Teaching students that “they can” succeed

Kiffany Kiewiet - Principal, Westminster High School, Westminster, Colorado

News | 02 September 2020
Principal Kiewiet believes that she has learned a great deal from students by having humility and really listening to them which has made her a better educator. ILO photo/ John Isaac
“What we are doing is empowering students to do whatever they want to do. I feel very strongly about that,” says Kiffany Kiewiet, the principal of Westminster High School in Westminster, Colorado. “Our kids walk into the building as freshmen being whoever they are, and they leave the building as seniors being whoever they want to be.”

Westminster High is America’s largest comprehensive, competency based high school, offering its 2,400 students programs to both follow their passions, and demonstrate their proficiency during high school and after graduation. “Everyone has their own story,” says Kiffany, “and their story develops as they develop as a person. Here they also have an opportunity to change that story.”

The school’s Career and Technical Education (CTE) program includes both college credit and industry certification, with links to apprenticeships and direct employment in wide ranging fields from business, science, and engineering, to ICT, video and interactive media, and from health care to mechanics.
The unique approach to learning at Westminster High School helps students understand the application of their efforts. These students have built an autonomous rover that could be deployed for planetary exploration. ILO Photo/ John Isaac
Many of Westminster’s students are from immigrant families and are first generation high school or college diploma earners. “We change the perception of what kids think they can do,” says Kiffany. “A lot of our kids come here saying ‘I can’t.’ They leave saying ‘I can’ and asking ‘what can I do next?’”

Kiffany describes herself as “not the typical high school principal.” Growing up on a farm in Iowa, and getting involved in high school sports gave her the grit and work ethic to see things through. In her 20’s she was a juvenile justice officer, working in treatment facilities with child sex offenders and kids with drug and alcohol problems. “I started when I was still a kid,” remembers Kiffany. “And I realized I really enjoyed working with kids.”

Kiffany went into education as a teacher and athletic coach, however, her principal at the time felt she had other skills. He pulled her out of the classroom and asked her to be Dean of Student Affairs, helping female students who were having trouble. “I never went back to the classroom after that,” Kiffany says. “I realized I really enjoyed working with kids one-on-one in an environment where I could reach them a little differently.”

Moving to Colorado, she earned a master’s degree from Colorado State University while working at a high school in Denver before coming to Westminster, initially as Assistant Principal and Athletic Director, and then as Principal.

As countries move towards a more sustainable model of city planning, civil engineers will be in great demand. A student presents his new bridge design for a High School science competition. ILO Photo/ John Isaac
Kiffany recognizes that in education there is a double standard between men and women in leadership positions. She has faced that and has a message for her female students.

“One thing I talk to girls about,” says Kiffany, “is that, as a woman, if you want to be a leader, you have to stand your ground. If you don’t know the answer, go and get it. You have to follow through. That’s what I tell girls all the time.”

For Kiffany, being an educator is about empowering students to take charge of their future, particular young women.

“I had this student who was a first generation American. As a senior she received a Future Leader Award from a Denver Latino organization. I told her on that day she won the award ‘I am not going to let you leave the state. I’m not going to let you leave our community. You are going to come back and you are going to give to our community.’”

After receiving her degree she returned and asked if she could student teach at Westminster. “Right then,” Kiffany said “I put her in a classroom to student teach. I was able to sit in her classroom and watch her. She was pretty amazing.” Kiffany asked her to sign a letter promising that she would stay as a teacher at Westminster High School. “She cried and I cried, and it was just one of those amazing moments where you put in all this work with these kids and see such wonderful results.”

Kiffany says being flexible is probably the number one skill she needs at work. “You’ve got to roll with the punches when you are working with kids,” she says. “You’ve got to have a lot of humility and at the same time be a little bit strict and hold kids accountable. It’s OK to fail,” she tells the students. “You just have to pick yourself back up and keep going.”

Like every school in the country, Westminster is dealing with the ongoing impact of the COVIDpandemic. “It’s been a huge change for us,” says Kiffany. “We had to go out of the box and do things we never had done before.”

At the onset of the crisis, the school provided lunch to anyone with a student ID, ultimately providing tens of thousands of lunches to the community. Westminster organized “parades” where the staff drove around to different neighborhoods, and visited kids at their homes. They organized a “drive-up graduation”: graduating seniors got out of their cars outside the school with their families and posed on a pedestal, while diplomas were handed out and pictures taken.

To keep up with classes online using the latest technology, the school’s foundation provided every student with a Chromebook laptop and even a Wi-Fi hotspot in homes that didn’t have one. “Kids need to understand technology and how to use it,” says Kiffany. “I honestly think that’s why we had a smoother transition during the crisis than some other schools did.”

But Kiffany and her teachers also recognize the difficulties of online learning. While you can put an assignment up on the computer and interact with the student, Kiffany explains “it’s not the same as building a face-to-face relationship with kids, not being able to look in their eyes and say, hey, are you OK today? Is there anything you need from me?”

Since the crisis, Kiffany says “my job feels more important than ever. I’ve never been more confident about how important education is and how important the school community is.”

One standard Kiffany likes to apply is asking if the education the students are getting at Westminster is good enough for her own kids and her nieces and nephews. “When I’m hiring teachers, which is my most important job, I tell the teacher, I can teach you how to write a lesson plan, and even how to teach, but I can’t teach you to care deeply about children. Are you doing everything to make sure that every single kid in your classroom is taken care of?”

“These kids, at 15, 16, 17 years old, are the future,” says Kiffany. “They are building this country. We are building an opportunity for our students to do what they want with their lives.”

And what does work mean to Kiffany? “We get only one shot at life and it’s way too short” she says. “If you don’t love what you do, you need to go find what you do love. Work has got to be one of the loves of your life.”