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Cloquet's Brenner named middle school principal of the year

Cloquet Middle School principal Tom Brenner said it's his job to improve the quality of education in his building by working with the teachers in the classroom. It's a numbers game that inspires the former math teacher.

"If you think about it hard, if we can improve instructional practices and what our teachers are doing, that affects the 125 kids they teach every day. Then if we get them a little better every year, the number of kids that [improvement] reaches and touches is enormous," he said.

Brenner was named the state's "Middle Level Principal of the Year" by the Minnesota Association of the Secondary School Principals (MASSP), an honor which followed his being selected as the northeast region principal of the year.

He credited his staff for the honor.

"I'm fortunate that I have a staff that's willing to go along with some of the stuff that I try to roll out to them," he said. "To get the award, I had to put down some of the programs and stuff we're doing. So this award is really just a reflection of the work that my staff is willing to put in for the kids and Cloquet."

Parents credited Brenner for promoting equity within the school.

According to MASSP, one parent shared, "As a school leader, Mr. Brenner has done many things to promote equity for students and families at CMS. The signage on the different walls recognizes and acknowledges the native community. The range of school resources and staff available to support students and families reflects Mr. Brenner's understanding and efforts to address systemic inequities in his building."

Staff credited that push for helping all kids achieve.

"Tom has been a fierce advocate for de-tracking. He worked alongside teacher teams to design equitable, heterogeneous classes where all kids can achieve rigorous grade-level expectations," one teacher shared with MASSP.

In the application, Brenner also talked about being a restorative practices school and the seven grandfather teachings of the Ojibwe culture, adding that student and staff social and emotional well-being has been the highest priority at CMS.

He taught math in Grand Marais for three years, then moved to Montana for another three, teaching grades 7-12 at both places. Then he split time between the middle school and the high school when he returned to Cloquet.

Although he's in his 22nd year as Cloquet Middle School principal, the Cloquet grad didn't start his career planning to be an administrator.

"It never really entered my mind until there was a cohort offered for the principal licenseship, and it was meeting at our school. One of the teachers, one of my friends, came up and said, 'Why don't you just come up and audit the first night?' So I went and this pretty dynamic principal was leading it, and I thought, 'I'll stick this out.' So I got my license," he said.

Then he got the assistant principal/athletic director job at the high school and never looked back.

Brenner said he feels lucky to have landed at the middle school, especially after hearing about some of the problems other principals have with staff members when he attends various workshops.

"I always feel fortunate that I don't normally run into that," he said. "My staff is great. Like I said, they make me look a lot better than I really am."