Many of the disadvantaged students in Wiley Brazier V’s hometown have never traveled beyond the city limits. But when he opens the doors to his new K-12 charter school at the Baton Rouge Metro Airport in Louisiana, they’ll be able to fly a plane right out of their own hangar.
Brazier, winner of the 2019 ISTE Education Leaders Network Award for Exemplary Leadership and founding principal of two successful schools in Texas, was the natural choice for getting the STEM-focused Helix Aviation Academy off the ground. He earned his wings after using blended learning to help low-performing students achieve double-digit gains in Dallas.
His secret: “I do what’s in the best interest of the kids and what’s in the best interest of the organization. That’s it.”
Sometimes that means overcoming the resistance of fellow educators to new technology. Sometimes it means DJing school dances to save money so he can invest more in his students. This year, it means cultivating partnerships with organizations such as the U.S. Air Force, Boeing and Amazon to give students a robust curriculum in engineering, robotics and aviation.
The aviation academy, one of the first in the nation to be housed in an airport, seemed almost tailor-made for the technology enthusiast and former science teacher who became an educator so he could mentor kids in need of strong male role models.
A role model for students
Going through adolescence without his father, who died when he was 12, Brazier had only an older brother to serve as his guide into manhood – until he reached high school, where he found an inspirational figure in his school principal.
“There were a lot of kids I grew up with who didn’t necessarily have their fathers in their lives, and I saw some of the paths they were taking, and they weren’t necessarily where I wanted to go,” he says. “I ended up deciding I wanted to be a role model for kids who looked like me that were also growing up in a low socioeconomic situation without their fathers.”
He was teaching science in Louisiana and engaged to be married when Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005, throwing his wedding plans into chaos. His wife’s wedding dress and ring were lost in the flood, and the cruise ship on which they’d planned to spend their honeymoon was appropriated to help hurricane victims. Amid all the changes, they decided to start a new life in Dallas, along with other relocated Louisianans.
In Texas, Brazier completed his master’s degree and transitioned into administration, quickly developing a reputation for turning around underperforming schools. He became the first African American male principal at Lewisville Independent School District, where he opened a new high school targeting dropouts and over-age students. Two years later, he became founding principal of another school for over-age and under-credit youth, using blended learning to help the district achieve a record number of graduates.
Putting Chromebooks into the hands of students
With his career on the rise, Brazier moved his family back to Louisiana and became a regional coordinator for the state’s department of education, but he missed the daily interactions with students. He returned to the principal’s office, this time at a magnet middle school, which under his leadership earned an A rating from the state. Determined to purchase the district’s first set of 60 Chromebooks for his students, he had to face off with the district’s chief technology officer, who opposed the idea.
“Technology has been a driving force behind everything that I have done,” he says. “People back away from it, but we need to provide students with the support to be able to compete globally in the future.”
When a new superintendent came on board, the tide shifted and Brazier was tapped to run pilots for replicating his 1:1 Chromebook initiative districtwide. He also launched the first Google Boot Camp within in the district, which today has more than 31,000 laptops.
Now Brazier is in a different kind of pilot seat, building yet another school from scratch – this time with an emphasis on STEM. And he has a whole year to plan, recruit and get the right technology in place.
“I am so excited, so over-the-moon excited about the opportunities now available for our kids – even more so because it’s in the same neighborhood I grew up in,” he says of his new position. “With our kids and where our school is located, it can make a huge impact on the overall economics in our city.”
Nicole Krueger is a freelance writer and journalist with a passion for finding out what makes learners tick.