Toppenish High School was a vastly different place just a few short years ago, before Trevor Greene arrived and put it on the national map. For his extraordinary efforts, Greene was named the 2013 National High School Principal of the Year.
“I felt a slight sense of disbelief and amazement at first,” Greene acknowledges. “It’s not something that one aspires to intentionally—I was honored.”
He became the first principal in the Pacific Northwest to earn that award in the 20 years it has been established. In addition, Greene, a member of the Muscogee-Creek Nation of Oklahoma, became the first Native American recipient of the award. He was eligible for the national award, sponsored by MetLife and the National Association of Secondary School Principals (NAASP), after being named the Washington State High School Principal of the Year. Overall, there are more than 20,000 public high school principals across the United States.
Saying he didn’t become a principal to be the center of attention, Greene was quick to share the credit.
“The success that we’ve had is not solely because of me,” he said. “It’s also because of the hard work of the staff and how we’ve implemented and built upon our collaborative vision to benefit our students.”
At a surprise awards ceremony at the school, Gary Kipp, the executive director of the Association of Washington School Principals (AWSP), talked about what set Greene apart.
“First and foremost you have to know your community to be an effective principal, not just the school but you have to know your community,” Kipp said. “Trevor Greene has done that. You have to have a vision of where you want your school to go and you have to model for students and staff, the risk-taking and creativity to get to that vision. And he has done that.”
Greene’s educational career is extensive. Starting in 1994, he taught Spanish, English, and physical education in the Yakima School District. Before that, he taught Spanish in Utah. From 2005 to 2008, he was the principal and the vice principal for Highland Junior High School, and the principal at Toppenish Junior High School.
School improvement and student learning has been a hallmark of Greene’s tenure. At Toppenish High School, where he’s been since 2008, he’s been particular focused on integrating engineering and biomedical science classes into the curriculum, while invigorating student interest in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) classes.
“We started with one class, offering five sections of the class,” he says. “We now offer more STEM classes than any other school in the state.”
Even the Spanish department began offering a bilingual medical terminology STEM course. In January 2012, a number of Toppenish engineering and biomedical students presented their projects at a STEM showcase event. Combined with small class sizes of approximately 23 students, overall student STEM interest is at an all-time high at the school.
Because of those strides, the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction recognized Top-Hi as a 2012 state STEM Lighthouse school. This year, 11 classes are being offered, with more than 27 sections.
Much of the school’s STEM curriculum comes from the nonprofit Project Lead The Way (PLTW). Top-Hi is among the 4,200 schools nationwide using their educational materials. Greene and his staff are looking to offer even more subjects, such as technical writing for English.
“Our school is one of the leading schools in the PLTW program,” Greene points out. “More importantly, what we’ve seen is an increase in [overall] student performance.”
In recent years, student scores have increased by 67 percent. Higher scores are coupled with dramatic enrollment increases in upper level math and science courses, and students taking those courses even as electives.
“We are seeing kids that are meeting the challenge of high-rigor courses,” Greene said. “That didn’t exist previously.”
While Greene’s efforts have improved the school’s academics substantially, his work as also extended into the social arena. Teen pregnancy is a problem in many high schools nationwide, as is the ridicule those pregnant teens receive.
Greene received national attention when he supported a student’s social experiment. For the senior project, she faked a pregnancy that helped reveal discriminatory treatment of pregnant teens in schools. Once the girl revealed that she was not pregnant, the controversial project was met with mixed reviews. “I stand by my decision, and tough decisions are rarely popular,” said Greene. “If I had to change anything, I would have taken notes during the process.”
Greene has overcome significant obstacles in order to reach help student attain higher goals. The school, within the boundaries of the Yakama Indian Reservation, has a 95-percent minority student body, primarily Hispanic and Native American students. More than 30 percent of school students come from single-parent households. Nearly all qualify for free or reduced-price meals, a testament to the area’s high poverty rate.
“We choose not to use that as an excuse,” Greene said, “but to recognize what we are, to build upon that, and seize it as an opportunity.”
To further help beyond the classroom, he also developed advisory program a couple of years ago that, “gives us an opportunity to connect with students on a personal level and address the needs that they have academically, socially, and emotionally.” It involves outreach to middle school students matriculating into high school.
“We’ve seen a decrease in the dropout rate,” Greene said, “so we think it’s paying great dividends.”
Kipp added, to make the kind of strides that have been made at Top-Hi, “You have to treat all students as if they were you own kids, and Trevor is known for doing that.”
Greene knew about the obstacles he would face in Toppenish, because he grew up on the reservation, in the White Swan area.
“The last thing I ever thought I would do was return to work on the reservation,” Greene admitted. “As a kid—no matter where you’re at—you want to get out because of the perspective that any place is better than where you’re at.”
Greene received his master’s of education degree from CWU-Yakima in 1998. He credits Central for preparing him to become an administrator who has been able to make “significant, positive change.”
“What I value from my time as a student was the people I was surrounded by and the respect and collegial nature of the professors—it was a great ‘learning together’ environment,” Greene recalled. “The intellectual conversations also helped in the development of my own vision of what I wanted to see happen when the time came for me to direct a school.”
Alberta Thyfault, who died in 2011, was the professor that he says he learning the most from, because of her penchant for answering his question with a question of her own.
“She was one of my all-time favorite teachers K-20 and, yes, I do keep a list,” he said, with a laugh. “She would force you to come up with your own hypothesis and have the class then dialogue around that issue. She was very skilled in that approach. I admired how she taught and managed a class from day one.”
While he does allow himself some free time to ride his motorcycle and for some physical activity—including learning yoga with his wife, Melanie—even his off-duty time is generally spent on schools and school improvement.
“The books and magazines that I read are around education—I need to find more balance and that’s something I’ve struggled with,” he adds.
Greene’s also has four children, who are enrolled in elementary, middle, and high school within the Toppenish School District, saying, “That’s kind of interesting at this time in my life. I get to see the whole gamut, both as a high school principal and also as a parent of children in all levels of the system.”
This year, Greene is only working in Toppenish two days a month. He’s been appointed to a new collaborative one-year fellowship through AWSP and the Gates Foundation, where he’s in a support position, where he’s helping principals throughout eastern Washington.
“It’s a hybrid type of position where I’m offering professional development around the common core [curriculum] implementation, the new AWSP principal evaluation component, and other projects the association deems important,” Greene explains.
After the fellowship concludes, Greene says a new statewide job search will begin for a position, “either as a superintendent, assistant superintendent, or, possibly, as a principal again.”
That probably won’t be much of a problem for the nation’s best principal.
You can learn more about Greene and the national award here.