The Baraboo School District came under national scrutiny a little over two years ago after a photo that appeared to show dozens of Baraboo High School students giving the Nazi one-arm salute before prom went viral.
Dr. Rainey Briggs, who was recently selected to be Baraboo’s new superintendent of schools out of almost 30 candidates, remembers the incident and the controversy that ensued.
“What intrigued me about this position is that Baraboo had some history when you look at the photo and they had to endure such a challenging time,” Briggs tells Madison365. “That incident was broadcast nationally and internationally, but to know that Baraboo now feels like they are in a different place now and to move forward with me as their leader, I think that’s a good place to be.
“I’ve done some work in the past with Baraboo and their leadership and I’ve found them to be fun and exciting to work with. They really believe in doing the work in the equity lens,” he continues. “They believe in doing the work by way of looking at if for all kids. And they believe in doing the work by doing what’s right to ensure families and students’ needs are met. All of that was really intriguing to me about Baraboo and this position.”
Briggs, whose most recent position has been as the administrator in the Middleton-Cross Plains Area School District where he has been director of elementary education for the past four years, was selected to be Baraboo superintendent following a search process that spanned more than three months.
“I think about how ironic it was with that particular incident, and I remember reading about it in Madison365, and now here they are hiring a person of color,” he says. “It’s not like they were saying they didn’t want people of color here, but given that particular photo and the salute and how people felt and what came down on Baraboo, I really hope that in this case they really uplift Baraboo for this particular step they took to hire a person of color.”
Briggs will be the first-ever Black superintendent in Baraboo. “I would be the first person of color as superintendent here, I’ve been told,” he says. “That’s a monumental step in the right direction for change.”
Ultimately, Briggs says, his goal at his new position will be “making sure that we are considering every kid every day in every way.”
“Every kid does not mean just the kid. It means their families and their communities. That means their teachers and their friends. We’re going to get after it every day,” Briggs says. “We want to make sure that we are meeting the students’ needs and that we are doing anything and everything that we can to support them in reaching their goals that they have, but also the goals that we have set forth at the school district and also the goals we have set forth to support families.
“And we will do whatever it takes. To be honest with you, as a kid who grew up on the south side of Madison who was placed in special education myself, I find it really hard to believe that people did all they could to support me in the process of becoming who I have become differently,” he adds. “I have vowed to be the person to support – as part of my goals and who I am as a person – to make sure that any district I lead, any school that I lead or anything that I participate in the community, that we’re doing our very best and giving it our all to have the outcomes we want to see for students.”
His official start date as Baraboo’s superintendent will be July 1 and he will succeed outgoing District Administrator Lori Mueller.
“There will be some transition days between now and then that I will be in the district meeting staff and having some listening sessions, meeting with board members,” Briggs says.
“I can’t tell you how impressed I am with the number of positive responses that have generated across social media. I can honestly say across all of the channels of communication that have happened, there has not been one negative response. And this has been from the people in Baraboo – on their websites and newspapers,” he continues. “They seem pretty excited to have me.”
Briggs grew up on the south side of Madison Briggs and earned a bachelor’s degree in community health from Minnesota State University in Mankato, Minnesota. He earned a master’s degree from Viterbo University in La Crosse and holds an Education Doctorate from Edgewood College. Briggs had spent 17 years in education as a high school assistant principal and a classroom teacher prior to his role as an administrator in Middleton.
“I think all of the life and work experiences I have will help me in this job,” Briggs says. “From not wanting to be in education when I was younger because of some of the challenges that I presented to teachers when I was a kid. From seeking out employment in Verona as the cultural liaison which worked with bridging school and home life for students of color years ago, to becoming a P.E.[physical education] and health teacher to becoming an assistant principal, to becoming a principal, to becoming a director of education and to now becoming a superintendent.
“Those were all by no means accidental steps in getting to this place,” he continues. “Those were all things that contributed to growth for myself and experiences for myself that will all lead to me being able to have purposeful conversations and for me to have those hard conversations. They will all help me to be a person who can process things in a way to consider differing experiences that students and families and staff members may have in the process of their growth in education.”
Two students can have the same experience but have wildly different outcomes, he notes.
“I think we have to be flexible, open-minded and willing to process things knowing that. There are no two students who are alike. There are no two staff members who are alike,” Briggs says. “But I like to remain flexible and open-minded to know that many of the things that we want to do and the experiences that people have can play a huge part in the outcomes of what we want to see not only in our students, but in our staff and in our communities that we all work and serve in education in Baraboo.”
Briggs is focused on the Baraboo School District, but always looking beyond at the greater educational system.
“Those who know me know that I”m all about the educational system no matter where it is,” he says. “How does the work that we do in Baraboo uplift the work that is done in Madison? How does the work in Madison uplift the work that is done in Sun Prairie …. and so on. How do we come together as a consortium and as a group of educators … to do what’s best for our kids?
“Because we all have the same goals. You can ask any school district in the state or event the country what their goals are and they will basically be the same, although they may be saying them differently or using different terminology,” he adds. “Across the country, we’re seeing the same test scores and the same outcomes for students of color no matter what assessment we take. So why wouldn’t we be putting our heads together and supporting each other? It’s not a race between districts or a competition; we should be working together to uplift educational systems to be different and to change and to reimagine things totally different than what we’ve always seen them to be.”
Briggs lays out his immediate goals as he enters the Baraboo School District and makes his plan.
“I want to learn about the strengths, challenges and opportunities in the district so we can better serve those in our care,” he says. “Goal number two is to learn how the district’s goals, initiatives and processes are being implemented across the district. Goal number three is to make meaningful initial connections with all stakeholders in groups.
“Number four – just to round it out – is to gain an understanding of the expectations, values, norms and needs of our supportive community,” he adds. “These are my initial goals coming in.”
Briggs says that his life experiences have helped him grow and establish beliefs and values in what he stands for in education and in life itself.
“I’m a very optimistic person. I believe that every situation has a solution. I strongly believe that there aren’t many people that I can’t work with or build a relationship with,” Briggs says. “I know there will be challenges in terms of what people want to see changed and what they want to see happen. But those are all things that we will figure out by sitting down at the table and processing those things.”