By: Jason Taylor
As a 2000 graduate of Greeley West High School(Go Spartans), I have always wanted to believe that good things were happening with the schools in my hometown. Over the years though, I got pretty used to hearing lots of negativity coming from Greeley community members, parents, and teachers. That all started to change in 2015 when Dr. Dierdre Pilch became the superintendent and engaged in a full remodel of the district. As time went by, I started hearing more and more positive news about schools in the district. When I learned last spring that Brentwood Middle School had received the prestigious “Schools to Watch” designation from the Colorado Association of Middle Level Education (CAMLE), my interest level was piqued and I knew that I would have to visit the school to see for myself.
I recently spent a wonderful afternoon with Brentwood Principal Nicole Petersen and her staff. The first thing that I would mention is that the term “staff” really is not a great descriptor of the team of educators working at this first-rate school. John Spencer, who has been teaching Social Studies at Brentwood for the last 12 years referred to the staff as “a family” and I think that is certainly a more appropriate label. Everywhere you go in the school, you find another smiling face. Teachers, students, and administrators all interacting in ways that you would expect to see from family members (and I mean that in the best, most positive sense).
In walking the hallways at Brentwood, you get the immediate sense that you belong there (even when you’re a 41 year old administrator from another school). I spent a few minutes chatting with Grace Jackson, a 9th grader who used to attend Brentwood and now chooses to return to the school to help her former teachers (yes, you read that right). When asked what her favorite thing about her old school was, she instantly answered “the community.” “Everyone is welcomed, regardless of their race or identity” she said. When asked about other favorite aspects of the school, Grace mentioned her teachers. “They push you to think deeper and they expanded our minds” she said. In fact, every single student that I visited cited the school’s welcoming culture and fun/engaging teachers as their favorite parts of the school.
When I interviewed Principal Petersen, she too stated that the school’s culture and climate are top reasons for their academic success. “Students are celebrated for who they are,” Principal Petersen said. This is particularly important in a school as diverse as Brentwood Middle School. In fact, out of a total of 561 students, only 25% are white or Caucasian. The other 75% of their student body is made up of various other “minority” student populations. On top of that, a staggering 78% of the student body qualifies for free and reduced lunch which makes the school’s top ranked “Performance” rating on the Colorado School Performance framework all the more impressive. So how did Brentwood achieve this phenomenal academic feat? The answer lies in a combination of high academic expectations, great teachers, and the amazing “family” culture that I mentioned earlier.
Here again, Principal Petersen mentions the importance of school culture in their success. “You can put a lot of emphasis on big events, but it’s more about the little day to day things.” Teachers and students alike receive weekly recognitions, birthday celebrations, and my personal favorite: hot chocolate on the first snowfall. These countless cultural initiatives serve to boost morale and contribute to the overall feel of the school. John Spencer (mentioned earlier) said that his favorite part of being a teacher at Brentwood is the “loving, family atmosphere” that has been maintained for many years and has led to the retention of an excellent staff (which certainly would explain why every student interviewed loved their teachers so much)
After discussing the cultural initiatives going on at Brentwood, I asked Principal Petersen about the things she is most proud of academically. Without hesitation, she immediately cited the school’s “Step up to Writing” initiative as a particular point of pride. Unlike many schools, at Brentwood, writing is embraced by the entire staff. Each core class is expected to engage in one structured paragraph every week and one multiple paragraph essay every month. Brentwood’s school-wide literacy and writing expectations provide a common language that is used in every class so that the students know how to structure paragraphs and plan/pull from the text (skills that are imperative in order for a student to be successful on the yearly CMAS exam).
Brentwood’s academic excellence doesn’t stop with writing though. In addition to a full 90 minutes of literacy instruction every day, students also receive 90 minutes of daily math instruction and 90 minutes of science every other day. Student schedules are rounded out with a broad range of electives including visual and performing arts, PE, tech, and foreign language (Brentwood is actually the first middle school that I have found that provides in person classes in the Japanese language).
After school, students are provided with a wide array of athletic, extra-curricular, and co-curricular activities including Student Council, Gaming Club, Math Counts, Forensics, Lulac, and Drama. As I interviewed various students at the school, I was struck at how each student was involved with a different sport or activity. Keelee Beacher (7th grade) was particularly excited about this year’s musical play “High School Musical.” Nurfadilah (or “Nur” for short) Nabi Husseim (7th grade) is involved with the Dream Team where you “learn for your job, college, and future.” Aaden Chacon (8th grade) and Hilario Ruiz Ortiz (6th grade) are both heavily involved with sports. Truly, there is something for every child within the walls of Brentwood Middle School.
As my time at the school came to an end, I had the opportunity to meet Brenwood’s entire administrative team consisting of AP/AD Heather Severt, AP Andy Hartshorn, and Instructional Coach Lisa McGee. It only took a few minutes to see the very close bond of this group of professionals and to understand further why the culture of the school is so positive (look no further than the picture included with this article for proof). I firmly believe that a school’s success begins with a solid administrative team and this is an outstanding one!
I would like to thank Principal Petersen and her entire school (staff and students) for welcoming me into their school and showing me what “Bengal Pride” is all about! This is a school of excellence in every way; a place where kids from every background can gather to learn and grow. Brentwood Middle School is a “School to Watch” in every sense of the phrase!!