School honor leads LeBrasse to ‘unretire’ after 30 years at Holmes Middle School
This was to be Brenda LeBrasse's final year at Holmes Middle School.
But success got in the way.
The Colorado Trailblazer “Schools to Watch” program, in conjunction with the National Forum to Accelerate Middle-Grades Reform, selected Holmes last spring as one of the four top middle schools in the state.
For LeBrasse, the designation crowned 30 years of work at Holmes, including the last 14 as principal. The Schools to Watch distinction was so pleasing, in fact, that she contacted District 11's retirement program and announced that she'd changed her mind. “It's fun to watch the school succeed,” she said of her un-retirement decision. “I enjoy being involved in that.”
So it is that LeBrasse now looks ahead with no end in sight as the Holmes principal. It doesn't even bother her to have become the school's most senior staff person. As she explained it in a speech to parents at the beginning of the school year, most principals learn to find the staffer at their schools who knows all the history. Now, at Holmes, that person is herself.
Not only that, but she is the only link to the school's origins in 1968 - the last remaining person to have been hired by its first principal, Lyle Beaudin, who served for 17 years.
Over the years, LeBrasse has pretty much done it all at Holmes - serving as a teacher, counselor, girls' track coach and assistant principal before taking on the top spot. It wasn't as if she kept changing her mind about her educational career path. It was, as she explains it, part of an ongoing pursuit for the best way to to help children succeed. A lover of classical literature, she initially wanted to focus on that instructional area. But then teaching exposed her to the kinds of problems students face, and this in turn sparked an interest in becoming a school counselor.
After ob-taining a master's in counseling in 1978, LeBrasse enjoyed the way it gave her the chance to develop programs such as peer counseling and anti-drug campaigns, to work closely with students and to write grants “to help kids change their lives.” But she also found it frustrating at times because she came to learn that many student problems start at home and this meant bringing in family members for encounters that often proved “touchy,” LeBrasse said.
The next step was assistant principal in 1987. This move into school administration had not been part of her original educational vision. “What, are you nuts?” she recalls asking then-Principal Marge Westbay upon hearing the suggestion. Her main concern, she said, was that “I wasn't sure if I'd be able to give the students assistance in the same manner as I had as a counselor.” But Westbay talked her into it, impressing on her the need for someone who could organize student discipline and improve parent relations at the school. Over time, LeBrasse found she liked the increased responsibility and led the implementation of policies based on the ways students were changing. In the '70s, most kids were coming to school ready to learn, she said, but as time went by, she was observing that increasing numbers of students were getting “less guidance from their homes.” So strategies needed to be changed or established regarding emotional behavior, clothing standards and school safety.
LeBrasse's selection as Holmes principal in 1993 was an unusual district action; a principal rarely gets promoted from the staff within a school.
What led up to it was Westbay taking a district administrative position and being initially replaced at the school by a person who lasted only a year. Around this time, LeBrasse was deciding she was ready to lead a school on her own. “I had put my name in to become a principal,” she said. “I never thought it would be Holmes.”
What happened, LeBrasse is happy to remember, was that Holmes parents and staff petitioned the district, asking that she be given the job. That was the key to the decision, then-Superintendent Ken Burnley later told her.
Her first major task was overseeing Holmes' transition in the fall of '93 from a junior high - which generally implies a less distant teaching style - to a middle school.
Holmes has earned academic recognition in the past. In 1984, the school received the Presidential Award for Excellence in Education, which went to only 88 middle and junior high schools across the country, according to the school website, and in 1993 Holmes was a state finalist for the same award. In 1996, and again in 1998, Holmes was awarded the John J. Irwin School of Excellence Award. And, LeBrasse herself was the 14th winner last year of the Chuck Gaul Award, presented by all the principals in District 11.
But the Schools to Watch award is the high point, she said. The selection process included a lengthy application submitted early in January, and a day-long site visit by a National Forum interview team Jan. 19. The team cited Holmes in the areas of academic excellence, social equity, developmental responsiveness and organizational structures for middle schools.
LeBrasse credited her staff, citing efforts that include considerable amounts of uncompensated time, her students, whose test scores rank among the highest for middle schools in the state. “The teachers tell me about kids looking at the CSAPs, asking what they need to do to get better,” LeBrasse said.
Such an atmosphere of striving for excellence did not appear out of nowhere, the principal believes. Behind it all is the “culture” of the school, dating back to Holmes' very beginning - “a structure we put in over the years,” according to LeBrasse.
No one at Holmes would know better than her.
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