It is official: Waltham High School has a new principal, and her name is Ms. Brenda Peña. On March 15th, the superintendent announced that Ms. Peña had been chosen. In a press release, the superintendent said that “an 18-member screening committee composed of school administrators, instructional staff, parents, community members, and students” was heavily involved in the selection process. Ultimately, the decision was up to Superintendent Brian Reagan, who made the final choice.
Now that we know who our new principal is, many students are wondering what life under Ms. Peña’s administration will look like. In the Family Forum, streamed live on March 4th, parents and students were given an opportunity to ask her any questions that they had. It was also an opportunity for Ms. Peña to reintroduce herself to the Waltham Community in her new role. Additionally, the Talon Tribune interviewed Ms. Peña on April 15th after all hybrid students had returned to school.
Prior to being named principal, Ms. Peña had served as Associate Principal at Waltham High School since 2017. Ms. Pena is also a Waltham High School alumna and spoke candidly of her own struggles in school. She said she struggled academically and had to work in addition to juggling a full-time high school schedule. She came from a low-income household and had to translate for her parents during parent-teacher conferences. She thought that it was important for her to share her story because, as she said in the Family Forum, “my journey defines my purpose and my commitment to all students, as well as my values as an educator and school leader.” She also noted that “[her] experiences are a reflection of that of many of our students.”
Her unique ability to relate and connect with students will be a major asset to her as a principal. She said that she wanted to be the principal because she wants to be a part of the growth in Waltham. She also said that she wants to be a role model for students, and provide an example of the fact that perseverance leads to success. She had applied for this position years earlier but did not get the job. But she said she didn’t let that discourage her and took it as a learning opportunity for her to grow as an educator, and eventually succeeded. Now Ms. Peña is excited to be able to “give back to the community that gave so much to her” because she loves this school and this community. “I am Waltham,” she stated proudly.
Abigail Curtis is a student who was a member of the screening committee that interviewed the candidates and helped influence the superintendent’s decision. She agreed that one of the things that made Ms. Peña stand out from the other applicants was her “pre-existing connections to the community and with WHS students,” as well as the fact that “she herself was a student at WHS who was bilingual and understands our community’s needs very intimately.”
Abigail is hopeful that Ms. Peña’s experiences as a student will also help her address the inequality issues that she has identified in the WHS community. She said that “[she hopes] to see Ms. Pena put diversity, inclusivity, and accountability at the forefront of her administration: ensuring marginalized voices at WHS are heard, and working towards creating a community that acknowledges widespread inequities, and strives towards ameliorating them.” Recent student-led anti-racist campaigns show these concerns are shared by many WHS students.
Ms. Pena also seems to share students’ concerns as she spoke passionately during the Family Forum about creating an equitable learning environment for all students. She said, “I want all of our students, regardless of their background or academic ability, to know that there is no ‘impossible.’ That with failure comes success, and that with hard work and the right resources, they too can thrive in an environment that is focused on equity.” She said she wants to create an inclusive environment where every student can succeed regardless of race, background, or socioeconomic status.
She is also focused on supporting LGBTQ+ students. One change that she oversaw was the switch to gender-neutral gowns for graduation this year, an effort to include transgender or gender-nonconforming students that she was happy to make. It was controversial, but successful because of the trusting relationship she has developed with the families of the seniors. She says it is important to recognize that these may be uncomfortable conversations, but that it is even more important that we challenge ourselves to participate in them so that we can achieve positive change.
This past school year has been uncharted territory for both teachers and students. Teachers have been faced with the challenge of developing an entirely new way of teaching remotely. Students have had to keep up with their schoolwork online while being under constant stress. In addition, many families have suffered the loss of loved ones or livelihoods. Given her background as a former mental health clinician and school adjustment councilor, Ms. Peña is uniquely qualified to deal with the aftermath of the pandemic. She will be able to help support students who lost family members, or whose parents lost their jobs due to Covid-19. She plans on providing lots of opportunities for academic support for students as well as social-emotional support for both students and staff.
Overall, Ms. Peña seems to have a positive outlook. She says that although this year was very difficult, it has been somewhat of a blessing in disguise because it was a learning opportunity and it has created more opportunities for creativity and family engagement. She has been focused on making sure that the school is a COVID-safe environment, and ensuring that all students are still receiving a quality education, even if it is online. It is a refreshing change to hear someone speak optimistically in a time where all we ever seem to hear is bad news.
In regards to her specific feelings about Ms. Peña’s appointment, Abigail shared that she is “very optimistic.” She said, “Ms. Pena was an outstanding candidate whose history at WHS speaks for itself, and I am looking forward to her assumption of the role and the new changes she will bring with her.” As we transition from remote back to in-person learning next year, the entire Waltham Public School community will no doubt be eager to see what changes Ms. Pena will put in place.