The black, short-sleeved shirt bearing the school’s name and mascot seemed typical of a principal. But gliding into the main office on a skateboard to meet a visitor? Much more unexpected.
That entrance last week, though, is a pretty fair representation of Hamish Brewer, who is taking over the top job at Fred M. Lynn Middle School after five years at Occoquan Elementary. The 40-year-old New Zealand native has his own brand of leadership, a style that has yielded academic results, as both Brewer and Occoquan collected national awards last school year.
Now he is excited to take the reins at Fred Lynn, the middle school that faces the “greatest challenges” of any in Prince William County, according to the associate superintendent in charge of them.
Forty percent of Fred Lynn students are English language learners, Associate Superintendent William G. Bixby said, and more than 80 percent are economically disadvantaged. The school is not accredited, having failed to meet state standards for English and science instruction.
So it would have been understandable if Bixby had recruited Brewer, who in April was named the state’s 2017 National Distinguished Principal by the Virginia Association of Elementary School Principals. Occoquan was also named a National Title I Distinguished School, recognized for its achievements in educating children from low-income families.
But Brewer said he sought the Fred Lynn job. He wasn’t looking to leave Occoquan, but he liked the idea of a new challenge, and it didn’t hurt that students from his previous school would be going to the middle school.
The principal said he feels at home in an environment with a diverse student body. His aim is to show that any student can learn, regardless of circumstances.
“Poverty is not a learning disability,” he said.
Brewer replaces Jorge Neves, who retired after being at Fred Lynn since 2013, Bixby said.
Bixby said the middle school, which has a student population of about 1,100, made strides in Virginia math standards under Neves. He expects state accreditation will come under Brewer’s watch.
“His record is exemplary, so I felt truly blessed that he was interested in the position,” Bixby said.
Occoquan should also be in good hands, he said, as Michael “Buddy” Lint, who was principal of the New Dominion Alternative Center, will take over there. Lint was Prince William’s finalist last year for The Washington Post Principal of the Year Award.
Lint will have to replace a handful of teachers who have moved from Occoquan to Fred Lynn to continue working with Brewer. They include Nicole Sweezy, who will teach sixth-grade science, and Brian Slater, who will teach sixth-grade math.
Sweezy said she had been at Occoquan for five years when Brewer arrived. As soon as he came, she said, the school had a new energy, including a passion for teaching and learning.
“I wanted to make sure I kept in a workplace where that passion continued,” she said.
Slater was Brewer’s first hire at Occoquan, and he said the principal inspired him to get on a track to become an administrator.
“What he did and was able to accomplish at Occoquan, I feel like he’s capable of doing that here,” Slater said, sitting in Brewer’s new office.
Instead of using the traditional principal’s space, Brewer is turning a meeting room off a main hallway into his office so he can be in the middle of the action and quickly build relationships with students.
He also is concentrating on other ways to put his mark on the learning space. He’s having all the lightbulbs in the building changed to create the visual atmosphere he wants, and he’s hired an artist to paint murals on the walls.
He also will replicate Occoquan’s tribe system, which involved dividing students into four groups that competed in a points race. Everyone at the school, including staff members, belonged to one of the tribes, which were modeled on the student houses from the Harry Potter book series.
Such features endeared Brewer to families at Occoquan, some of whom planned to send their children to other middle schools before they found out he would be at Fred Lynn.
“I even had kids that were going to move as far as Stafford, and [the parents] decided not to sell their house,” Sweezy said.