RALEIGH — Two years ago, Dr. Ken Branch thought his time as a school principal was over. He had moved up to Wake County schools central office, following a common career path for administrators.
But the district needed a turnaround leader for Brentwood Elementary School in North Raleigh, and the former founding principal from Centennial Magnet Middle School was tapped for the job.
To be able to take everything I learned and bring it to Brentwood ... to do that here will be the capstone of my career, Branch said Friday.
That capstone will come with Wake schools top honor, too. Branch was named the districts Principal of the Year on Thursday which happened to be his 58th birthday.
By the time school opened Friday, teachers had made congratulatory banners and lined up their students for a parade through Brentwoods courtyard. Branch got 441 high fives one from every child.
Its all very emotional, he said.
The honor follows a busy 18 months for Branch. He arrived at Brentwood to lead its transformation into a Renaissance school one of four in Wake that received federal dollars for extra teacher pay, new technology and small class sizes.
The first task: Re-staff the entire school. Returning teachers had to reapply, and 75 percent of the staff in 2011 was new. Many were top educators lured by signing bonuses and merit bonuses offered through the Renaissance program.
We were a new school in an old building, Branch said. Having the opportunity to bring in people who all embrace the vision is monumental.
He added extra staff to run an intervention program, offering help for low-performing students. Teachers are required to meet weekly and share best practices and ideas for the classroom. He doesnt like to work on his own, said Natalie Avilez, a second-grade teacher. He makes us a team.
Branch has built up the schools engineering magnet theme, which gives students frequent time in the science lab using engineering principles to solve problems. The program expanded this year into the pre-kindergarten through first-grade curriculums. Branch also worked with parents to revive the Parent Teacher Association, which had been inactive for years.
Things are just getting bigger; theyre getting better, said Eric Fitts, the schools assistant principal, adding that Branch has created a culture of collaboration.
Second-grade teacher Denise Lee said that while some principals visit the classroom only for scheduled observations, Branch pops in frequently just to say hi. Students often run up and hug him in the hallway.
Brentwood still lags its neighbors on student achievement standards, but thats due in large part to the demographics, Branch said: 80 percent of students live in poverty, and 92 percent are minorities. Proficiency rates were up 4 percent last year, but Branch says that figure doesnt tell the whole story. Many students are seeing big improvements.
Our kids grow sometimes exponentially, Branch said.
Brentwoods turnaround marks the final chapter for Branchs 33-year career in education. The Northampton County native got his start teaching across the globe at an American school in Kuwait City. Having grown up in a tiny town before attending UNC-Chapel Hill, the international work was eye-opening. It changed my life, he said.
From there, though, Branch left the classroom and expected never to return. But in the late 1980s, he took a job at a middle school in Durham, where he said he learned the power of working together. He was hooked and eventually earned a Ph.D. in school administration from N.C. State. Another career move kept him close to the university, leading collaboration as Centennial Magnet Middle Schools first principal. His work there led to a job as senior director of magnet schools and middle school programs.
Now that hes settled in at Brentwood, Branch says he hasnt thought much about retirement. Hes focused this year on getting more families and neighbors involved at the school. I want to have stronger, more effective outreach to our community, he said.