Windsor High School’s new principal is working to bring consistency and trust to students and faculty at Windsor High School, as students return amid mask mandates and after years of unstable leadership.
Brian Williams, who was the principal of Windsor Middle School from 2016 to 2020, came on board last spring after being selected by the district to replace interim principal Steve Jorgensen. Jorgensen replaced former Principal Lamar Collins, who resigned last spring after claims he was absent from the school.
Williams is originally from San Diego. After high school, he joined the Marine Corps and then enrolled at UCLA. His original career goal was to be a high school teacher, however, he ended up teaching elementary school at an inner-city school in Palmdale. He then made the transition to administrator at a middle school he opened from the ground up.
In 2015, Williams attended a recruiting fair at Sonoma State University, where representatives of Windsor Unified School District asked if he would like to take over Windsor Middle School.
Windsor appealed to Williams right away.
“My only regret is that we didn’t move to Sonoma County earlier. It’s not the desert. It’s a bigger town that thinks it’s a very small town. I enjoy being in a one district town,” Williams said. He also the move was motivated by doing what was best for his own children
Williams said that when he assumed his post as principal of Windsor Middle School in 2016, the school was not highly regarded in the community.
“Windsor Middle School had a bit of a rough patch before I came in,” Williams said. “A lot of families would avoid going to the middle school, and then come back for high school.”
Once his hands were on the reins, Williams brought in an entirely new administration team, including a leadership team of teachers. He instituted a new block schedule, which featured traditional periods on Monday, and then half the number of periods for a longer bout of time alternating the rest of the week.
By the time he left Windsor Middle School this year, it had implemented three career technical education (CTE) pathways (culinary, construction and theater), with facilities like a “maker space” — or a kind of multipurpose workshop — and a science room converted into a culinary lab.
Williams’ success turning Windsor Middle School around can be quantified by the school beginning to maintain Windsor students who had been transferring to other districts to avoid the school, while accepting students transferring from other districts to attend it.
Now at Windsor High School with 1,640 students to consider, Williams has taken his tried-and-true techniques of building community and leadership systems to help see the school through this difficult time, as students return to classrooms and fields with COVID-19 restrictions and an ever-persistent aura of uncertainty.
Williams said students are happy to be back on campus, with only 20 students opting for independent study this semester. As of late August, COVID-19 had not been a problem on campus, only “a couple of exposures.” Windsor High School currently hosts testing sites on campus, and students who are exposed must quarantine.
According to Williams, students don’t want to have to quarantine, so they have been taking the restrictions seriously.
“In secondary, students have the eligibility to be vaccinated, and the majority of the staff are vaccinated, so there’s a sense we’re a little more safe. We still wear masks indoors, and most students are voluntarily wearing masks outdoors,” Williams said. “Here, (the students) are so involved in extracurriculars, and they’re not allowed to participate if they’re exposed, so they’re a bit more careful.”
Williams said that Windsor High’s small learning communities are its backbone, and, after a year of distance learning that he said proved the importance of in-person learning, students are back reconnecting with their peers.
“Students don’t care what you know, until they know you care,” Williams said.
“Building community has to come before academics. I think we’ve pretty much established that in-person learning is the way to do it,” Williams said. “You don’t get that connection and community via Zoom.”
The instability of leadership at Windsor High in recent years also has affected faculty and staff. Over the summer, Williams took the time to have 30-minute conversations with nearly every employee at Windsor High School.
He said he takes “distributed leadership” seriously, and described Windsor’s problem not as a leadership problem, but a systems problem. With a good system in place, Williams said, the school could still run even if he, the principal, were temporarily absent.
Windsor High School now has a 22-member leadership team of teachers helping to guide the school, allowing him to eliminate one of the assistant principal positions. Williams also praised Assistant Principal Pete Sullivan for his work in helping get students back on campus safely.
In addition to navigating the waters of education during what’s hopefully the back end of the COVID-19 pandemic, Williams has made some other reforms. For instance, he reworked a math class required for graduation that had about 40% of students failing. The grading system has been consolidated into one program so that parents can more easily see how their students are doing, and students requiring intervention can be identified earlier in the semester.
This school year under Williams’ leadership has not, even just several weeks in, been without controversy. Williams eliminated the dress code, something he thought was outdated and chauvinistic. After a “pretty severe altercation” between two students on campus, parents responded on social media thinking that the fight had been the result of gang activity, encouraged by the absence of the dress code.
Williams held his ground and insisted that the two retired deputies on campus working as advisers are effective at identifying gang activity regardless of dress code.
Two final issues are on Williams’ agenda this year: equity and football. Williams is working to help make general education core classes more accessible to special education students.
He also hopes that Windsor, already known for its small learning communities and CTE education, can become known for its football team as well. To help advance that goal, Williams was successful in recruiting a football coach who had been at Cardinal Newman for 19 years.