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Newton North Principal Henry Turner Confronts Conflict With Conversation

A friendly face greets Newton North students as they walk into school each day.

Most days, Henry Turner, the high school’s principal, stands outside as students arrive.

“He would stand outside, like pretty much every morning before school, with a sign,” said Charlotte Paquette, a 2020 graduate of Newton North and MCAS ’24. “It would be like ‘Have a great day’ or ‘Make the most of everything’ and like really cute stuff like that.”

In a conversation with The Heights, Turner said he is a principal that likes to understand the community he leads.

“I love school,” Turner said. “I love going to theater and games and, you know, award nights and all that stuff. And I love the fact that we’re a community. We deal with our messiness, and we deal with our successes.”

Newton North hired Turner, who recived an Ed.D. at Boston College in 2014, as its principal in 2016. Since then, the high school of more than 2,000 students has endured a pandemic and shifts in the country’s political climate. 

In those tumultuous years, Turner has championed a one-to-one laptop program, bringing technology into the hands of every student. He has also created conversation spaces to talk about critical social issues facing his students. 

To students, he is a welcoming presence.

“If you saw him … he would have a smile on his face,” Paquette said. “He’s not a negative person. You’re not running away from the principal like, ‘Oh, I’m scared of that man.’”

Turner, now 43, grew up in Melrose, Mass. His experiences at Melrose High School, a predominantly white school, he said, motivated him to become an educator.

“I was one of the few people of color at my high school, and I was really driven by wanting to help make a difference, particularly around racial justice,” Turner, who is Black, said. 

Before becoming a principal at Newton North, another majority white institution, Turner was a history teacher. His classroom experiences, he said, continue to shape his work today.

“As a principal, I see my role as being an instructional leader [and] as helping to work with teachers around how to make sure that our classrooms are student-centered,” Turner said. “How are we making sure that we’re addressing the needs of all students?”

Newton North Vice Principal Amy Winston said she remembers that Turner focused on classroom-level change during his interview for the job.

“What most struck me, when we first [met] … was his real focus on instruction as a driver of equity,” she said.

Even though Newton North is a large high school, Turner makes an effort to get to know students as individuals, according to Winston.

“Our jobs are such that you could spend all day and never see a kid,” she said. “And I think Henry does really go out of his way to get to know individual kids and make as many connections as possible with kids.”

In addition to keeping the school safe and collaborating with teachers, Turner’s main job is focused on his students.

“[The role is about] being around students, interacting with students, working with students, helping to make sure that student voice is empowered—that students have a say,” Turner said.

Turner said he is proud of how students at Newton North regularly confront difficult subjects. Whether in clubs, assemblies, or the curriculum, he said the school has made space for student conversation. 

For Paquette, conversations on topics of social justice regularly occurred in her classes.

“[I was in a class on] women in literature, and we had a lot of those types of conversations,” she said. “Even like our psych class had those types of conversations.”

The School also harbored conversations after the 2017 Las Vegas Shooting, Turner said. 

“I’ve seen that before when the shooting happened in Las Vegas years ago,” he said. “Our students demanded that they meet and talk to the school. I’ve always been really proud that we take on those issues. We talk about them.”

Newton North hosted similar conversations last November after a Wisconsin court found Kyle Rittenhouse not guilty of intentional homicide and four other charges after he fatally shot two men at a Black Lives Matter protest in Kenosha, Wis.

In a blog post months earlier, Turner said educators need to create spaces that are safe for all students.

In response to the post, Breitbart News reporter Breccan Thies criticized Turner, writing that he leads his high school on the idea that race is more important than anything else in American life. Thies wrote that the Newton North High School principal seemed to administer his school based on a tenet of critical race theory following his response to the shooting.

In addition to writing the article on Turner, Thies wrote that Chassity Coston, a Black principal at Bigelow Middle School in Newton, hosted segregated safe spaces following the Rittenhouse verdict. Winston said Breitbart targeted Black principals in its articles.

“My daughter goes to one of the middle schools in town … and her principal did the exact same thing,” Winston said. “She’s a white woman and didn’t get any of the pushback that our other principals of color and Henry got after the kinds of lessons and safe spaces we provided.”

Thies’ article put a national spotlight on Turner, but following the public pushback the article generated, the principal said he felt supported by the Newton North community. 

“There was outside media that was really trying to create a false narrative about what we did,” Turner said. “And I think as people heard about what we did, I think there was a lot of pride that we are a school that isn’t going to shy away from students having an opportunity to process current events.”

Winston also said the local community responded positively to Turner’s strategies.

“I mean, it was frustrating,” Winston said.“Though, what’s interesting about it … was attention from outside of Newton, and that the feedback we were getting from inside of town, generally was very positive and supportive of the work we were doing.”

Conversations about important issues at Newton North do not just come after national events.

In September 2016, just weeks into Turner’s first school year on the job, students drove down Tiger Drive, the school’s main cul-de-sac, waving a Confederate flag, he said. The event attracted media attention.

Paquette said she felt confused following the incident.

“Why is this happening here?” she said she recalled thinking. “[It was] just kind of bizarre.”

The school held a rally, created public artwork, held theatre productions centered on social justice, and created an “Action Through Literature” course in response to the incident, according to Turner.

“In that moment, our students rallied around to come together to say, ‘That’s not who we are as a school,’ in very different ways,” he said.

In the future, though, there are even more ways the school can come together, Turner said. 

According to its website, Newton North offers three different levels of classes: college prep, advanced college prep, and an honors level that includes Advanced Placement courses. Turner said the classifications prevent some students from ever interacting with one another.

“There are stories I’ve heard for years where you get into a senior class and two seniors would say, ‘Hey, we haven’t taken a class together since elementary school,’ because of our leveling system,” he said.

Bringing more students together at the school can help give Newton North a greater sense of community, Turner said.

“How do we make sure that there’s more opportunities where students can learn from each other—learn with each other—so that we’re one school, and not that we’re a school where students have very different experiences?” he said.

K-12 Dive, an education publication, named Henry Turner its 2020 Principal of the Year for his commitment to anti-racism and equity. Although Turner has received recognition for reshaping the school, he considers the work a collective effort. 

“When you are a leader, there are times when you get identified individually, and that feels good,” he said. “But more importantly, I think as a leader, you need to recognize that you never, again, you’re never working in isolation. It’s a team goal.”

Team collaboration and the passion of teenagers is what leaves Turner motivated at the end of the day.

“I just was recently—yesterday—with a group of teachers who are working [on] their instruction and grading and whatnot, and I just was really inspired by their collaboration [and] their reflection on their work,” he said. “And I think when you work with kids, it just inherently makes you an optimist.”

Image by Connor Siemien / Heights Editor

Featured Graphic by Annie Corrigan / Heights Editor

Featured Image Courtesy of Henry Turner

This story was updated at 10:45 a.m. on Monday, February 7, 2022.

February 6, 2022