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On his first real day as Kelly Walsh principal, Mike Britt wandered the halls.

He’d done it before, spent the quiet months of summer here, alone but for the custodians. And years before, too, when he was a student here in the late 1980s and early ‘90s, when his hair was still brown. When he graduated in ’91, Kelly Walsh was a few years removed from the arrival of Brad Diller, who’d be principal for 23 years.

Diller retired in June, and now it’s Britt’s turn. So he wandered the school that first day of classes in early September. Kelly Walsh has changed significantly since he was here, since Diller took over, since 2015 even, from the new athletic courts to the turf practice fields to the pool.

As he walked, Britt asked wide-eyed freshmen how they were feeling.

“Yeah, Mr. Britt, I’m really freaking out,” they’d say.

“Not as much as I am,” he said back.

That was two weeks ago. Britt’s continued his morning walk, out the front door, past the flagpoles, down the steps, toward the athletic fields and around again. Unlike how he described his first day, he seems more at ease — at least outwardly. He’s sleeping more now than he was in the run up, he says.

“I felt home,” Britt, who was previously principal at Centennial Junior High, says of the first few days. “It felt right.”

His office, half-wrapped in windows that look out on students trickling in and out of the east Casper building, is filled with Kelly Walsh memorabilia. Above the windows is a mural of images from KW’s history dating back decades. It includes three photos of Britt as a student: one of him in a football uniform, another with his face painted in the student section at a game, and a third of him at homecoming wearing a tie and button-up shirt. He’s standing with his date and looking at the camera open-mouthed, as if the photographer appeared from nowhere and caught Britt mid-sentence.

As principal, Britt doesn’t feel like he’s filling the shoes left by his predecessor, who led Kelly Walsh for more than two decades, through renovations and massive changes in school funding, a boom and a bust. He views his role as carrying on that work and the spirit of Kelly Walsh, Britt said.

He highlights the school’s four pillars as a ready-made blueprint: acceptance, academics, athletics and activities. Beyond that, he said he has four general goals: Are students learning? Are they engaging? Are they building relationships with staff? And are they safe?

The ultimate test of learning is “are they getting their diploma,” Britt says. KW has enjoyed success in that recently, posting its best-ever rate of 83.3 percent in 2017. Britt says focusing on having students engaged as freshmen is key and that the school has the groundwork laid to continue sending more seniors across the stage each June.

He highlights Trojan Connections, a scheduled block during which students can meet with teachers to touch on problems or concerns, as important in building that engagement. Britt says he started holding regular meetings with the student council’s executive committee to hear what’s working and what isn’t.

He says the school’s move to single-point entry — meaning students have one door to enter — is an important step on safety (the district as a whole has moved to single-point entry over the past several months). Britt knows Kelly Walsh’s school resource officer, Ty Mower, from his time at Centennial, and the two have a good relationship.

Britt previously said the hard part of addressing bullying and safety in general is “prevention and identification” and that “students will be the biggest part” of the school’s solution to those problems, which have drawn increasing concern over the past several months.

New face, same place

In some ways, it feels like a new era at Kelly Walsh. A new principal, a building so new it’s still sparkling. But Britt shies away from that.

“It’s not about the brick and mortar,” he says. “It’s about the people.”

He doesn’t mean him, or Diller, or the students walking out the side doors for lunch, or the teen doing some very elbowy push-ups in the commons as National Guard recruiters watch. Britt and those students will all leave at some point, as Diller and thousands of students did before them.

But the spirit that Kelly Walsh as an institution carries, Britt says, will endure. He describes a tour he gave over the summer to the class of 1968, which was celebrating its 50th anniversary. Some members of the class didn’t show up for the tour; the building wasn’t the same anymore, they said.

But there are flashes of that history still here. The old basketball court’s floor is laid into the steps at the heart of the building, where students lounge and eat. When Britt walked the class of ‘68 over those steps, the class members hugged and remembered, he said.

The moment affected Britt, too. He realized that Kelly Walsh was still Kelly Walsh, through the renovations and beyond any administrator.

Not to say it’s been all smooth. Britt walked into a school of nearly 1,900 students, and Diller had a reputation for connecting with all of them.

What of Britt? How does he want to be remembered?

“That I did everything I possible could to provide the best educational experience I possible could,” he says. “That’d be a great legacy.”

Follow education reporter Seth Klamann on Twitter @SethKlamann

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Education and Health Reporter

Seth Klamann joined the Star-Tribune in 2016 and covers education and health. A 2015 graduate of the University of Missouri and proud Kansas City native, Seth worked for newspapers in Milwaukee and Omaha before coming to Casper.

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