Dr. Rainey Briggs, Superintendent of the Baraboo Public Schools: It’s All About Love
Dr. Rainey Briggs was appointed the superintendent of the Baraboo public schools on July 1.
Part 2 of 2
By Jonathan Gramling
Dr. Rainey Briggs is just brimming with hope and positivity — and confidence — as we sit on the porch of his Verona home. Briggs has been in a committed relationship for 27 years — the last 20 as a married couple — has three daughters, a suburban home and since July 1, he is the superintendent of the Baraboo school system.
While one may think ‘Rainey Briggs and predominantly Euro-American Baraboo’ considering Briggs grew up in the rough Somerset neighborhood on Madison’s south side, Briggs does have a connection to Baraboo.
“My wife’s father is from Baraboo,” Briggs said. “For the last 27 years, I’ve been with my wife — we’ve been married for 20 — and I’ve been in and out of Baraboo because there is a lot of family there. So for 27 years, I’ve been in and out of Baraboo. And here is this opportunity to lead in a place that I kind of know, but I really don’t know. Baraboo is a great community. It's a
community that is built on H-Chunk land. We have 2,838 students. We have some amazing educators and leaders. We’re really looking to change the game as it relates to having Baraboo be that destination district. We have one high school, one middle school and five elementary schools. About 10 percent of our student body is Hispanic, 3 percent American Indian, 1 percent Asian, 1.6 percent African American, 5.1 percent biracial and 79.6 percent White.”
One gets the feeling that Briggs could be a solid superintendent anywhere because it is all about the love.
“When I think about love, there are three things that really come to mind that I talk to my staff and other leaders about and that is acceptance, understanding, and appreciation,” Briggs said. “If any one of those three isn’t there, that love triangle can’t happen. It falls apart.”
For Briggs, leadership is about being positive with a vision that includes everyone.
“As a Black educational leader, more so than anything else, you have to be upbeat and hopeful,” Briggs said. “I look at what I do. I look at what I’ve done my entire life. Anyone who knows me knows I don’t argue with people. I don’t get upset. I don’t fight because I’m truly about being optimistic about everything we do. I truly believe there is a solution for every problem that we encounter regardless of who you are, regardless of what the problem is, regardless of who is bringing it. I look at things through a lens of how do we turn this from being ugly into being a positive, teachable moment, inspirational moment, motivational moment for all who will learn about it, hear about it or see about it.”
Briggs feels that everyone — regardless of their socioeconomic status — has something to learn about diversity. And it is through diversity that they become better people.
“I really believe that when we want to teach and grow, it’s not just one population that needs to do that,” Briggs emphasized. “Many people feel like we have to have Black educators just for Black or Brown kids. I’ll tell you what. The one thing that I do know — and there is data to support this — is the more kids who have Black educators, the higher the graduation rates. I don’t care if you are White, Black, Green or Yellow. But I also know that Black educators have an amazing impact on White kids because they see leaders of color and know that it is cool. They had a Black educator as a leader. But I don’t want to lose sight of our Black and Brown students too. Diversity brings a lot of positive things to education in so many regards, not just Black educators for Black kids. I think when we get stuck in that sometimes, how do we uplift and transition that power of love from some of our White people to our Black kids?”
While Briggs has only held the position since July 1st, he has already had to deal with a couple of issues that play out on the national scene. In an area that is pretty much divided between Democrat and Republican, Briggs has had to establish a masking policy in light of the continuing COVID-19 pandemic. And he is following the science.
“We are fully masked as a district to start the year,” Briggs said. “We hope to move to optional as we see the cases drop. Right now in Sauk County, we are in the high range for cases. According to the metrics that is designed and identified by the CDC, Sauk County Public Health and the Association of Pediatrics, we are starting out universally masked.”
And one of the hot button educational issues that have been debated nationally is Critical Race Theory, which holds, according to Wikipedia, “that racism and disparate racial outcomes are the result of complex, changing, and often subtle social and institutional dynamics, rather than explicit and intentional prejudices of individuals.” Briggs feels that it is more of an intellectual and research approach to defining racism rather than something that is taught in elementary and secondary school.
“It is a theoretical framework that is used for research and not something as superintendent that you are going to see in Baraboo,” Briggs said. “Is history taught in Baraboo? Absolutely. But I don’t think history is taught in a way that says White people are the reason for this or White people have caused this. It’s not my place to tell you what a White person has caused. What is my place is to educate all kids. We want kids to be critical thinkers. And they will be critical thinkers. I’m a critical thinker as a young adult. I think every time I get into my car, I have to be critically thinking like, ‘Which way is that car going to go so that I can go a different way.’ But we want kids to be critical thinkers. What we don’t want is to be people who cause kids to think about something without having information to make their own judgements and decisions in life.”
What’s most important is that all students — and the contributions of their communities — are reflected in the curriculum
“Being culturally responsive is thinking about the make-up of your classroom and how you go about making sure that those students are represented in your space and your educational environment,” Briggs emphasized. “Do kids see themselves in textbooks? Are kids able to create art and have their art displayed? Do kids know about people in history, not just negatively, but also positively? I think about Hidden Figures. I didn’t hear about that and who they were until I was 41-years-old. Just think about if kids knew that three Black women landed our astronauts on the moon? Just think about that. Young Black, White and Latina girls see that and they are like, ‘Gosh, I can be an engineer.’ That’s what this is about. And I think people have lost sight of what history really means. It’s not about how we shove history down someone’s throat. It’s about how we represent the make-up of kids in our classes so that they have an identity.”
Briggs is poised to prepare Baraboo students to be contributing and successful members of the 21st century global village. And that means loving yourself, knowing that you belong in that global village and defining for yourself what your place will be.