HHS – Reflections

In the world of education, July is the page turning month; the month that starts with a deep exhale and some relaxation then ends with the opening of schools once again for teachers and students.  July is a time to look back on the successes of the previous school year, fine tune what worked well, and change what didn’t.  It’s a time for everyone in the district to catch their collective breath before the wave of teaching and learning begins to build anew.

Over the course of a week in June, each principal in Haywood County Schools (HCS) sat down and reflected on the 2021-2022 school year.  They discussed the challenges of the first year of full, in-person learning since 2018-2019.  They reflected on their school’s academic successes and looked honestly at areas of needed improvement.  Each principal, without exception, praised their faculty and staff and understood the challenges that come with being a classroom teacher.  They also discussed tangible ways to positively impact learning during the 2022-2023 school year.  

Every school leader and every school brings something unique to the district of HCS.  From Anderson Early Childhood Center all the way to Haywood High School, the buildings and staff that make each school what it is are shaped by the administrative teams on each campus and the invaluable work that each classroom teacher performs every single day.  

Brittany Avent’s first year as principal at Haywood High School was the 2020-2021 school year – a year that was full of challenges due to COVID-19.  During that year, students attended HHS on an alternating schedule in order to maintain social distancing and prevent the spread of COVID.  There were only about 330 students on campus on a given day.  For a first year principal, it was a year that allowed her admin team and teachers to put procedures and structures in place while not having to deal with the challenges of a school at full capacity.  What Brittany learned, however, was that this past school year was actually her first true year as a principal of a high school.

“This year we had 815 students on campus at once compared to having only 335 students on campus at one time during the previous year,” she said.  “In many ways, it was like being a first year principal.  Last year, we had an alternating schedule; we had smaller numbers of students on campus.”

With the daily student population more than doubling, Brittany knew there would be challenges but wasn’t prepared for the biggest challenge of the school year.  

In September, Assistant Principal Tony Lambert passed away unexpectedly.  Along with an administrative void, Tony left an immense hole in the fabric of the culture of Haywood High School.  

“Last year was challenging for reasons other than COVID, too.  We lost Coach Lambert early in the year, and that was very hard on the staff and the students.  We decided not to fill that position, and we felt the absence of an administrator during the year,” Brittany explained.

Once the shock of that loss wore off, Brittany noticed that students weren’t exactly interacting with one another in the same fashion they had before the interrupted school years of 2020 and 2021.  

“What surprised me were the social effects on students because of COVID.  Students were used to being isolated and not having face to face conversations.  We had to reteach students how to interact with their peers and their teachers.  That’s something that no one could have been prepared for,” she said. “Our students were having a really hard time with conflict resolution during the first semester back.  By the time the second semester rolled around, though, we saw an improvement.  I give a lot of credit to our advisory program.  Overall, I saw a lot of maturity and growth in our students.”

Something that sets HHS apart from other high schools in the area is the emphasis on the advisory program.  The advisory program uses curriculum from Facing History and Ourselves and teaches students to communicate effectively and help build a world based on knowledge and compassion.  The advisory groups also allow students to connect with teachers in the building in a different context than an academic subject.

“Our advisory program is something that’s very unique.  We really focus on providing a space for students to have their emotional needs met and give them space to work through challenging situations.  Advisories give students an opportunity to connect with an adult in the building and allow them to have someone to go to or be able to connect with during the year.  We want to make sure every student is safe, seen, heard, and valued,” Brittany said.  

Throughout the challenges the previous school year brought, there were some moments of astounding growth within the building.  Brittany saw students mature as they faced and overcame challenges experienced by being back in school on a full time basis.

“I’m really proud of the development of our Student Council this year.  They took ownership and developed a voice for the student body.  I’m really proud of the work they’ve done this year as we’ve restarted that program,” she said.  “I’m also very proud of the social and emotional growth we saw in our students from the first semester to the second semester.”

As Brittnay reflected on the school year, she also realized that there were things she had learned from administrators before her that helped her prepare for a year that was anything but predictable. 
“Working closely with Ms Jackson when she was the principal, I knew what the important focuses should be during the year – the PLC’s, the academic coaching, making sure students are safe in the building.  We wanted to prioritize those areas this school year.  However, there were a lot of things we couldn’t predict like the dynamics of students coming back together,” she said.  “Students had to acclimate to coming back together and being around each other for the first time in a year and a half.  The 2021-2022 school year was like being a brand new administrator all over again.”

Throughout the challenges and trials of this school year, Brittany learned a few things about herself, too.  

“I’ve always known what’s important to me and I found out that my two core values are grace and integrity.  Grace allows me to understand people’s experiences – not give them excuses, but understanding that people have struggles.  We want to strive to push for our equity statement and hold our kids accountable.”