Getting to Know the Spirit of Rich East with Dr. Albert Brass and Mr. Quincy Owens

Rich East Principal Dr. Albert Brass Jr.
Rich East Principal Dr. Albert Brass at work. (Photo: Gary Kopycinski)

Park Forest, IL-(ENEWSPF)- Getting to know the heart and soul of Rich East High School is a process. We begin with a joint interview with Principal Albert Brass Jr. and Climate and Culture Coordinator Quincy Owens. As school board members of District 227 contemplate–once again–restructuring finances and float the idea of closing the REHS, the school that existed before the rest of the district, let’s explore what makes this high school great.

We are also aware of the so-called “elephant in the room,” a major drain on finances for School District 227: Southland College Preparatory Charter High School, a school launched by School District 162. While the accomplishments of Southland students are many and laudable, the impact on the budget of School District 227 has been significant. The website for Southland College Prep may live on School District 162’s domain, but the finances come from SD 227.

That is my addition. Southland College Prep was not part of the discussion I had with Dr. Brass or Mr. Owens. They didn’t bring it up at all. Their focus?

Telling the Rich East Story

Let’s step inside Rich East High School and get to know the administration, faculty, staff, and students. Our first sit down was mid-June, just before I headed to Chicago Rush for my surgery. At the time, Dr. Brass and Mr. Owens extended an invitation to eNews Park Forest to attend weekly Wednesday afternoon administrative meetings. According to Mr. Owens, the goal has been to open these meetings up, to hear more voices, and so others at REHS and in the community have a better grasp of the true story, the narrative, or Rich East.

“I think in the past when there has been administrative meetings, generally it was not as open,” Mr. Owens said. “It was only the administration was allowed and this year we have allowed some of our teachers to come in, we have allowed our union representatives to come in and sit with us as we are going through the planning process because honestly, having them at the table while we are making decisions, it makes sense.”

Rich East High School
Rich East High School. (Photo: Gary Kopycinski)

According to Mr. Owens, clerical staff will attend meetings and “let us know when we have planned something, getting their input so we need to take some other things into account. Getting more voices is always important and I think one of, probably, Dr. Brass’ more celebrated voices has been the student council [members] that have come in. They have even not just come in to listen to us as we pitched ideas and going back across the table but come in to present ideas about things that they want to do.”

Last year for Spirit Week, Student Council members pitched what they wanted to see for Spirit Day as opposed to administration laying the plan out for them from the top down.

“They came in with their own plan and they let us know what they wanted to do,” Mr. Owens said. “We had a nice little spirited debate about what was okay, what was not okay, maybe we could go back to the table, is there something else we can work a little bit differently here for everybody’s safety and everybody’s sanity and the kids responded well to that.”

Mr. Owens paraphrased the student response, “Hey, that makes sense, we didn’t look at it that way,” and “students went back to their side of the table to figure some things out and at the end of the day we ended up with a Spirit Week that more students bought into because they felt it represented them, and not necessarily going to be ideas that I am going to even think about. But I am getting there,” and here Mr. Owens laughed warmly.

“You know, I am not going to see it the way they see it, so, it’s important just to have more voices and so, as he is invited you in that is with the same thought,” Mr. Owens said.

Dr. Brass chimed in, “Normally I would say do not let me know when you are coming but if there is something that you want from us I would say just give us a heads up. I will let the team now and say, ‘Gary is coming,’ let us pull that information together so that you can walk away and capture that moment.”

“I really wish there was a time when you can actually come in the building when the students are here because that is the culture of it, being able to walk around and see the interaction the students have,” Dr. Brass said.

I certainly appreciate the generous invitation and will work on my end to see that that happens, working to drop by Rich East during school hours once a month or so.

As we spoke, honestly, I began to have a sense of the richness of this school–no pun here–the welcoming environment that exists within the walls of this school building.

Dr. Brass spoke of the narrative of Rich East in the past, and his desire to open the doors to show the community what actually happens, what life is like at Rich East. Both he and Mr. Owens spoke with enthusiasm. They were genuine, eager to share the true story of Rich East High School.

The Heart and Soul

“You know more than I do, then Quincy could probably speak to the narrative that has been shared about Rich East for a number of years,” Dr. Brass began. “Being new to the school and being able to be around the school and being able to be around the community, it’s not true. And I have asked and we have asked people to come in the building, just spend time in our building, walk our hallways, and talk to our students, that is where you get the fabric of what is going on.”

“We do a lot of tweeting and my hope it’s going to double next year. In trying to change that that narrative we need people to not only hear it but to see it. I know, Quincy, we’ve done some videos of our school but we have not done that to the level that will take it to like, ‘Wow, this is a day in the life of Rich East.’ Let us walk the hallways unedited, let us just see what it looks like. That’s when people will start saying, ‘Wow, this is what is taking place.’

“We just got to do more of that and I hope that our partnership will allow that narrative to change, slowly, but also being able to provide adequate and accurate information as well,” Dr. Brass said.

Make it work,” Dr. Brass said. “We will make it work.”

The True Narrative of Rich East

“I want people to know that our students are very successful,” Dr. Brass said. “As I mentioned before about the $5.6 million that students earned [in scholarships], we had 94% of our students graduate. So, that means we got 6% that we got to still find ways to support them, but out of that 94% we had a number of students go off to four-year colleges, two-year colleges, to military and many of them went off to the workforce.

Many Rich East Students Walk to School

“We are a community that a lot of our students walk to school. We have nine buses each day that bring our students to and from. That is only– if we want to say– at the most, 45 students per bus, which I do not think that is many. More than half of our students walk to school every day. Still, we had close to 87% daily attendance rate. That is even going through the time and the month of January and February when it’s cold out.”

Rich East Students Are Resilient

“So, our students are resilient,” Dr. Brass continued. “They are looking for opportunities. Despite the odds and what people may say about them, they enjoy coming here each day, they enjoy learning. We have staff that you’ll find here before school and you will find here late in the hours providing support for our students. Even on the weekends, you just find a family. I think the word family is something that we talk about a lot.”

summer basketball camp at Rich East High School
Summer basketball camp at Rich East High School. (Photo: Gary Kopycinski)

Wherever You Are, Wherever You Go, Honor Rich East. Honor the Rockets

“Our slogan,” Dr. Brass said, “which you probably see on all of my emails is, ‘Wherever You Are, Wherever You Go, Honor Rich East. Honor the Rocket,’ and we say that because we want our students no matter who they are, if they are an athlete, they are on the chess team, debate team. Wherever they are and wherever you go, whether you are in Park Forest, Matteson, Chicago, Europe, that we want you to represent Rich East.

“One of our alums [Jonathan Vanderbilt] is now our new mayor and he spent a lot of time before becoming mayor coming back to the school and giving back.”

“We put together a video, which I got to think about updating that video, we did an ‘Honor The Rockets’ video that really encapsulated the beginning of the school year and it just kind of talks about what the fabric of who our kids are,” Dr. Brass continued. “A lot of our graduates have done some great, great things. If you have not seen the video I can share it with you, it’s on YouTube, but it just talks about their story.”

“A lot of times, because our school has changed demographically,” Dr. Brass said. a lot of research out there says that students who are at risk who are from low income cannot be successful. And that’s is not true. Not at all. These t-shirts, as you see on my desk, I just came back from Harvard Institute and it was about turnaround schools, school who work with lower-income [students], and how do you turn them around. It really starts with embracing who you are, embracing the culture that you are building, but also at the same time have high expectations.”

Rich East Students Know They Are Welcome Every Day

“We are very fortunate to have an awesome staff that loves each and every one of our students and we are fortunate to have students every day that trust us, that we have parents who believe in us, that we are doing everything we can for their children. Those are the things that really-really resonated with us is that when the child, when we have Mr. Owens or [Associate Principal of Operations] Mr. Anderson or myself, we are outside every morning and we greet our students at the door.”

Here, Dr. Brass got more specific.

“Not the door of the building but the door of their car, the door of their truck, the door of the bus that they get off of and we are giving high fives every morning and we say, ‘Hey, let’s have an awesome day. Welcome to Rich East,’ He said. “Those are the things that people really do not get a chance to see, when Mr. Anderson is out there when it’s 20 below zero you have parents bringing him cups of coffee because his charge was, ‘I’m here for our kids, I’m here to make sure that they walk in this building and they know they have at least one caring adult that spoke to them when they walk in the building.’

“So, when they get out the car they have Mr. Anderson right there when they walk in the building they meet Mr. Owens. Every single day is there walking them into the building. So, now every student is guaranteed to have two adults that is going to speak to them and ask how their day is going. So, when you start the day off knowing that you are being cared for and someone is asking how are you doing. And sometimes it’s the things that they do not say that really makes them feel even better.”

For example?

“It’s that when you have that sad look and they say, ‘Hey, you don’t look the same. What’s going on?’ and you can have an adult pull you to the side.”

We are family here,” Dr. Brass emphasized. “We breathe family. We preach family. Everything we do is about family. You have arguments with your family but the goal is, more importantly, that you love one another.”

Restorative Practices

“When you think about restorative practices and how schools are not using restorative practice, we are at a place where we are going to continue to dive deeper into that because we know that we have to prepare our students to be able to work not only with one another or with a staff member but with people in the community. 

“How do we continue to preach restorative practice to their students so they can be more resilient so that when they walk out into the workforce they are able to then coexists and work with another person and be part of a team? Those are the things that we are really about if you talk about changing the narrative.”

What are Restorative Practices? 

“In a nutshell,” Dr. Brass said, “you and I may have a disagreement, Mr. Owens would call you and I into a room and give us a chance to kind of talk through that process and he would give us some tools that we can then rebuild that relationship.

“The majority of the time when students have a problem it exists from something went wrong within that existing relationship, our job is to restore that. It could be from student to student. We have done it with student to staff member. We’ve also done it with parents to students as well because we know in any relationship at any given time there could be a break in that communication.

“So, our job is to allow that communication to flow the way it should flow. So, we do those sorts of things to help support our students because we know after they walk out of our office, they have to then go back into work with that student, whether it’s in class, whether it’s in the hallway, or whether it’s in the community, they have to be able to work with one another.”

Here, Mr. Owens added more, “I know this generation probably does not hear this saying enough but when I think about restorative practices I think about the things my grandma always used to tell me, like, ‘Be careful what you do because you don’t wanna burn your bridges,’ and I mean, that is really where restorative practices come into–and that is the heart of it– realizing that no matter what, you have an existing relationship with everybody that you meet, everybody that you saw yesterday, whether they are in your life every day or just some of the time there is a relationship that has been built and that there is a trust that has to be maintained.”

Trust: Parents Send Us the Best They Have

“There is a cost to be paid in any event that you violate said trust,” Mr. Owens said, “or you harm that person. We have to push for people to realize that and when you decide that you want to label a student because they have done something bad you’ve also isolated that student. We have to separate that student’s actions from who they are as a person. We have to save the person because in all honesty, no matter what, every day, parents, they are sending us the best they have, no matter what, they are sending us the best that we have.”

“So, when students make bad decisions, separating the actions from that student,” Mr. Owens continued, “from that person and saying, ‘Hey, as a person, you know what? You’re a student, I’m never gonna disown you, I see you, you are one of us, you’re my family. But this thing that you did yesterday or this thing that you did today, that is not acceptable’

“When you talk to them on that level and you show them that, ‘I’m not abandoning you just because you made a bad decision, in fact, I’m willing to work with you,’ that is what draws kids back that sometimes are lost to us.

“That is the main push of the restorative practice,” Mr. Owens said.

Those Who Fall and Get Back Up Make a Difference in Our Lives

“We cannot just destroy all these kids because we are going to get brand new ones as soon as we destroy a kid, it just does not work that way,” he continued. “To be honest with you, some of those kids that are a little beat up, some of those kids that have a couple of little issues, at the end of the day, down the line, when we are finished working with them, they will end up being stronger than the kid that never failed because the kid that has fallen and gets up and the kid that will continue to fall and every time they will continue to get up, those are the students, those are the people in our lives that make a difference.”

“Those are the people who drive this world and change it and shape it,” Mr. Owens went on. “We have to realize that a lot of times our problematic students are those special kids that we need to figure out. And that is for the betterment of everybody.”

Dr. Albert Brass Jr. and faculty and staff from Rich East on July 4, 2019
Dr. Albert Brass Jr., left, with faculty and staff from Rich East High School prior to stepping off in the Park Forest 4th of July Parade this year. (Photo: Gary Kopycinski)

The Value of a Person Cannot Be Reduced to One Bad Decision

Dr. Brass offered eNews Park Forest the opportunity to observe Mr. Owens working through that process and how restorative practices are implemented at Rich East.

“If our students are comfortable enough I would love them to talk about that process because I think sometimes–it’s not a new concept. I never forget this in students who walked across our stage [at graduation] without a process they might not have walked across that stage,” Dr. Brass said.

Dr. Brass then provided a specific example.

“We had two senior girls. It was probably the week before school ended, two weeks before school ended, the one young lady accidentally stepped on her shoe and they had a mild discussion about it. I said, ‘Bring the students to my office.’ It might have been a Thursday or Friday because I remember saying, ‘Over the weekend I want you guys to either exchange numbers, talk about this, but when we meet with you senior class on this particular day I want you to talk to your peers about your actions.’

“And they got up on stage,” Dr. Brass said.

Mr. Owens picked up the narrative, “They talked about how it affected their relationship with each other, how it affected their community, their school, how it affected their class, what they would differently, and what the class and their peers needed to do differently moving forward. I mean, restorative practices is not about the discipline and sometimes I think that is where people get hung up, they are like, ‘Okay, I need to ding this kid, I need to exact my blood, I need to get back at this child.’

“Children do have to be held accountable for their actions,” Mr. Owens went on to say, “But after that, who do you want that child to be? What do you want them to remember? Now that that child has had that experience and they have done that thing that is wrong, is there a way that we can take advantage of what has been done in the past? Is there something that we can take from that and spin that and use it to go in a positive direction?”

“Because our society does not have to be as punitive as it is,” I offered. “It’s irrevocably punitive.”

But the Rich East narrative is different.

The Rich East practice focuses on the whole person.

Dr. Brass offered again the opportunity to “walk around when the student are in the building and then you can actually meet and interview our babies– we call them our babies– and let them tell you their story. Because from us, I am 46-year-old and he is in his 30s,” Dr. Brass said referring to Mr. Owens. “It’s a different perspective in regards to what they are experiencing day in, day out.”

The Rich East story.

The Rich East narrative.

The spirit of Rich East.

It is unique.

It is genuine.

The true narrative, the spirit, the heart and soul of Rich East, will come together, become more evident, as we continue to walk the halls, meet students, faculty, and staff.

And Honor the Rockets.

Publication of this and other interviews with REHS leaders was delayed by the first part of my hybrid cardiac ablation. Apologies to Dr. Brass, Mr. Owens, and the others who gave provided us access and insights into a Park Forest gem.