Malden High School’s outgoing principal Dana Brown was selected as the Massachusetts Principal of the Year by the Massachusetts Secondary School Administrators Association (MSSAA). Here’s an excerpt from a press release from MSSAA:
“This program annually recognizes principals who demonstrate exemplary skills in instructional leadership, supporting a safe learning environment and fostering a collaborative culture of decision making among members of the school community. Mr. Brown will receive the 38th Bertram H. Holland Award at the annual MSSAA Leadership Institute at the Hyannis Resort and Conference Center on July 27, 2016.
Mr. Brown has created a collaborative culture at Malden High that bases all decision-making on a simple question; “Is it good for students?” Youngsters come to Malden High with a variety of learning styles. In addition, some come as parents, part-time workers or newly immigrated. Attending to all students takes creativity, hard work and patience.” –MSSAA
For just a few moments, I waited in the Malden High School Boyle conference room for Principal Dana Brown to arrive. The stark walls, devoid of distractions, shared nothing. The laminate conference table did not reflect any stories. The 12 chairs were empty and ready.
Once he folded himself in one of the nondescript chairs, the room livened with the outgoing principal’s melodic voice, “We laugh every day,” he jokes. “This is a funny place. You have no idea of what students can come up with. There is humor everywhere.”
Notorious excuses for being late, especially on late entry days when school starts early, exemplify the humor. On a late appearance, one girl replied that of course she was late. She had a nail appointment at 9:30 a.m.
One outstanding story is of a freshman who came to Brown regarding the legendary “Freshman Friday” when ninth graders are allegedly stuffed in their lockers. Brown reassured her that this has never happened. For some unknown reason, the petite girl decided to put herself in a long thin locker (this was before the $77 million dollar renovation and new lockers). Unfortunately, the fire department had to use lots of tools to extricate the stressed student from the jammed locker.
Another urban myth is more true than not. Brown knows more students than most. “I try to make connections,” he says. “The more connections that I can make, the more names I know.” Brown continues, “truth be told, I am lousy at paperwork, but I have this uncanny ability to remember faces and then the name comes to me. And I think that young people appreciate the fact that you know them and call them by their name. It is important. “
This is Brown’s thirteenth year of being principal of Malden High School. For at least the past few years, the city has held their breath, hoping that Brown would not leave this position. His tenure at Malden High School greatly exceeds the average length of three to four years.
Brown emphatically states, “I am not retiring. I am leaving. People who know me, know how much I love this job, this place, the people. It has been an unbelievable work experience for me that I am not sure that I will be able to recreate or find elsewhere. But, I felt that it is a real good time for me to walk away, because I do want to do something else. I don’t know what that something else is. And I want to try to do that something else, somewhere else.”
The Malden High principal comments, “that the school is in a good place. The school has great faculty and staff, great families, great resources, great students. We are not a school on the verge of falling apart. That would be a terrible time to walk away. I would rather people say, ‘oh well, he left, rather than I wish he left 4-5 years ago.’ That happens a lot in education, in politics, in life.”
Malden High School student population totals 1820. In a 2013 study by the National Center for Education Statistics, Malden High was found to be the most diverse public high school in Massachusetts with a wide racial diversity of approximately 70 percent.
“Our greatest strength which is our diversity is also our greatest challenge,” Brown explains. “Because we have young people from all over the world; we have young people from all over the socio-economic spectrum. Students who are fluent in English, students who speak no English, students who know exactly what they want to do when they leave Malden High and students who have no idea when they leave Malden High. So, the challenge is when you have 1800-plus moving parts every year, how do you really keep everybody going in the same direction? Some students will leave here with a great plan; some students will leave here with still no idea of what the next ten years will look like.”
Brown continues: “But, you still have to nurture them and support them and try to help them figure out where they are going. I have had a bunch of college students come back here during the summer saying [to me], ‘I still have no idea of what I want to do. I am still looking for a major. I am still looking for what I should be thinking about.’’
Brown maintains: “I think a lot of young people are thinking about that. The economy is fostering that. There are a lot of moving parts, here. This is not a cookie cutter school like our wealthier neighbors. We have students going to Ivy Leagues, but we have students going into the army, we have students going to Bunker Hill, we have students going to work, we have students who don’t know what they are going to do. We have all of those students, right here, in large numbers.“
In hindsight, Brown is proud of Malden High’s diverse population. “The most rewarding aspect [of being a high school principal] is seeing the growth of students over four or five years. I say five years because sometimes an ELL student or a special ed student, or sometimes even a regular ED student, will be challenged and it may take five, sometimes even six years to graduate. But you see tremendous growth in young people from when they come in as a freshman.”
Brown reflects, “Someone said this to me the other day and it caused me to think and I agree with what they said… ‘For whatever reason, Malden High School students tend to be really grateful for being at Malden High School and for being supported here and taught here.’ That is a great reward, to know that students feel really good about what we are doing for them. And they are grateful for that. I had never given that a lot of thought, but I really believe this to be true.”
How did Dana Brown become the principal of Malden High School in 2003? Initially, he started out as a political science major with prospects of studying law in the future. During his junior year of college, he became involved with basketball and aspired to be a coach. In order to coach school sports, one needs to teach. Hence, he switched his major to education.
Back in 1999-2000, Brown was appointed as the community schools director for the Partnership for Community Schools of Malden. PCSM was newly founded due to a large federal grant. The former mayor had invited him to become the director with his experience in a similar program in another town.
During his third year of directorship, Brown sat down with the former mayor as a concerned citizen and they spoke regarding Dana’s concerns with the high school. Brown’s two daughters were both in the Malden public school system at the time.
It was evident that families were leaving Malden High School, due to a poor public reputation during the late ’90s through 2002. Soon after the conversation, the former mayor proposed that Dana Brown consider being principal after discussing the potential of Malden High School.
Long-time Malden residents Marie and Dana Brown thought intensely about this challenging opportunity. It could prove to be difficult for their sophomore daughter, Jackie. But, they both agreed that Dana could make a difference for Malden High School and that was the bigger picture, including supporting their daughter. Three months later, Brown became principal of Malden High School. Dana Marie Brown, their oldest daughter, graduated on a Sunday and the next night, the city school committee appointed Brown as principal.
“In a lot of communities, if you can turn the high school around, the city can gain some momentum. If the high school goes down the tubes, the city can lose a lot of momentum. That was part of the thought process,” he says.
Brown attributes much of the progress to the faculty and staff of Malden High School. “They are innovative; they are creative; they are caring people. This would be a difficult place to work, if you didn’t truly love young people and want to see young people grow and explore and learn. The faculty and staff always amaze me to what level that they will go to help students.”
During the summer, the faculty continues to enrich their teaching through courses, in-house trainings and meetings. Brown reiterates, “The faculty and staff are key. Research shows that if test scores go up, administration is responsible for a small percentage of that and the teaching staff is responsible for the overwhelming jump in test scores.” Anytime that the school shows improvement, the administration is to be credited a little bit and the teaching staff receives the majority of the credit.
Brown would probably say to the first graduating couple of classes (2004-2005) that “I am sorry!” “[Now] We know how to work with more types of students in more types of ways.” The 2015 graduate is more learned, not only academically, but socially and emotionally. Brown laments, “We are a better school and I apologize that it took us four to five years to get here.”
What would Brown’s cherry on top be for Malden High School during this year and forward? “In terms of materials and supplies and stuff, Malden High School is doing pretty well. I would like to hire a couple of more folks who could help us both on the mental health side of things and vocational-ed side of things. MakerSpace [a creative space] is thriving and we have done some class training for ten staff over the summer. I would like to beef up that center.”
Brown contemplates momentarily, “We could use someone to be a quasi-administrator here, about 4 nights per week. We run Bunker Hill programs, we have all sorts of clubs and activities here …this place is buzzing 24/7 … maybe a night school coordinator or evening administrator. I find myself here sometimes til 7 p.m., 8 p.m., 9 p.m. even 10 p.m.
Brown suggests, “A small stipend position to have someone here at night. I walk into the cafeteria some nights at 7:30 p.m. saying that ‘it is time to go home’. The students dance, they do homework, they get food and bring it back. I think in 12 years we broke one thing in the cafeteria.”
The students came to Brown and confessed to a lacrosse ball accident which broke a light. “There has never been any damage, no graffiti. On any given day we have 30-40-50 kids here at 6-7-8 at night. They are not doing anything wrong and I trust them. The Teen Center is an added bonus to that. Kids will go back and forth, depending on what they want to do. It has been a very good partnership.”
Brown relates, “People will say thank you to me for what I have done for Malden High School. But, what I want to say is whatever I have given to Malden High School pales in comparison to the blessings that have been given back to me. My entire family has been enriched and blessed by me being principal. My life has grown exponentially by being principal. It has been a blessing and obviously I will miss that part of it.” —Karen Buck, photos by Elizabeth Scorsello
Here’s a great video produced by Malden High’s Blue and Gold: