Her Motto? Stand Firm in Your Faith

In the 2012–13 academic year, Holly Ripley was only in her third year as assistant principal at West Fargo High School in West Fargo, ND. It was a year she’ll never forget.

At the time, West Fargo High had 1,100 students. But that year the school experienced a shocking five student deaths—all unrelated and unique—a pedestrian accident, suicide, cancer, and long-term health issues. “I recall plainly talking with our leadership team about a pedestrian accident that had just occurred, and during that meeting I received a call that one of our other students had died. It was unreal,” Ripley explains.

“In our building that year, we learned how to grieve together—both students and staff. Leading that process was incredibly challenging,” Ripley says. “Yet, I watched a group of counselors and administrators become one of the most effective leadership teams I’ve experienced. That year was by far the most challenging and rewarding of my career in education.” Ripley, NASSP’s 2016 National Assistant Principal of the Year, has shown that kind of leadership capability since she became assistant principal of the school in 2010 after serving in administrative positions at the district office level in both West Fargo and Wake County, NC. 

“The smile each day often comes from a simple wave, a knowing nod, or hello from a student. That is often just the thank-you that I need.” — Holly Ripley

Giving Credit

Not surprisingly, Ripley credits others for her leadership success. “I have worked for multiple leaders that have allowed me to practice leadership and develop skills while actually doing the work. I, in turn, have worked to give others those same opportunities,” she says. For example, Ripley worked with a group of teachers who had no specific experience in systemic change or reading instruction and created a schoolwide Multi-Tiered System of Supports (MTSS). “This ‘every-ed’ initiative has changed the way we meet the needs of all learners, regardless of label. Students who formerly had little success in school are now finding success,” she notes. The MTSS system is now embedded in the school culture and has impacted the district model. “My collaborative style of leadership has allowed me to accomplish things that I could not have alone and at the same time has given others the opportunity to develop their capabilities as leaders,” Ripley notes. 

Packer Pride

And that’s not the only change in school culture that Ripley has helped achieve. In a district that recently split from one high school into two, Ripley is working assiduously to establish a new culture at West Fargo High School. “Due to configuration changes, this school year, both our ninth and 10th grade students were all new to our building. We received permission to create a morning just for them the first day of school where we gave out Packer Pride T-shirts, taught students the school song, had a pep rally, and indoctrinated them through small sessions into what it means to be a Packer,” she explains, “which involves respect, responsibility, relationships, and rigor.”

This more personal touch and constant striving to create a culture centered on positive relationships makes an enormous difference in the total student experience, she asserts.

Building a Partnership

Ripley describes her relationship with her principal as a partnership, although, she admits, it doesn’t always come naturally. “A different title often makes one think they have to do the difficult work alone. Our best work is always done in collaboration. Each member of the team brings a different set of skills. Together these skills work to create effective plans to lead the school,” she explains.

Evolving Role

As Ripley knows, the role of the assistant principal has changed dramatically since the primary responsibility was meting out discipline for unruly students.

“Addressing poor student behavior is a necessary part of the job. But, I work to minimize the time I spend on that so I can do the important work of coaching teachers. Assistant principals do much of the same work as principals. Instructional leadership is and should remain the focus. And, if all students are in classes where they feel cared about, comfortable, and confident in learning, then we have very little misbehavior,” Ripley explains. In general, she adds, there should be more support in place to help students deal with the many social and emotional issues they struggle with on a day-to-day basis.

Ripley’s joy at school comes from leading and working to create a culture of learning. “I thrive on this opportunity. However, the smile each day often comes from a simple wave, a knowing nod, or hello from a student. That is often just the thank-you that I need,” she says.

When not coaching staff on implementing cultural change at school, Ripley enjoys bird watching and photography, but most of all, spending quality time with her husband and two young children. “We enjoy camping, hiking, and fishing together.

We love to travel and explore new places,” she says. Her favorite trip? A camping adventure to Glacier National Park. “We had a 2-year-old and a 3-month-old at the time. Call us crazy! We created some amazing memories in one of the most beautiful places in the country,” she recalls. 

Michael Levin-Epstein is senior editor of Principal Leadership. 

Sidebar: Making a Difference-One Student at a Time

Ripley explains how she was able to help one of her struggling students:

“Students especially—although sometimes adults—have a difficult time mapping out a plan to achieve their goals. When a student is able to lay his or her cards on the table, it is then a pleasure to help them get to the next steps to improve their circumstances. One situation that comes to mind is a student named Abdi. Abdi was struggling to get to school at all, to get to school on time, to focus at school, etc. When I built enough trust, he was able to confide in me that he was living in his car and did not have a family here. Through some community and personal connections, I worked to find him a family to take him in. Abdi’s attitude, spirit, and schoolwork began to improve, and he worked his way to graduation. This was an incredible opportunity, and I thank God I was in a position to help him.”

Sidebar: Ripley’s Top Three Goals

  1. Ensure that all students are learning. 
  2. Provide appropriate structures so all teachers and students can be their best selves.
  3. Walk alongside students as they develop their own life plans, and guide them through that process.

Ripley’s motto helps her accomplish those goals: “If you do not stand firm in your faith, you will not stand at all.”