Clarence “Tripp” Burton, who will join the FHS community as principal on July 1, spoke to the faculty and staff for the first time on April 22. His short presentation emphasized the importance of tradition, accessibility, and relationship-building as the school enters its next transitional period.
“This is a high-achieving school with great students, great faculty, great community, and great tradition,” Burton said. “You feel it when you walk in. It means a lot to a lot of people; there’s a lot of graduates working in the town. I’m just honored and humbled to be selected for this position.”
According to Associate Superintendant for Instruction Sandra Mitchell, Burton was chosen for his leadership qualities and fresh perspective. However, Mitchell knew the appointment would be controversial since two FHS assistant principals, Kraig Kelican and Jim Raines, were also in the final round of interviews and were strongly supported by the school community.
“Mr. Burton is exceptional in leading projects and has a desire to build new relationships at FHS,” Mitchell said. “My heart breaks for those who are here, yet I do understand the decision.”
The announcement of Burton’s appointment resulted in a tense firestorm from students, teachers, and community members as people posted comments on Twitter in support of Kelican and Raines. Many faculty members felt that the surveys and interviews in which they expressed support for having an FHS assistant principal replace the retiring Roger Sites were ignored by the School Board office.
“I have an issue with presenting [the decision] as if we had a choice,” English teacher Lee Lorber said. “It’s part of our society to work hard and move up, and these two men have worked very hard to go forward in their careers. Because they are who they are, they will stay here and continue to do good work for the school, but it’s an insult.”
Spanish teacher Janice Hall expressed her frustration in a letter to the School Board that Kelican’s and Raines’ long careers at FHS appeared to be liabilities when they were considered for the position.
“I see the way [Mr. Raines and Mr. Kelican] work with students; they do it with such grace,” Hall said. “I wonder what [the School Board] think the message is to other people who work in the educational community. If the people you work for don’t recognize what it’s about, then you just kind of feel like a fool.”
While tensions have eased somewhat, some, like English teacher Robin Frost, remind colleagues to give Burton a chance.
“I’m keeping an open mind,” Frost said. “When he spoke at the faculty meeting, the thing that struck me most about him was that he acknowledged that there’s nothing to fix here. As long as he keeps that in mind when he’s making changes, I’m open.”
Frost believes that, in the past few years, accountability has become increasingly important to the school division, an emphasis that played a part in the decision to appoint Burton.
“Kettle Run seems to have gotten accountability under control through experimentation,” Frost said. “Hopefully, Mr. Burton has been on the trial and error side of things. He even said, will he make mistakes, but he’s willing to learn from them.”
Burton graduated from James Madison University with a degree in political science, and worked as a dean for Prince William and Loudon Counties before joining Kettle Run when it opened in 2008. He hopes to continue the student-teacher-administration dialogue built at Kettle Run as he joins the FHS community.
“I believe that our teachers and students feel comfortable coming to us and giving ideas,” Burton said. “I want people [at FHS] to feel comfortable coming to me with ideas. I’m talking about students, staff, parents, community members. If you have an idea or way to make our school better, I want to hear it because it doesn’t all come from the principal, and it shouldn’t.”
Building a network of trust also bolsters school safety, according to Burton.
“Part of keeping a school safe, too, is those relationships we have with kids,” Burton said. “[Students] are really the first line of defense because you guys tell us what’s going on. And I love preventing things more than I do reacting to things.”
Since the announcement, Principal Roger Sites, has worked closely with Burton to introduce him to the FHS environment.
“I’ve been meeting or talking with him almost daily to ensure we have a seamless transition,” Sites said. “We’re working together to make sure we do everything we can for the faculty, students, and FHS community.”
According to Kettle Run senior Maggie Swift, Burton does not shy away from enforcing school rules.
“He’ll definitely call you out in the hall if you’re breaking the dress code, but he’s fair about it,” Swift said. “He’ll [also] joke around and have conversations with you. He’s really nice.”
Burton stresses an educational environment that allows students to learn how they learn in order to prepare them for future learning, whether in the working world or higher education. And he expects to do a lot of learning as FHS principal.
“I’ve got a lot of listening and a lot of learning to do,” Burton said. “Like anything else, it takes time. Judge me not by what I say here today; judge me by what I do. I’m just here to help and serve. That being said, everyone here has treated me outstandingly – first class and professional. I can’t say enough about the way the present administration and everyone I’ve come into contact with has treated me.”
~Sophie Byvik, editor-in-chief