Alan Tenreiro, standing in a classroom at CHS, students blurred in background

The principal of Cumberland High School (CHS) in Rhode Island, Alan Tenreiro, is a dedicated innovator. He’s also extremely practical. That’s why, under his leadership, the school:

  • Overhauled the way it utilizes professional learning time, incorporating blended learning and teacher choice 
  • Offers a certificate of biliteracy at graduation 
  • Allows students to earn credits toward graduation through its summer bridge program
  • Is working on becoming a regional robotics competition site
  • Will be implementing a Latin Honor System starting with the class of 2020

And that’s why it’s no surprise to the students, parents, and teachers at Cumberland High School that Tenreiro is NASSP’s 2016 National Principal of the Year.

After graduating from Mount St. Charles Academy, he enrolled at Rhode Island College—a school known for producing great educators—where he earned a bachelor’s degree in education and a master’s degree in educational administration.

Tenreiro then spent seven years teaching social studies at his alma mater, Mount St. Charles Academy, before moving into administration. In 2006, he was named assistant principal at Smithfield High School in Smithfield, RI, and three years ago he became principal at Cumberland High School in Cumberland, RI.

But Tenreiro, as you might imagine, is no ordinary administrator. He has continued to work closely with kids as a student government adviser and as a varsity soccer coach. He also stayed at the forefront of educational management and leadership, serving as a member of the Pawtucket School Committee from 2003–2007 and 2011–2014.

Tenreiro credits his mentors—teachers, coaches, and advisers—with helping to shape him into a practical innovator. “In my career, I have held on to the belief that I can learn from everyone around me—good or bad, best practice or worst practice, what to do and what not to do,” he explains. “As a teacher, I studied the things my principal did at that time—the actions that worked well and those that did not work so well. As an assistant principal, I tried to understand the approach my principal had and how the staff, students, and school community responded to that approach.”

Education Philosophy 

Tenreiro’s education philosophy starts with personal connections, high expectations, and modeling the strategies of successful school leaders to the entire staff. “My leadership style is one of internal collaboration blended with the best practices in our field,” he says. “To that end, I push our students and staff to work hard, to do well by others, and pursue their passion. This allows us to focus on high expectations and ensures equitable opportunity and outcomes for students. My mantra is ‘What’s best for the kids?'”

That approach is based on the philosophy of “helping each and every teacher succeed, encouraging every faculty member to experience a sense of ownership and accomplishment, empowering teachers to feel secure in taking chances, and thinking outside the box with the risk of receiving negative criticism should a risk fail.” That has transformed CHS’ school culture, he explains. At the school, Tenreiro notes, teachers have the opportunity to be committee leaders, create new student clubs, and are encouraged to provide constructive, frank, and honest feedback about every initiative CHS contemplates. “In short, making our school about the teachers and students, and not about the principal or leadership team, has been the secret to our success,” he asserts. 

In addition, one of his guiding beliefs is that students will be actively involved in a learning process that combines academic depth of understanding with higher-order thinking, problem-solving, risk-taking, and creativity. “We have doubled our AP class offerings and expanded our STEM courses to include pre-engineering, robotics, and a biotechnology pathway for students interested in pursuing advanced degrees in the medical field,” he notes. And he has led an initiative to redesign the role of guidance counselors to assist families through the college application process, including help with financial aid. “The results have been overwhelmingly positive, with increases in academic achievement, graduation rates, and the number of students gaining admission to some of the best colleges and universities in the country,” he says.

New Roles for Teachers

Tenreiro’s practical, collaborative approach manifests itself in teachers participating in “Design Thinking” leadership teams and implementing personalized professional development for teachers. The program allows teachers to help facilitate sessions for others in their areas of expertise. In expanding this empowerment approach, which is a collective responsibility for the school, he explains, “We have seen the faculty and staff re-energized largely due to the opportunities afforded them. Many traditional teacher-leader roles are new: interdisciplinary coordinators, content area leaders, instructional technology coaches, and summer bridge program coordinators.” 

New Opportunities for Students 

At CHS, students have the opportunity to choose from more than 20 AP courses, including studio art, macro- and microeconomics, and environmental science. The students develop leadership skills by participating in a range of extracurricular activities, ranging from student government to the Art Society to Special Olympics. Plus, they’re lucky enough to learn in a wireless environment where the use of technology is fully integrated into daily learning. “Our students express themselves creatively through the performing arts including marching band, Clef Singers, theatre, as well as in art classes like ceramics, digital photography, and graphic design. Along the way, our students develop the critical thinking and technology skills required by employers and higher-learning institutions. Through all of these efforts, we have built a schoolwide community—staff and students alike—that on a daily basis demonstrates respect, tolerance, courtesy, and compassion for its members,” notes Tenreiro.

Creating a Positive Culture

Tenreiro believes strongly that it is important for principals to be leaders in the development of a supportive and positive culture at their high schools. “At Cumberland High School, a dedicated faculty and staff have worked to build a safe, positive, respectful, and supportive culture that fosters student responsibility for learning and results in shared ownership, pride, and high expectations for all,” he notes.

In addition, he explains, the Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS) program “systematically and effectively has helped to transform school culture by defining, teaching, and reinforcing positive and respectful behavior.”

According to Tenreiro, students display pride at pep rallies, through various events and activities, and in murals and other exhibits of student work. “High expectations for students and student learning are evidenced in rubrics, assessments, classroom practices, and core values. CHS demonstrates significant effort and success in creating a positive culture that results in pride and student responsibility,” he says.

Tenreiro and CHS’ Accomplishments

Tenreiro has focused considerable attention on what happens to students after graduation. “The CHS administration has worked with school leaders, school committee members, and teachers to establish certain schoolwide standards aligned to each content area to focus curriculum on those transferrable skills to ensure success after graduation,” Tenreiro says. “The school has invested a great deal of thought and energy into the current standards-based system that has resulted in more uniform expectations for students, clearer feedback to students, and a focus on reporting what has been learned—not what students have done. Parent focus groups have been established and invited to collaborate in order to move the school forward, helping us adjust policy and scaffold measurement standards.”

CHS has been successful recently because of the community’s annual initiative to embrace a schoolwide concept (a different theme is chosen annually) and incorporate it into every day of the school year. In recent years, he notes, the school and community have focused on the “power of one” theme, which inspired a $25,000 fundraising effort for the Rhode Island Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. And last year’s “pay it forward” theme generated multiple random acts of kindness and goodwill by all members of the school community. “Not only does this endeavor strengthen our community as a whole, but more importantly, the practice has proven to help students find purpose and meaning in their own high school experience,” he notes. Tenreiro is also proud of these initiatives:

CHS Freshman Academy: Using a combination of clear expectations, a personalized learning environment, a data system that monitors behavior and academic progress, and close collaboration between students, families, and staff, the Academy builds the foundation for a successful high school experience. A freshman mentor program connects upperclassmen with freshmen. Mentors meet with their freshmen on a weekly basis to further assist with the transition to CHS.

Diversity Success: A laser-like focus on improved instructional strategies through differentiated professional development, STAR progress monitoring, and literacy and numeracy interventions have performance indicators trending upward. Students with disabilities have seen a 20-point growth in reading on state assessments. Hispanic students perform 20 points higher in mathematics on state assessments, and the economically disadvantaged subgroup has doubled its performance. A detracking effort and an open enrollment strategy have increased AP exam registrations from 106 to 531 in three years. 

Technology Advances: Virtual courses and extended-day learning have expanded the ways students can pursue a high school diploma, and in doing so, have helped improve CHS’ graduation rate from 80 percent in 2012 to 87.5 percent in 2014.

College Preparedness: By encouraging every student to complete an application to at least one postsecondary degree program, career certificate program, apprentice program, and/or military program in order to graduate, CHS has increased its college acceptance rate to 86 percent. 

Meeting Challenges

The biggest challenge for Tenreiro has been finding resources to enable students to succeed. “I’m not talking about laptops or after-school help, I’m talking about mental illness. I’m talking about depression, anxiety, and other areas we as a society are still uncomfortable talking about right now,” he says. “Statistically speaking, we know that 50 percent of all lifetime mental illness cases begin by age 14. We know that only half of all youth with mental illness receive treatment (according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness). We have 1,000 students in our high school, and only two professionals with the training to help those who may have mental illness. This ties in with the most difficult situation I’ve faced—a student committed suicide, and it impacted our entire community. It haunts me. I ask every day: ‘What can I do? What can we do to make sure this never happens again?’ ”

Balancing family time and work time is also a challenge, Tenreiro says. “My children are young, and my wife is also a very dedicated educator. She was recently selected as Rhode Island’s School Counselor of the Year, and I’m tremendously proud of her for that.”

With education, innovation, and pragmatism as part of his DNA, there’s little doubt that NASSP’s 2016 National Principal of the Year Alan Tenreiro will meet these and any other new challenges he may face. 

Sidebar: Alan Tenreiro’s Reading Habits

This National Principal of the Year voraciously reads any and all books, articles, and blogs related to education, leadership, leveraging technology, and the change process. Authors who have made him think more deeply about his profession include: 

Sidebar: Alan Tenreiro on the Benefits of NASSP

“I believe in the power of a network. I have met many great thought partners in my local state association and across the country at various events. Principals sit at the center of policy, practice, and public will. NASSP’s advocacy efforts at the national level help ensure that policies are crafted that best support student achievement. Professional development opportunities and leadership assessments have provided me ongoing support to help lead a focus on improved instructional practices. NASSP’s support for the role of the principal, high school reform, and educational technology provides needed leverage when a community is embracing change.”

Michael Levin-Epstein is the senior editor of Principal Leadership.