High school principal strikes solid balance

Honor: Compassion and conviction, colleagues say, make Bruzga the perfect choice for his award.

May 02, 2001|By Tanika White | Tanika White,SUN STAFF

Every day is a tough day for Long Reach High School Principal David Bruzga.

In a school with almost 1,600 students, there's bound to be at least one daily challenge - an unruly student, an unhappy parent or an untouched pile of paperwork that will have to wait another day.

But some days are tougher than others.

Like the November day Bruzga learned a 14-year-old Long Reach student had been found dead in a tangle of brush behind a Pizza Hut restaurant.

And the day, two months later, when he was told another Long Reach student was shot and killed at a birthday party.

Those days tell you a lot about the make-up of a school leader.

"Nobody is ever prepared to deal with the loss of a student, especially when it comes in a violent setting, especially in circumstances that could've been avoided," said Bruzga, 50. "But through everything, you still have to run a school. You have to take the time to grieve but you have to stay focused."

It's that ability to focus, even in the midst of tragedy, that has helped Bruzga make it through his fifth year as head of the county's newest high school.

And it's that same focus that has earned Bruzga the title of state Principal of the Year, which he was awarded in April by the Maryland Association of Secondary School Principals.

"I know he's had a tough year," said Sue Ann Tabler, executive director of the MASSP. "I'm just so pleased that he has gotten this award. I know how hard he's worked over the years. A lot of principals have tough years, but his has been especially challenging."

Bruzga started his tenure at Long Reach on an uphill slope. The school was brand new with no traditions, no atmosphere, no feeling. And to make matters worse, the student body was made up of teen-agers from 14 schools.

He worried initially about how staff members could help the students blend.

That year, the school's basketball team - with no seniors - won game after game, finally gaining a spot in the state finals.

The team eventually lost the championship game, but no matter.

"From that point on, we were the Long Reach Lightning, and everyone got behind us," he said.

In the years since, Bruzga has made it his business to get behind his students.

"Initially you want to please everybody - parents, the community, students, teachers, the Board of Education," he said. "Then you kind of get to the reality stage where you learn you can't please all the people all the time. Finally, you get to the stage where you say, `I'm going to consider everyone's point of view and then I'm going to make the best decision for the students.'"

Like when a group of students this year wanted to start a gay-and-lesbian group at the school. Several parents complained loudly, even taking their gripes to the school board. But, ultimately, Bruzga made the decision to take the students' side.

It wasn't popular, but he did it.

And when students said they felt unsafe in their designated parking lot alongside the building, Bruzga agreed to have a monitoring system with cameras installed for their protection.

It was expensive, but he did it.

Often, supporting the students means first supporting the staff.

Although Long Reach houses half of the school district's prized technology magnet program - with more than 500 students - Bruzga is equally as interested in the 75 students in the Cooperative Work Experience program and their often overlooked teachers.

"He's very supportive of the placement of children in industry and matching their career goals," said Foster Driver, a CWE program instructor. "All students don't want to go into the tech magnet program and he's very supportive of all of them. He wants other avenues for them and he's always looking for outside employment for them, or bringing guest speakers in. No matter how many guest speakers I want to bring in, he's fine with that."

School Resource Officer Troy Bailey said he admires Bruzga for always handling problems - even behavioral ones.

"He'll jump right in the fire. He's not one that will just say, `Well, my assistant principal will handle that,'" Bailey said. "He's right there with everybody down in the trenches."

When other staff members recount instances of Bruzga's outstanding leadership, more often than not, this year's back-to-back tragedies get mentioned.

They talk about how quickly Bruzga moved into action, alerting teachers, preparing them for the coming days of sadness, anger, student outbursts and fear.

They say although Bruzga was a pillar of strength during those hard times, he was compassionate and sympathetic - maintaining to this day an open-door policy whenever anyone, student or teacher, needed to talk.

"My door is open at any time for anyone," Bruzga said. "You can expect as much time as you need. I have a box of tissue and a soda in the refrigerator for you."

Under Bruzga's leadership, the school has settled to a pace some would call normal. ("I don't know what normal is anymore," he says.) And over the five years, suspension and drop-out rates have gone down, SAT scores and attendance rates have crept up.

Not surprisingly, however, Bruzga attributes the school's success to the people under him - people he hired because of their commitment to children.

Some say Bruzga's greatest example of superior leadership to date might be seen in allowing this year's Long Reach students time to grieve, without spilling over too much into the time to learn.

"I think the staff realizes that they have to set the example for the students, and I know I have to set the example for them," Bruzga said. "A lot of people take their cues from you. But no matter what happens, you have to move on."

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