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James Bright and Fernanda Brendefur

Boise's newest school principals talk about their "first firsts" at new school assignments


Life is full of firsts, and Aug. 24 was a particularly important first for Dr. Fernanda Brendefur and James Bright. After 13 years of teaching and six years of administrative experience, Brendefur is the new principal at Whittier Elementary. Following 18 years as a teacher and two years as an assistant principal, Bright is the new top administrator at Hawthorne Elementary.

While their personal histories and professional paths differ, throughout their conversation with Boise Weekly, Brendefur and Bright regularly spoke about their shared passion for earning and keeping the trust to educate some of Boise's best and brightest.

Let's begin with your backstories.

Dr. Fernanda Brendefur: I was born in Santiago, Chile. I was the only child, but my early years were during the regime of [then-dictator] Augusto Pinochet and my father was an avid supporter of [former President] Salvador Allende. Those times were... let's say, messy.

Wow, to say the very least. I'm presuming you fled.

Brendefur: We received political asylum in California in 1977. I grew up in the San Diego area.

Did you have a dream as a young girl?

Brendefur: I always knew I would be an educator of some sort. I remember that first year in the U.S. being so difficult. I knew how to say, "Hello," but that was it. I didn't know English. I had to repeat the first grade because I didn't know the language, even though I had completed the first grade in Chile. I remember crying so much that my mother became emotional as well and asked my uncle to take to me to school.

When did you stop crying?

Brendefur: I remember a teacher making me feel very comfortable until I learned English. That had a huge impact on my life.

So today, when you see little ones crying on their first day at a new school...

Brendefur: I see myself and how scary that experience can be—and how important it is to let kids know that they're safe and how happy we are to see them.

James Bright: My childhood was so different. I'm one of eight kids. My mother is Danish. My father is Canadian. I'm a first-generation American. We lived everywhere. I probably attended six or eight different elementary schools, three junior highs and three different high schools. I pursued computer science but that lasted about a semester. As much as I loved math, I couldn't stand the monotony. I ended up with a degree in child development.

I'm also assuming that there was a teacher who changed your life.

Bright: It was sixth grade. I was a bit of a recluse because of how many times our family had moved. A particular teacher saw the potential in me.

Is there anything from your own childhood experiences that you wish we had a bit more of in today's culture?

Brendefur: I don't remember being tested to death when I was in school. I never felt like I was in school to prove that I could get straight A's. School is where I went to learn new things. We put so much pressure on kids.

And teachers.

Brendefur: Absolutely. I don't remember that when I was in school.

Bright: I remember when I was a kid that just about everybody went out and played—in the park, in the sandlot, everywhere. We were always chasing a ball somewhere. You don't see that as much after school.

Why did you want to become an elementary school principal?

Brendefur: Why wouldn't I? I was a coordinator for the Idaho State Department of Education and I've been a consulting teacher for the district. I'm so excited to be part of a community and part of a team that makes a difference in the lives of the kids at Whittier.

Bright: I think back to all of the educators who made a difference in my life. You want to pay that forward.

Brendefur: The biggest reason I want to be a principal is equity. If you want to close the achievement gap, you have to close the opportunity gap. I'm committed to that.

Mr. Bright, yours is one of two Boise schools that will begin offering pre-K this November. That has to be pretty exciting.

Bright: I can guarantee you that our pre-K staff is salivating. Some parents are able to afford pre-school, but many can't. What the city of Boise and the Boise School District are doing is so exciting.

Brendefur: Parents in lower incomes simply can't afford pre-K. That's an opportunity gap that leads to an achievement gap. I really applaud the city of Boise for doing this.

Do you have a sense of how many of the children in your communities participate in free- or reduced-price lunches or breakfasts?

Brendefur: It's very high.

Bright: One hundred percent.

The need for support services in your neighborhoods is significant.

Bright: To the person, everyone I've hired to teach has told me, "We need to make a difference."

Is there still a magical quality in the first week back to school?

Bright: You're right. It's magical. You think to yourself, "What can I do this year to make a difference?" From a principal's point of view, it's about giving the teachers the tools to work their magic.

Brendefur: It's my first first.

Bright: You'll be great.