Edmonton·Video

Love and kindness: How a principal's principles are changing Edmonton schools

"For Brad it was just, 'We're going to build through kindness. We're going to love them to death,'" says a former colleague.

After helping save Highlands School, Brad Burns now working his magic at Victoria

Brad Burns, principal of Victoria School of the Arts, takes a welcoming approach when it comes to the principal's office. (Kory Siegers/CBC)

It looks more like a cottage from a fairy tale than a principal's office.

Using salvage from his garage and the ingenuity of the art school's theatre designer and carpenter, principal Brad Burns created the space in an empty alcove of the foyer.

It's now the most active part of Victoria School of the Arts.

Between the shelves of knick-knacks, students and teachers surround Burns, some with appointments, some just stopping by.

"Students just walk in. Parents just walk in. It becomes much more spontaneous, 'Oh yeah, I want to talk to you about' or 'I was thinking' or 'I had an idea,'" says Burns, dressed in an ascot and tweed waistcoat.

An Alberta principal has removed barriers and decked out Edmonton schools in art, in hopes of connecting with students and showing them they're loved. His efforts at one school have resulted in a significant turnaround. 3:31

"I wanted to put myself in a space that didn't have barriers," he said.

The office has been a success. Kids and parents weave through to chat with "Mr. Burns," serious or otherwise, or just to peek at Gordon the tortoise, whose terrarium is built inside the wall. 

Of course, what makes the office truly unique is the principal.

Brad Burns' office is the centre of the school allowing for more spontaneous interactions with students and parents. (Kory Siegers/CBC)

Before moving to Victoria School this year, Burns was principal at Highlands School northeast of the downtown.

Highlands was a rough school, with about 90 students enrolled and on the brink of closing when Burns arrived as principal in 2013, according to current staff.

"He had to show great grace and great love to the hardest kids that were there," said Stacey Mabey, assistant principal.

Students at Victoria School stream in and out of the principal's office. (Kory Siegers/CBC)

Highlands School is in the middle of two extreme economic zones, Burns said. While Ada Boulevard boasts some of the city's most beautiful — and expensive — heritage homes, the value of real estate plummets as you move north to 118th Avenue and beyond.

But only one demographic attended Highlands: those that had nowhere else to go, Burns said.

"The majority of the students attending Highlands were coming out of areas that had a lower mean-income. Some experienced outright poverty."

To save the school would require a dramatic re-imagining of what Highlands could be for its students and the community.

It started with helping those who were already there, setting up a food program for students.

While the program is now funded, the early days were fuelled by whatever Burns could forage.

"He spent his nights going out and getting from different bakeries and different food establishments food to feed them," Mabey said.

Burns was hired as principal at Highland Junior High School in 2013 when the school was on the brink of closing. (Kory Siegers/CBC)

The Highlands community needed to buy in as well.

"The story in the community was — even the community itself — was 'Close it down, get rid of it, there's no need,'" Mabey said.

Burns took the children on what he called "random acts of raking." Students would rake front yards in the neighbourhood after the old elm trees dropped their leaves. They would leave behind notes that read: "From your neighbours at Highlands School."

Burns, a visual artist, felt the arts should play a role in the school's recovery. Arts Core, a program that helps students to learn traditional subjects through the arts, was introduced at the school.

"It was no longer, 'Worksheet. Mark. Quiz. Mark. Final exam. Mark,'" Burns said.

Students could now demonstrate their understanding of a concept in math or science in a medium usually reserved for extracurricular activities.

Burns believed saving Highlands Junior High meant engaging students and the community. (Kory Siegers/CBC)

Perhaps the most important reason for the turnaround is what his staff call a tenet central to his philosophy as an educator and a person.

"For Brad it was just, 'We're going to build through kindness. We're going to love them to death,'" Mabey said. "'Instead of kicking them out, we're going to hold them even tighter.'"

From that philosophy come the stories about Burns at Highlands that still live there today. 

He put up expensive art in the hallways, despite warnings from teachers who had been there in the tough years.

"Surrounding staff and students with beautiful things to remind them of their beauty," Mabey said. "Everyone would tell Brad, 'Oh you can't do that,' or 'If you put up that print — it's too expensive — it'll get destroyed.' And he said, 'Well, then let it be destroyed.' But it was never destroyed."

At Highlands, Burns would sign off his announcements, telling everyone he loved them. One day he forgot and students rushed to the office wondering why. He went back over the intercom to remind them that he loved them.

"Brad is so authentic. He couldn't exude false," Mabey said.

The 1914 school, once on the verge of closing, is now getting an addition, increasing its capacity to 700 students from kindergarten to Grade 9.

"He still lives here," Mabey said. "And I guess he'll probably live here forever."

Gordon the Tortoise helps Burns connect with students. (Kory Siegers/CBC)

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