Kimberly (Creel) Pierce is the principal of Brush Arbor Christian School in Orlando, Florida, and an ’05 TBC Elementary Education graduate.
In 2020-21, she successfully led her school through the chaos of a pandemic, spearheaded and achieved accreditation, and navigated new regulations and protocols to keep the school open and healthy. You can read our interview with her back in 2020 here.
Now she is leading her team through the aftermath of COVID: supporting mental and emotional health, addressing the changing needs of students, and casting vision for the future.
We reached out to Kim again for a follow-up interview this year as she celebrates 15 years in full-time education and is named TBC’s 2022 Alumnus of the Year!
Kim began her teaching career at Brush Arbor immediately after graduating from TBC in 2005. In 2018 Kim became full-time principal at Brush Arbor Christian, a role she continues to fill today.
Like every other administrator, Kim faced difficult decisions in spring of 2020.
By the time Spring Break arrived, “pandemic” and “Covid-19” had permeated the news and Kim had a feeling that things were not going to return to normal.
In hindsight, Kim sees clear evidence of God’s direction. The school had recently issued tablets and email addresses for each student so the framework for tech-based instruction was in place. Her gut decision to have everyone pack up before spring break saved the school valuable time and last-minute panic once the end of break arrived.
They successfully finished the year online, hopeful that they could return to a normal classroom in August but prepared for a blended learning style. Of course, everything since then has been a blur of protocols: cleaning, isolating, tracking, reporting, testing, re-evaluating routines and schedules.
Now that the crunch of the pandemic is behind us, Kim says that Brush Arbor and schools in general are facing a different set of challenges.
“Last year even though 2020-2021 was extremely hard with COVID and accreditation combined, I think we all had a shared goal. We had that mindset of, ‘This is going to happen. We are going to do it no matter what it takes.’”
“Now, what I honestly think we are seeing throughout all of education is that it wasn’t those two years that killed us; it’s this year. Because this year our expectation was that we would come back to normal. But we were not back to normal because COVID was still around. And now kids are two years behind behaviorally, socially, and academically. We can all catch up with academics eventually, but the behaviors are off the charts.”
Add to that the emotional and mental challenges that everyone in society is dealing with because of the past two years, and the entire scenario can look daunting.
Kim says there is an urgent need for mental health support for everyone: staff, teachers, students, and even parents.
In general, teachers and students are being stretched more than ever before, pushing to reach higher expectations while they themselves are also trying to readjust to life after COVID. She is thankful to have a trained counselor on staff who also has a background in DCF and ongoing trauma training. His influence has been indispensable in helping the school maintain healthy boundaries for both students and staff and deescalate situations before they become too emotionally charged.
“He has helped a lot to keep our school staff going; I saw more staff break down than in the two years before. When you’re in the battle your adrenalin keeps you going. So now this year it felt like we all had PTSD, plus we still weren’t back to normal. Everyone’s lives are full speed ahead… we all just came back full force but we’re all still dealing with emotions and issues because of COVID.”
Of course, having a counselor on staff is a great start but it cannot address every need.
From Kim’s perspective, it will require a combined effort of educators, parents, pastoral care, and mental health professionals to successfully overcome the challenges. It may sound like a tall order, but she is already working on creative ways to help in her own sphere of influence. From brainstorming discipleship opportunities within the school itself to recommending outside help to those who need it, effort and research is being invested in creating a healthy environment for everyone on their campus.
While she doesn’t claim to have any of it figured out, she says that through this experience she has she has grown as an administrator and educator.
“Making all the right choices” over the past two years when there were no good choices was a heavy load to carry. She quickly realized this was not a time to operate in isolation.
“When all this first started, I definitely lost a lot of sleep over making decisions. But I reached out and asked for as much wise, godly counsel and information as I could. I’ve talked to a principal from another school at least once a month about any given situation. I’m heavily involved in FACCS (Florida Association of Christian Colleges and Schools) and try to get counsel from them as well. Once I got as much information as I could, then I would make a plan and pray it was the right plan – really, you come to the point where you can only do so much.”
“Education is (hopefully) learning to reach out to each other, knowing we are not in competition with each other – we are all trying to survive together! There is definitely a freedom among Christian Schools to do that, so we should be saying ‘Here is what we’re doing that has worked for us, please tell me what you’re doing that is working.’”
In many ways, being forced to “think outside the box” in order to meet required standards yielded long-term positive results.
Procedure changes were made in almost every area – in some cases they were minute changes, while in others an entire new procedure was implemented. Overall, she says that the new routines have created a more streamlined and efficient day for everyone.
In the 2021-22 academic year, Brush Arbor enrollment increased dramatically.
As families exited the public school system many turned to private schools. Hiring the additional educators to meet that increased enrollment has become an immediate priority for the coming year.
While many schools are seeing a low return in teaching staff, Kim has seen an unexpectedly high teacher retention rate at her small school.
From Kim’s perspective, protecting morale among the teachers has been one of the main contributors to the school’s success and high retention. The general perception of teachers has been on a rollercoaster for three years now. Counteracting that rollercoaster with constant and genuine care is imperative.
“I have some amazing parents in the school that are trying hard to make teacher appreciation week bigger than ever this year and I think the staff knows that I’m trying to take care of them as much as I can. I also think that it [morale] has a lot to do with having a vision. No matter whether it’s a day-by-day plan or a year-by-year plan (which you don’t really do right now – so more like quarter-by-quarter), it’s about having a vision to keep moving forward.”
And they definitely have a vision. A big one!
Brush Arbor’s vision right now is to build a new building dedicated to the growing high school classes. They are nearing the end of the permit phase and are looking forward to celebrating the official start of construction.
“That’s definitely brought some excitement… hopefully by this summer we can actually break ground.”
When asked what she saw as the most tangible way families and churches could support educators right now, her response was a little different from what you typically expect.
Kim says that kids are responding to things very differently right now compared to before COVID.
“They’ve been through trauma so they’re responding to life like they’ve been through trauma.”
And so is everyone else to varying degrees. Teachers are just as human as the parents and children are. And every single one of us went through COVID.
“We need mutual understanding… One of the easiest things families and parents can do is to always get the teacher’s perspective before jumping to conclusions. That is hard because you want to believe a child – I understand that, and the child needs to feel supported and believed. But children also need to see that both sides of the story will be heard before a firm decision is made.”
She sees churches as a resource to help those students who need counseling or simply a safe adult to listen when they talk. Not all students have a stable home life to offset the heavy world we live in.
Overall, Kim Pierce and Brush Arbor Christian are looking forward to next year with hope and anticipation.
In the past decade Brush Arbor Christian school has grown from a K-8th grade school to a K3-12 school, with their first high school graduation taking place this May. They have exciting plans to expand their campus and break ground on a new building this summer. This expansion will allow them to grow up to 300 students!
Many TBC alumni are in the education field as teachers, administrators, professors, guidance counselors, and coaches.
It is no secret that the past three years have been demanding and exhausting for anyone in education. Through these circumstances we have watched with admiration as these individuals continue to fulfill their calling and meet obstacles with creative solutions.
We believe Kim Pierce is an example of dedication and faithfulness, as she continues to lead with excellence within her immediate circle of influence as well as within the greater community of educators and administrators.
It is with sincere admiration and gratitude for her exceptional leadership that we celebrate Kim’s 15 years in education and name her TBC’s 2022 Alumnus of the Year!
Kim will join us on campus on May 6 for our President’s Reception honoring TBC Graduates of Influence. She will also be present at the TBC graduation ceremonies on Saturday, May 7.