MADRAS —

Brian Crook knows there’s pressure on him to continue Madras High School’s recent resurgence. The school’s new principal is following recently retired co-principals H.D. Weddel and Mark Neffendorf, who helped Madras’ graduation rate skyrocket from 56.7% to 90.7% in just three years.

“I got some advice years ago: You don’t want to take over the New York Yankees after Joe Torre leaves,” Crook said, referencing the baseball manager who won four World Series championships.

“Well, I just took over the Yankees, and two Joe Torres just left.”

The 54-year-old Crook, who was Madras High’s assistant principal last year, said he plans to continue his predecessors’ efforts to prioritize one-on-one relationships between students and staff at the school.

Crook will retain the two staffers who serve as liaisons to the school’s Latino and Native American students.

Native American students made up about a third of Madras’ 647 students in 2018-19, while Latino students made up more than 37% of the school’s population. Both demographic groups saw dramatic rises in graduation rates since Neffendorf and Weddel became Madras High’s co-principals four years ago, particularly among Native Americans, whose graduation rate rose from 39% in 2016 to 81% in 2018.

But Crook said he plans to start initiatives to continue the school’s success, and possibly exceed it.

One he plans to introduce this fall is an academic support center, a staff-led hub for academically struggling students.

The idea is that when students can’t grasp a tricky subject, their teachers can send them to the center for one-on-one help to get them back up to speed.

Crook said he wants staff to focus on the ninth grade, because he’s noticed that if students in that year don’t obtain six credits by year’s end, they’re significantly less likely to graduate.

Crook wants to pair incoming ninth graders who had difficulty in junior high with a staff member — it could be a teacher, secretary, custodian — to check in with the student weekly.

“It’s all about building relationships with staff, students and families — that’s the foundation,” he said.

Crook wants to improve state test scores, as well as see what technology improvements teachers would like to see in their classrooms.

“I don’t want to say we’re behind the times, but we need to look at our technology,” he said.

Crook started his 32-year education career as a teacher and coach at Lincoln and Madison high schools in Portland in 1987. His family then moved to Redmond in 1994, where he taught for a year at Redmond High School and later moved to Bend High School, where he stayed for two decades as a head baseball coach, multisubject teacher and administrator.

Crook, who grew up in Portland as the son of a teacher, said one fall trip with his wife to Central Oregon was all it took for the region to captivate him.

“We fell in love with Central Oregon because we came over one November, and the sun was actually out,” he said. “We were like, ‘This is amazing! It’s not raining!’”

In 2006, he dipped his toes into administration by becoming the school’s dean of students, later rising to assistant principal.

Crook said he was inspired to leave teaching after working for his future co-principals at Madras High, Weddel and Neffendorf, when the pair were administrators at Bend High.

“I watched the way they led, and I’m thinking, ‘This is good stuff. I’d be really interested in working with them,’” Crook said.

After two years as High Desert Middle School’s principal in southeast Bend, Crook became the principal at Jefferson County School District’s alternative high school, Bridges, in 2017, and then became Madras High’s assistant principal a year later, where he again served under Neffendorf and Weddel.

Crook said Neffendorf and Weddel, who retired in June, have been great mentors throughout his career.

“I think I’ve learned a lot about how to lead with great people and be a part of great teams and improve schools,” he said. “I take those experiences from my time with those guys, and others, to now move into this role.”

Weddel said he was excited for Crook to lead Madras, and that he could take the school “to new heights.” Along with calling Crook encouraging and a good listener, Weddel said Madras’ new principal had the right combination of grit and levity that made him a good fit for a poverty-impacted school, where more than 95% of its students receive free and reduced lunch.

“Madras is tough; you’re working with tough situations there,” Weddel said of Crook. “And he’s got that toughness in him to do that, but he’s also got the ability to make things light.”

Jefferson County School District Superintendent Ken Parshall, one member of the team that hired Crook to lead Madras, said he was attracted to Crook’s collaborative mindset and experience in multiple education roles, from teaching to administration. He gave him credit for being a part of the team that helped boost Madras High’s graduation rates.

“He’s positioned to do a good job for us, and we’re excited for him in that role,” Parshall said.

Crook said he’s excited to start the 2019-20 school year with a staff that “really believes in our kids.”

“There’s so many incredible people here that do amazing work for our kids, and I feel humbled to be a part of this team,” he said.

— Reporter: 541-617-7854, jhogan@bendbulletin.com

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