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Homeroom: Four Madison School District grads move into assistant principal roles

Scott Girard | The Cap Times

For a district that has long worked toward having its staff more closely reflect its student body, a group of four new assistant principals could be a major step forward this year.

Each of the four is an MMSD graduate and also a person of color.

Patrice Hutchins will take over the role at her alma mater, East High School, while Deidre Green will join the Capital High School staff. Jabalja Gussine will step into the role at Jefferson Middle School, where he spent his sixth-grade year as a student, and Joseph Rosas is moving up at Wright.

The group moves into the new positions with a history beyond their alumni status: Hutchins and Rosas graduated one year apart from East, and Green and Hutchins are friends. While Rosas was a social worker at Wright Middle School, he worked with Gussine, who worked there as a counseling intern, as well.

From left to right are four new MMSD assistant principals for the 2021 - 2022 school year, all of whom are MMSD alumni: Deidre Green (Capital High School), Jabalja Gussine (Thomas Jefferson Middle School), Patrice Hutchins (East High School) and Joseph Rosas (James C. Wright Middle School).

Hutchins said it’s “so exciting to think about our students seeing more staff of color in leadership roles,” and she hopes that it’s the beginning of a long-term trend in the district. The four are an example for students, modeling what they can achieve while remaining close to home.

“It also was just a reminder (that) we don't need to always look super far for where the talent is,” Hutchins said. “We have so many talented kids in our community and what are we doing to grow them and support them?

“If they're interested in education or maybe don't know that, but might be, what do we do to build that capacity and have them come back and work in Madison?”

As of fall 2019, 79.2% of all Madison Metropolitan School District staff were white — nearly twice the proportion of the student body, which was 41.7% white that same year. For administrators, which includes both school-based staff like principals and central office staff, 74.5% of them were white.

Mike Hernandez, the former East principal and chief of secondary schools who left for a position in Appleton this summer, initially offered Hutchins the job that brought her back to East. He said watching her rise to her new position and seeing the rest of the group becoming assistant principals this summer is an opportunity to show kids, “You can be a teacher, you can be a social worker, you can be a principal.”

“That to me opens up a whole new conversation piece when we're talking about kids and engagement and ownership because they see people who are making decisions, they see people that are doing the work and they also look like us,” said Hernandez, who is Latino.

Among the strategies human resources staff have focused on in recent years to keep and recruit new teachers of color is making sure they are comfortable in the community. By hiring people who grew up here, that challenge is at least partly taken care of.

“Growing up through MMSD and just seeing myself in the community and as a part of the school, I just always wanted to stay home,” said Gussine, who first worked in MMSD as a custodian.

Wright’s Rosas finds value in having a direct student experience in the district to reference. But, he added, it’s just as important to “acknowledge that things are different” as he helps students navigate school.

“Being able to say that, ‘Yes, I went to this school district and had some of the similar challenges as you,’ it's definitely important, but honestly, things are still different,” Rosas said. “Sometimes when you use that with scholars and that type of thing, they're like, ‘Wait a minute, you don't know exactly what it's like now.’”

Capital High School principal Quinn Craugh, who hired Green for her new position, said the cohort offers “living and breathing examples” to students of what they can achieve.

“Our strategic framework goal number three is Black excellence,” Craugh said. “How else can you actualize that and how else can you show that to the community than by actually getting leaders from this district into a position to really show off the brilliance and the excellence that already exists? So to me it's cashing the check.”

Each of the new assistant principals said it felt special to enter the position along with the others, expressing excitement for what’s ahead for themselves and the district.

“It’s an amazing feeling to be a part of this new group,” Green said. “I am hopeful that we are going to be a part of a leadership team that is ready to dig in.

“We have fresh eyes, we have a fresh mind, and we're ready to do the hard work that needs to be done.”

Jabalja Gussine

Gussine was the first to gain alumni status, graduating from Memorial High School in 2000.

He called the two decades since “a journey,” including those early years as a custodian.

“I worked pretty hard to support my family while I was also considering what my next step would be,” Gussine said. “And it was in that role when I gained direct insight to what teachers and administrators and other staff members were doing. And I quickly realized that’s where I needed to be.”

After applying and being accepted into the district’s Grow Your Own program, which helps pay for advanced degrees for non-certified staff who want to pursue teaching, he began working toward his master’s degree in school counseling while continuing work as a custodian. That included an internship at Wright Middle School.

Gussine made a strong impression. Rosas recalled a Wright colleague commenting that Gussine was like an extra full-time counselor because of his skills.

“It was probably my second or third year, and I'm like, ‘Wow he is amazing,’” Rosas recalled.

Gussine went on to work for three years as a West High School counselor, where he said he was “committed to excellence with equity” and “always advocating for students of color.” Last year, he took over as dean of students at Jefferson, and he will now move into the assistant principal position there.

While working toward becoming a counselor, Gussine said he wanted to help high school students navigate things like financial aid and college applications. At that point, he did not anticipate heading into administration.

But last year at Jefferson — where he attended sixth grade — he saw “the great impact that school administrators have on the success of students and staff,” and it inspired him to remain in an administrative role.

“It became personal to me to continue pushing forward and thinking about how we can close the achievement gap,” he said. “Becoming a leader, representation matters in our communities and just having those conversations with students, as they see staff members that look like them being in a leadership role and how important it is for our communities.”

His goals for this role are focused around being a positive influence on the school’s culture, building a community within the school that connects with families and cultivating Black excellence. He feels lucky to work on those goals in a building with which he has a close connection.

“A lot of the school looks the same, the basketball courts look the same — and so there's some things that need to be changed — but it's a special feeling to know that I was a student there,” he said. “I can really relate to what our students are going through and I can identify with them and I know I can make a difference.”

Patrice Hutchins

When Hutchins graduated from East in 2005, she knew social work was her plan.

She got her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in school social work at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and began her first job as a social worker in MMSD in the 2011-12 school year, working at La Follette High School.

“It was kind of weird, I’m like, ‘I’m back in MMSD but also I’m at my rival high school,’” she said with a laugh. “But it was super cool because when I think about my high school experience, the east side, even La Follette, I knew like half of the people that graduated there in the same grade.”

The La Follette administrators were also familiar: her high school science teacher, Chad Wiese, was the school’s principal, and her former grade-level principal, Richard Rogness, was an assistant principal.

“I remember the first time Chad set up a meeting to meet with me and I had this feeling of, ‘Oh my God I’m getting called to the principal’s office,’” she said.

From that experience came a better understanding of what she needed to advocate for as a social worker and what needed to be prioritized.

Like Gussine, Hutchins didn’t know she wanted to be in administration. The experience at La Follette, where leaders “put me in spaces” to have conversations beyond her social work sphere, helped her understand the operations of a school building.

When then-principal Sean Storch asked her to move into a dean of students role — two weeks before the 2017-18 school year began — she initially declined. But after thinking it over, she realized her role had expanded beyond the typical social worker and that taking the dean position could mean someone else could come into her position and focus on the social work aspect.

After one year there, she spent another as dean at West and people suggested she get her administrator’s license, just in case. Hernandez, then the principal at East, taught some of her administrator classes at Edgewood College and when a positive behavioral supports position opened up at East, he asked her to take it.

Hernandez recalled how he appreciated her “student-centered” approach and admired how she interacted with students when he first recruited her, as well as her natural leadership skills. Importantly, he said, she also provides a great example for students of color.

“Once you get to know her, you'll see she's going to be a principal soon and she's going to be changing the kids’ lives because of that,” he said.

Her experience in the same building she’s now helping to lead will come in handy, she believes.

“I think constantly about moving into this role, what did I need from people when I was in high school and how can I be that person?” she said. “I love the east side, I love our community. I live in the East attendance area, my parents do.”

Hutchins said being in this role is a reminder to “pull our students in to come back and work and serve and want to work and serve in MMSD because they know firsthand what it's like.”

Joseph Rosas

Rosas' career began with a degree in social welfare from UW-Madison.

But without the advanced opportunity fellowship he received to cover the costs of graduate school, the 2006 East graduate might never have received the master’s degree in social work he needed to work in the field.

“It basically changed my life in a sense of not having a ton of student loan debt and really being able to focus on school," he said.

At the time, he focused on juvenile justice, interning with Briarpatch Youth Services and Operation Fresh Start. While working toward his master’s, he also interned in school social work at East.

After graduation, he began his career in the criminal and juvenile justice field in Columbia County but soon realized that he could “make an impact in a different way” through school social work.

“You can connect with students and families, you see their growth through years, you get to know siblings and cousins and … you feel so much more connected,” he on school,” he said.

He got a job at Wright Middle School, where he remains seven years later as he enters administration. His colleagues and the school’s connection to the community kept him there, he said.

“We work on, how do we get youth voice, how do we get family voice, how do we do whatever we can to make a learning environment that is best for all scholars?” Rosas said.

Administration wasn’t on Rosas’ mind, however, as he “was really focused on supporting students with social-emotional needs that they have, supporting families.” Then-principal Angie Hicks, who Rosas called a “mentor” and who left for a central office role this summer, started bringing him in for more broad, administrative conversations, Rosas recalled.

That helped him recognize his interest in taking on a role like assistant principal.

“And I want to do this with the social work mindset, social work philosophy and social work ethics and values,” he said.

After completing the Edgewood College leadership program, the opportunity came to move into the assistant principal position. Rosas plans to keep focusing on the growth and development of students in his new role.

“As a leader you want to inspire people to help to break down some barriers and challenges that may be in their way of being successful,” he said. “You know you want to, as a leader, lead with love and compassion.”

Deidre Green

Green, unlike the others, knew administration was in her future when she got into education.

The 2009 La Follette graduate said she “wanted to be able to work with teachers on a different level.”

“I love teaching and I love working with students and I knew that from working at the (Simpson Street) Free Press,” Green said. “And so I knew that I wanted to be able to help work with staff who work with the students.”

Green said Madison is a “unique place to be … especially for a person of color,” which made it even more important to her to stay here and be an example for students like herself.

“I knew that it was going to be important, for students of color especially, to see an MMSD student as someone who is in a leadership role,” she said. “We have other examples of that, like (former Wright principal) Angie Hicks was an MMSD student, and look at her now.

“There should be a lot more Angie Hicks going through the pipeline, and I want to be the next Angie Hicks, you know,” Green said.

At Capital, which Green said is “unlike anything else we have here in Madison,” she hopes to spend her year getting to know the innovative approach the school takes to connect with students there. The school, which opened in its current iteration in 2016, is one of two alternative high schools in MMSD, offering a more personalized learning environment for students who need something different than the traditional model.

“I just really feel like Capital is going to be the perfect fit for me,” she said.

Her new principal, who until his promotion this summer was the assistant principal at Capital, called her a “charismatic, energetic, student-centered person” whose experience in the district will be especially relevant there, with a plurality of its student population being Black.

“She knows what it looks like to have to navigate this system as a person of color, as a Black woman,” Craugh said. “(Our students) absolutely deserve to have someone first and foremost qualified and clear cut out to be a leader and second, to have someone that looks like them, and can relate to some of their experiences, both in terms of race and gender equity.”

She believes her connections within the community, along with those of the other three new assistant principals who are MMSD alumni, will serve them and their students well.

“We have connections within the community and I think that it's going to be important for our communities of color especially to be able to see past MMSD students in these leadership roles, and to feel connected in a way that I don't think we have felt before to the leadership in our school buildings,” she said. “I think that'll be super important for MMSD.”

This article was originally published by The Cap Times on August 25, 2021. To view the full story on their website, please click here.

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