Natrona County School District officials have recommended Mike Britt, the principal at Centennial Junior High, to replace Brad Diller as the principal at Kelly Walsh High School.
"I guess I'll see if my old letterman jacket still fits," Britt, a KW alum, laughed Wednesday. "I just am completely humbled by the opportunity to become part of the family over at Kelly Walsh in this role."
The district's board of trustees will vote on the recommendation at its Monday night meeting.
The announcement comes less than a week after the district held a forum with the five finalists for the job, which will be empty after Diller -- who's run the school for 23 years -- retires. The other finalists were two assistant principals at Natrona County High and KW, the principal at Park Elementary, and the principal from Sheridan County's Tongue River High.
The district took public feedback from community members until Feb. 4.
Britt is in his third year as the principal of Centennial after previously working at Evansville Elementary. He described his leadership style as "strategic," visible within the school and centered around building a team.
"The first rule I came into my leadership roles at Evansville and Centennial with my office manager was this: If the door’s open, they come in, and it doesn’t matter if that’s a student, a staff member, a parent," he said at the forum. "And I’ve kept that as a strong characteristic of mine throughout my leadership career."
He said in an interview that he doesn't have to fill Diller's shoes because "the great things he's accomplished at the school" will remain.
"How do I now put a spin on it where we keep those important things he's done and still continue to improve that school," Britt said. He ticked off Kelly Walsh's four pillars, the school's culture and leadership teams as part of Diller's legacy.
Britt takes over as KW navigates a number of obstacles. The school recently completed a major renovation project and teachers are still getting into the "groove" of working in the new facility, Britt said. The school district -- led by high school leaders -- has significantly changed its approach to the new Pathways Innovation Center. Recent allegations involving the Kelly Walsh wrestling team have sparked a broader conversation across the district about bullying.
On the renovation
Britt praised the construction both at KW and Natrona County High, which also recently wrapped up a years-long renovation. He said his challenge as principal in a new building will be maximizing the space and the school's staff.
"So many options with it being so new and spacing being so flexible," he said.
He said some areas might be "lecture hall-type rooms."
"PIC is such an incredible facility," Britt said. "And I think one of the things I mentioned in the community forum, we have got to do a way better job as administrators, instructional leaders of promoting what is at that facility because for most people, it really is an unknown."
He said that effort will include more outreach to middle schools and educating teachers and counselors about what PIC can provide. The high schools can also do a better job of sending counselors, teachers and administrators to tour the facility and have a sense of what's available within the building. He said he "was disappointed" in himself because he had only recently visited Pathways for the first time.
Part of Pathways' purpose is to act as space for NC and KW students. Both high schools are full, officials have said, and the new goal is to have hundreds of KW students in the morning and a roughly equal number of NC students in the afternoon. Midwest and Roosevelt -- which shares a campus with PIC -- will also be able to send students to the facility.
Britt praised the work of PIC's instructional team to educate the community.
"They were feet on the street, doing everything they could to promote it," he said. But district numbers have shown that nearly two-thirds of district high schoolers said they were unfamiliar with PIC's offerings.
"It's a matter of getting everyone on the same page," Britt continued. "Saying, 'Folks we’ve gotta get kids over there. If not it’s going to make our jobs more difficult at these two high schools.'"
One of the five questions asked at the forum was how the candidates would handle bullying at Kelly Walsh. The problem has received harsher scrutiny lately, especially at KW: The Star-Tribune reported in January that members of the wrestling team allegedly held down and waterboarded a teammate. The district attorney said the allegations are overblown and that the victim participated willingly in at least part of the incident. He said his office will not be pressing charges.
Still, the allegations brought members of the public to a recent school board meeting to criticize the district's general handling of bullying.
In an interview, Britt reiterated his answer from the panel: The easiest part of handling bullying is enforcing the policy, investigating allegations and meting out appropriate punishments.
He said the hard part is school officials becoming aware of bullying.
"I think everyone is looking for solutions to minimize it," he said. "I say minimize because it's one of those things that's very difficult to completely eliminate."
He declined to comment on specific allegations. But he said he planned on instituting programs to address bullying in Kelly Walsh and bring students in as part of the solution. He said he wasn't yet sure what programs he would use.
"While I can’t give you what program, I can tell you one of first things when I talk to leadership team is what are some of the ways that kids are part of the solution," Britt said.
He said that both recent incidents and the general problem of bullying played a role in that becoming a priority for his tenure at Kelly Walsh.