Principal Quits as WHS Worries Multiply

by Chris Wangler

August 3, 2022

Waltham High School principal Brenda Peña abruptly announced her departure on Wednesday, only several weeks before the start of the new school year [see full text of her message below].

A Waltham native and former school adjustment counselor, Peña was in the job for roughly a year and two months. Her last day will be August 26.

I recognize that the timing of my announcement is difficult and it is a very emotional decision for me,” she said in a letter to colleagues, “but it is the best decision for me and my family.”

Peña expressed gratitude for the opportunities offered by the job and pledged to work “closely with my replacement to minimize the impact of this leadership change on the school community.” 

The news is a major blow as the city drives toward a mid-2024 completion date for the new high school.

The next WHS principal is expected to implement an award-winning education plan developed by former superintendent Drew Echelson, but serious challenges linger at the current WHS.

Although Peña started as COVID was waning, she faced a high dropout rate and recurring student discipline issues, including an alleged sexual assault.

In October 2021, she wrote to parents that “we entered the year fully expecting to see dysregulated behavior and an increase in social-emotional needs. What we have experienced has been more severe than we anticipated.”

Things settled down as the year progressed. During her tenure, Peña was committed to “an equitable learning environment that supports all students” and proposed changes to reach that goal, including a new grading system and new committees. 

Two other changes she oversaw, longer 80-minute periods and a new enrichment period called “Hawk Block,” received mixed reviews.

The school committee was supportive, but member Liz Al Jammal said “I believe you’re doing too much” in December 2021. 

“This year I don’t think our students can handle it,” Al Jammal told Peña. “I don’t think our staff can handle it.” She recommended that the principal focus on students and staff “in crisis.”

Departures and Flagging Morale

The news of Peña’s departure follows several other key departures of Waltham High School administrators.

Two associate principals (formerly called housemasters), Ryan Gendron and Chris Gelinas, left in recent months to take other positions. 

Darrell Braggs, who was hired as an associate principal in 2017, was a finalist for the principal job last spring. 

 

If Braggs is quickly appointed as the interim WHS principal, Waltham Schools would need to fill his current job. That would leave four associate principals with very limited experience in the job at WHS.

In addition to the departures, there have been some personnel developments that have lowered educator morale.

Before the school year ended, two respected WHS English teachers were laid off. 

Some questioned why teachers and school funding were being cut as the city builds a new high school that will cost roughly $400 million.

Meanwhile, the city and the Waltham Educators Association (WEA) have been engaged in contentious contract negotiations.

In late June, the WEA posted that it was “Insulted! Disgusted! Disrespected!” by the city’s low cost-of-living increase of 0.75% per year over three years. Educators said the offer failed to compensate for sky-high inflation.

“Roughly 30% of Waltham educators who responded to our survey were strongly considering leaving their job at Waltham or leaving the teaching profession altogether,” said a June 30 WEA Facebook post. 

“We worry that another lowball, bargain-seeking offer from the school committee will further demoralize our educators.”

We have reached out to Waltham Public Schools superintendent Brian Reagan for comment.

Brenda Peña’s Letter to WHS Staff

Good Morning Esteemed Colleagues,

It’s with a heavy heart that I write this letter to you to inform you about my departure from Waltham High School. My last day in the office will be at the end of this month, on August 26th. 

When I first entered Waltham High School in 2006, it was to begin my career as a School Adjustment Counselor. I thought it would be a pit stop; little did I know I would fall in love with my role as an educator and leader, finding a deep affection for trying to instill a love of learning in others. While there were plenty of challenges, there were far more instances when I was thankful and proud of our amazing students and educators. I am grateful to have had the opportunity to work in the community that I grew up in and love.  

Throughout the years, I have developed a very close bond with many of you which I will always keep in my memories and I will miss working with such a wonderful group of dedicated educators.  

I recognize that the timing of my announcement is difficult and it is a very emotional decision for me, but it is the best decision for me and my family.  If there is one take away from the pandemic, it is that quality of life is so important and should not be taken for granted. It is very easy in this field to forget to take care of our own needs and, as we know, this can take a serious toll on our emotional and physical health.  

During this transitionary period, I assure you that I will be working closely with my replacement to minimize the impact of this leadership change on the school community. 

Being a Principal at Waltham High School this past year has been a great privilege, as well as an invaluable learning experience. I am grateful for the opportunity. It has been a pleasure partnering with all of you.  

I wish you all the best in the future. You will be missed.  

Thank you all.

Best regards, 

Brenda

File photos