elementary school. It also helped shape a philosophy ingrained in him today: “There’s no such thing as a child who can’t learn.”

Branch is one of five principals and assistant principals selected for the 2016-17 Colorado Educator Voice Fellowship, an initiative of the national nonprofit America Achieves. The program aims to get educators involved in policy conversations and decisions.

We asked Branch how he thinks about leadership, what he’s learned from evaluating teachers, and why he’s so into bow ties. This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

What was your first education job and what sparked your interest in the field?
I ran from the field of education at first. That all changed when I was working as a management trainee at Cintas and started coaching fifth grade boys basketball in Maumelle, Arkansas. From that moment on, I became a servant to the profession and have never looked back.

My first education job was at Sheffield High School in Memphis, Tennessee as a geography teacher. I walked in, mid-year right before Christmas break and before I knew it, eight years had flown by.

Fill in the blank. My day at school isn’t complete unless I ____________ . Why?
Walk the entire building at least one time. Building positive relationships with students, teachers and support staff takes time. It’s my experience that having an organic routine that gives you a chance to talk, laugh, reflect, and discover helps support a positive school culture.

How do you get to know students even though you don’t have your own classroom? The best way to get to know students is first by respecting students. Once students know you’re socially cognitive about the school and students’ voice, seek out opportunities to engage in authentic conversations.

One way that I have done this is by starting a Bowtie Tuesday Club at every school I’ve been in. The voluntary activity — where students dress up and wear bowties or bows — is a conversation-starter and heads off misbehavior, too. It’s amazing how a school culture can change when students start wearing bows and bow ties.

Tell us about a time that a teacher evaluation didn’t go as expected — for better or for worse?
There was this one time that a teacher and I disagreed on the professionalism rating they received. I try really hard to be more of a coach rather than a evaluator, but in this particular situation, the teacher scored themselves distinguished in every area of focus. This simply was not true nor did the collected evidence support this rating. In the end, we agreed to disagree, but I learned a very important lesson from that: In the future, I should build in checkpoints to talk about professionalism over the course of the year.

What is an effort you’ve spearheaded at your school that you’re particularly proud of?
Our recruitment effort — being strategic about marketing and branding. We created student shadow days where students and parents visit the school. Also, our arts team does art tours to showcase our work to feeder middle schools. High school enrollment projections are up in every grade level. We are bringing in one of the largest freshman classes to date and are attracting 49 percent of new ninth-grade artists from outside of our school, which serves grades six through 12.

The second thing I’m most proud of is the frequent feedback we hear from students, teachers, parents and district partners about the drastic change in school culture. When behavior incidents are down 90 percent, attendance goes up, and the creative flair of an arts school began to blossom into a colorful canvas of school pride and purpose.

How do you handle discipline when students get into trouble?
There is no such thing as a bad child. We have to meet children where they are and build them up to where they need to be. I use a social emotional support system that teaches students to own their mistakes and change their thinking habits.

When the event is too great for a restorative coaching session, tough love plays an important role in teaching our students that there are real consequences for your actions as a young adult. After the consequence has been addressed, students will revisit the type of thinking that caused the event to happen in the first place. This is where true learning happens.

What issue in the education policy realm is having a big impact on your school right now? How are you addressing it?
Leading an art school carries an additional financial burden. The per-pupil cost at my school is often more expensive because of the type of programming art schools support. I’m paying close attention to TABOR, Gallagher and Title II funding because each has the potential to harm or drastically improve the state of my school.

What is the hardest part of your job?
The hardest part is shutting it off so that my two daughters and wife see daddy and a good husband who tries to cook during his assigned week. A Mr. Branch that is not taking care of business at home is no good at school either.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.
I remember meeting with [a parent] about her son, Mohammed, who was one of my outstanding students and athletes. Mohammed had earned a full scholarship to college in his senior year but was not his usual positive self. When asked what was going on, he told me that he couldn’t attend college because he was just told by his mother that he wasn’t a U.S. citizen and was in the country illegally.

I was blown away that this young man did everything right since first grade and was not able to receive the award he earned. I worked tirelessly to ensure he got his chance at a post-secondary education. Mohammed graduated from college three years ago and still carries true grit in his work ethic.

What are you reading for enjoyment?
“Top 20 Parents: Raising Happy, Responsible and Socially Healthy Children” and “Why Students Disengage in American Schools And What We Can Do About It,” both by Paul Bernabei.

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