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The City Journals

Alta High top Hawk named Utah principal of year

Mar 29, 2021 11:45AM ● By Julie Slama

In 2015, Alta High Principal Brian McGill lifted 245 pounds to the delights of the student body. (Photo courtesy of Alta High yearbook archives)

By Julie Slama | [email protected]

The decision was supposed to take weeks. Instead, it was quietly decided within hours.

Simply put, Brian McGill is the best in the state. 

The official announcement that McGill was selected 2021 Utah Principal of the Year by the Utah Association of Secondary School Principals was announced months later, in early February—still, without much fanfare. 

There weren’t any balloons or confetti at Alta High, where he has been a principal the past seven years and since the association’s mid-winter conference was canceled because of COVID-19 restrictions, word of his award hasn’t reached everyone yet. 

“It was pretty under the radar; it’s quite an honor and most meaningful to be chosen by my peers across the state,” McGill said humbly, then deflecting the praise to those working alongside him.  “It shows the strong sense of value and recognition of great work at Alta and a reflection of the entire community.”

He was selected after sharing with the six-principal panel about Alta High through essay response questions and interviews that were held after he was informed he was a candidate. McGill does not know who put his name in the hat.

Although he has reached the top award of the state, McGill isn’t done being an example to his 2,350 students—something he demonstrated earlier when he went back to school to earn his doctorate in educational leadership and policy in social justice. As his students did their homework, he was doing his own.

“One of the best investments is in educating yourself,” McGill said. “The sky is endless.”

Now, as Utah’s nominee, he will be completing more essay questions for a chance to be selected as the national principal of the year. The national conference is scheduled to be held in July in Denver, if allowed with the pandemic’s safety and health guidelines.

McGill likely will share more about the programs he has introduced at Alta High that are working for his students.

“When I walk through the doors every day, I have to do everything in my power to do what is best for kids,” he said. “When I was here there were a lot of cliques; we’re more inclusive today, but still not perfect. We have a good climate and have introduced programs to support our students.”

Those programs McGill highlights are ones that he introduced, beginning with the Link Crew program, where upperclassmen reach out to freshmen with a call before school begins in the fall, welcoming them to Alta and answering any questions they may have. Then, in a typical year, the Link Crew members invite the freshmen to games, dances and other activities throughout the year to give them a positive high school experience.

“The Link Crew members are their advocates, their mentors and their peer-to-peer connections,” McGill said. “We’re seeing a stronger, more unified culture as a result of the program.”

It also is lending leadership experience to the 110 juniors and seniors as well as role-modeling— both which inspire the younger students to want to apply to be on Link Crew when they’re older, he added.

McGill also advocates for leading schools to use  the SafeUT mobile app to prevent suicides, reduce instances of bullying, and maintain a safe learning environment. As a recipient of the Champion of SafeUT Award, McGill carefully monitors and follows up on tips he receives. 

He said Alta was the first high school to use the state-funded SafeUT. The mobile app gives students immediate, all-day-and-all-night access to school staff and counselors at the University of Utah’s Neuropsychiatric Institute, and has proven effective in reaching struggling students. During his seven years at Alta, the school has had four student suicides.

McGill, who has master’s degrees in clinical psychology, school counseling and school administration as well as bachelor’s in psychology, also has used land trust grant funds to support an additional counselor and part-time counselor to the school’s counseling center. 

“I’ve learned in my 20 years of education, we first need to have the right culture where students feel welcome, safe and connected, then academic achievement will follow,” said McGill, who himself was a guidance counselor at the middle and high school levels. “Now, especially during COVID, we know kids are struggling. We want students to have that connection and to use the app if they know there is a way we can reach someone and support one another.”

McGill, who previously served as a state director for College Access and Outreach for the Utah System of Higher Education, also developed Step2theU, a program that supports Alta students who want more of a challenge in high school.  

Five years ago, Alta High partnered with the University of Utah that currently allows 160 Alta students in the program to complete two semesters of college credit as upperclassmen. The students work in cohorts through the program, supporting one another while being challenged—and through the program, each student saves $15,000 in tuition and completes university general education requirements.

“It’s been a tremendous success and as a result, students are redoing their schedules knowing they can take more rigorous classes—advanced courses and AP (advanced placement) classes—with this heightened confidence that will springboard them for college,” he said. 

With the 12-step “pretty intense” application for the national award, McGill will be submitting other data, such as Alta’s year-end test scores (which may be difficult since COVID-19 pandemic prevented those from happening last year); its diversity—21% identified as minorities;  and graduation rate, which averages about 93% , he said.

While McGill has received awards—educator of the year, coach of the year and the Milton Bennion Scholar at the University of Utah, and he has served as assistant principal at Corner Canyon High and principal at AMES (Academy of Math, Engineering and Science), being principal at Alta is significant. 

That’s because Alta just isn’t a school. It’s home.

McGill graduated from Alta with a 3.9 grade-point average in 1991. His wife, Jody, his daughter, and soon, his son, are all graduates. 

That has meaning for McGill. He wanted all students to feel like they have a place at the school. 

“It’s all about the relationships, the rapport, the connections, and building trust,” McGill said. “We want our students to succeed. We want to give them the best possible community that will support them getting the best educational experience that will shape the rest of their lives.”