Dr. Henry Turner ’00 has recently been named Principal of the Year by the online publication K-12 Dive for his leadership during the pandemic at Newton North High School, particularly his commitment to equity and antiracism. Turner, who graduated from UMass Amherst with a degree in history, also currently serves on the Commonwealth Honors College advisory board.
“Right when the [COVID-19] crisis hit, I felt like my prime job was to take care of others,” Turner said. “Take care of our staff, take care of our families, and take care of our students.”
To rightfully take care of his Newton North community, Turner understood, from an equity standpoint, that there were different needs within each community needing to be acknowledged. He served as a calm, supportive energizer to his students and staff at the start of coronavirus, ensuring the community had a confident leader at the forefront. His role in a time of crisis proved worthwhile.
“We needed to provide different layers of support and resources,” said Turner. “We weren’t going to leave anyone behind. We knew we wanted to make sure everyone was accounted for. And as we did that, we got a lot more buy-in from our students and from our families and were able to end the [school] year really well last year.”
With the pandemic came an adaptation of long-lasting standards in public education. The Newton North district has since engaged in a new grading system that provides more flexibility and a greater focus on progress, process, and performance rather than competition for grades. With a national degradation of high schooler performance—a significant increase of Ds and Fs across the country, per Turner—the grading change has helped quell that issue from arising at Newton North.
“We made some changes we probably wouldn’t have made in ten years,” said Turner. “When we come out of [the pandemic], we’re going to be an even stronger school because of it.”
Leading Newton North through pandemic-related issues was just the start of Turner’s prompt to action. When racial, political, and economic issues arose in the wake of the murder of George Floyd, the school increased resources toward managing these issues.
Race has been a central part of the conversation at Newton North since Turner took over as principal, he said. With standards of antiracism already in place, the school felt prepared to take the extra steps in combating racism in their community. Students held virtual assemblies and a rally in June 2020 in response to the murders of Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and others.
Newton North has since introduced two new seals that appear on students’ transcripts: one for civic action, and the other for social justice. The seals serve as a demonstration of students’ remarkable abilities to uplift their communities outside the classroom.
“We’ve empowered our students and their activism and have seen that as an aspect of learning,” Turner said. “Issues of social justice and equity are important, central pieces to instruction and leadership.”
The shift in educational priorities has seen Newton North curriculum move toward developing students’ interpersonal skills. With the help of technology, so much information is already available to students at the click of a button, yet interpersonal skills are something Turner wants his students to develop over time.
The focus on these skills has quickly become a rising priority for colleges and employers since the start of the pandemic, said Turner. Newton North has since instituted an English course for sophomores entitled “Literature through Action” that is geared toward teaching these skills early on in their high school careers.
“It’s something we had been doing a lot of prior to the pandemic,” Turner said in the shift toward an interpersonal skill-based curriculum. “It’s less about the content because the content can be found on your mobile device or laptop. It’s more about how we think about content, make a difference with the content we are learning, and how we problem-solve around real-world issues.”
Turner has served as the principal of Newton North High School since 2016. Before joining Newton North, he was the principal of Bedford High School and previously taught at Lexington High School. He originally enrolled at UMass knowing he wanted to become a teacher, and eventually received his teaching license through the College of Education after student teaching in his final semester. His first teaching job came at Mohawk Trail Regional High School in nearby Shelburne Falls.
“I knew I always wanted to teach because of the idealistic view of making a difference,” Turner said. “Growing up, I had a passion for social justice and addressing issues of equity. As I became a more experienced teacher, I realized leadership is something I was really interested in and something I saw the potential in. From a very young age, I was really interested in becoming a principal.”
Overall, Turner attributes the diversity of people he met at UMass in helping his educational career. Living in Coolidge Hall, he was able to meet people from all walks of life in his dorm, in the classroom, and across campus. He believes this is a trait unique to UMass campus life that has enabled him to engage as a leader. Turner has taken these skills with him onto the Commonwealth Honors Advisory Board as he hopes to help the College grow through the same ideas of diversity that made his UMass experience so special.
“I think the size of UMass allowed for a lot of opportunities to meet different people and to learn different things,” said Turner. “Now I know as an educator that’s not the typical college experience that everyone gets. All of my friends [from UMass] are highly successful in their careers, and they say it's because they know how to talk to people.”