How this principal gives a voice to those who need it most

Chris Young, principal of North Country Union High School, was recently named the NASSP's National Advocacy Champion of the Year.

Nestled between Canada and the beautiful Connecticut River lies North Country Union High School in Newport, Vermont, home to some 710 students led by Principal Chris Young, who we’re celebrating for recently being named the National Association of Secondary School Principals’ National Advocacy Champion of the Year.

Last week, Young joined several hundred other leaders for a trip up to the nation’s capital for the National School Leaders Advocacy Conference to share with Congress some of the most pressing issues playing out in their schools, including teachers students and student mental health.

Young says Vermont is lucky to have very progressive legislators who lend an ear to those voicing their concerns as leaders in K12 education.

“Our conversations with Senator Welch and Sanders, as well as Congresswoman Balint, were more along the lines of what can we do to help each other,” says Young. “To further pass legislation that supports students, and they’re very receptive to that.”

“We tell our stories; we give them examples of things that have happened as a result of legislation that supports schools,” he adds.

For instance, they discussed the negative impact cutting Title II funding would have on their schools, a concern organizations like the National Association of Elementary School Principals have been voicing since November of 2023.

“They’re great partners in this work for us and we feel well supported by them,” Young notes.

A reflection of leadership philosophy

Since 2019, the NASSP has awarded leaders with the title of Advocacy Champion for their work in elevating the voices of school leaders in federal, state and local policy while advocating in support of K12 education and those in charge. Young says it’s always been a priority of his.

“I feel that it’s my responsibility—before I got any awards—to spread positive messages about public education in general and what we’re doing in our school,” Young explains.

NASSP 2024 Advocacy Champion of the Year Chris Young, 2023 Vermont Principal of the Year, National School Leader Advocacy Conference 2024.

As a Newport native, he has very close ties to the school he now leads. His parents taught at North Country Union and both Young and his children went to school there.

“So, I’m very comfortable stepping into a role of being a champion for our school and being an advocate—a cheerleader,” he declares. “I think people know me and trust me and they’re more apt to listen.”

Young first entered the principalship back in 2002. Since then, he said he’s just recently noticed a shift towards addressing the issues that school leaders are facing in their schools. Organizations like the NASSP do an amazing job, Young says, in giving leaders like himself the support and the resources to share their stories.

Outlining priorities

For the past couple of years, Young says they’ve placed an increased focus on student and staff mental health. He says the issue requires a more careful approach nowadays.

“I think that many schools, ours included, would rely on kind of the one-and-done assemblies or training, things like that,” he says. “We learned that wasn’t as effective as a more comprehensive approach to this work.”

Instead, they’ve implemented an advisory system that conducts community prompts, portfolios and SEL screenings 25 minutes a day, five days a week.

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Additionally, the school holds community development days four or five times a year to allow for more in-depth conversations with some of their community partners.

“We’ll do follow-up conversations after the community development day to get their feedback and try to make sure that the topics sort of land where they’re supposed to and that the students start to internalize some of their messages,” Young explains.

Those topics can range from mental health and wellness to substance abuse prevention.

“We’ve gone into suicide prevention,” Young adds. “We’ve tackled some pretty weighty topics during these times. But we think that it’s a good use of time and since it’s embedded into the actual school day, I think it’s more effective than just bringing everyone down to the gym for an assembly for an hour and then going back to class.”

Advice for leaders

Young says anyone in education can learn advocacy and elevate their students’ voices starting in their own communities. He believes it’s important for leaders to understand that despite everyone having gone to school at some point, not everyone works in schools and has a true understanding of what it’s like to be in the classroom in 2024.

NASSP 2024 Advocacy Champion of the Year Chris Young, 2023 Vermont Principal of the Year
National School Leader Advocacy Conference 2024.

“I always share the message that we have to get comfortable with this idea that students are at the same time amazing and are going to change the world for the better and they need our help now more than ever,” he explains.

“Sometimes I think we fall into one or the other category and it’s just not true. Both those things can exist at the same time, and I don’t think people necessarily understand that.”

Everyone has a story, he adds, whether it’s a principal or a teacher. Each community resonates with a topic or an issue and their school boards, communities and legislators who are involved in K12 education are set out to do right for students.

“I’ve not encountered anyone who has an agenda to wreck my school or make things difficult in our state,” Young explains. “With that positive presupposition in mind, I think letting folks know you know what’s happening in schools will ultimately land with someone who can help make a difference down the road.”

Micah Ward
Micah Ward
Micah Ward is a District Administration staff writer. He recently earned his master’s degree in Journalism at the University of Alabama. He spent his time during graduate school working on his master’s thesis. He’s also a self-taught guitarist who loves playing folk-style music.

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