In a year where a pandemic has disrupted the traditional model of public education and renewed battles over civil rights and systemic racism have mentally and emotionally strained leaders, students and staff, Newton North High School Principal Henry Turner's resolve has held firm alongside his positive demeanor.
"Whatever he is engaged in, he does with kindness," Karen Cutone, Newton North Parent Teacher Student Organization vice president, said. "He approaches all tasks from the perspective of the glass is more than half full, even during the crazy past year. We needed someone to lead by example, and I believe that Henry was the right person, in the right role, at the right time."
Newton North serves about 2,200 students, and while it's located in a fairly affluent suburb of Boston, around 20% of learners are from low-income backgrounds. Among Turner's signature efforts is a focus on anti-racism, a school of thought that says simply being "not racist" is not enough — people must recognize and eliminate policies and practices that feed systemic inequality in order to move toward a fair society.
Taking care in how this is communicated to the school community is key, however. Parents, for example, are informed that "while we take strong positions on making sure our students have an array of information, we always use the line we teach students to think not what to think, and we also respect people in an environment where it's okay to disagree, as well," Turner recently told Education Dive.
That frankness and openness in discussing incidents when they happen has paid off, with conservative alumni coming to the school's defense when politically affiliated groups have pushed back on the school's embrace of anti-racist practices.
"What happens when students are feeling maybe ashamed of what’s behind them on the screen?"
Principal, Newton North High School
"Principal Turner has been a fearless and thoughtful leader in this endeavor and has demonstrated an unwavering commitment to creating a school environment that is compassionate and welcoming to all students, staff and administration," said Kathy Lopes, director of diversity, equity and inclusion at Newton Public Schools. "In a difficult year for all educators and students, he has managed to hold students' social-emotional needs at the forefront of every decision and has provided numerous opportunities for staff and faculty to engage in conversations about culturally responsive pedagogy, anti-racist practices and racial identity work."
Addressing equity amid COVID-19
In regard to the remote transition, the novel coronavirus pandemic caught the school in the middle of a 1:1 rollout. While Turner said the process of getting a device in the hands of every student is now complete, the new model of learning has come with other equity considerations.
"For example, what happens when students are feeling maybe ashamed of what’s behind them on the screen? We are a large, wealthy district, but we also have 20% of our students identified as low income," Turner said. "Some of that is cultural conversations we're having so we're not shaming students or pushing them away, but actually bringing them in and fostering trust with them, which has been another way we're seeing more engagement from students."
Cutone added, "He understands that the uncertainty is very unsettling for students and families, and that many families within our community are hit harder by it than others. He has remained focused on ensuring that the system put in place would address the needs of all students. He and his staff work very hard to ensure that all students with needs have access to technology, meals and school resources."
Acknowledging outrage with compassion, balance
Amid a national reckoning over systemic racism and inequity following the police-involved deaths of Black Americans in the spring and summer, Turner's commitment to meeting students' social-emotional needs and creating an anti-racist learning environment have deepened.
Following the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, Turner sent a personal, compassionate note to the school community, Cutone said.
"He is using our diversity as a community as an incubator for students to learn how to 'be' in a constantly evolving and uncertain world."
Vice President, Newton North High School PTSO
"In that letter, he acknowledged that people are outraged and want to 'do something' about it in this moment," she said. "In order to direct our community in a positive activity, he said that we should each reach out to every person of color that we know and simply ask them, 'Are you OK?' And then listen. I followed his advice and could not believe how healing this simple act was. My children did this, as well, and it was even more meaningful for them, as it formed closer bonds and gave them a way to help that was productive and lasting."
But Turner also acknowledges that there has to be a balance when demonstrating concern in these instances so students aren't overwhelmed, noting the creation of an advisory period where educators can build these conversations with students in a more structured way.
"He is using our diversity as a community as an incubator for students to learn how to 'be' in a constantly evolving and uncertain world," Cutone said.