Twenty years ago, Brianna Kleinschmidt graduated from Benicia High School and headed out into the world. She was looking for something different, some new experiences. She never anticipated that life would lead her back to Benicia High.

“I definitely didn’t think I’d be back at all,” she says. “I have a great, great group of friends from high school, and they think it’s hilarious that I’m the principal here.” 

Her journey took her from UC Santa Barbara to law school, where she learned an important lesson that first year.I learned I didn’t want to be a lawyer,” she says, laughing.

She left law school and went into catering and event planning. A heart-to-heart conversation with a friend prompted her to consider becoming a teacher. “I have my bachelor’s and master’s degrees in literature, and I’ve always loved it. Also, I employed teenagers in my business, and I loved working with them. Teaching offered a really unique opportunity to combine those two things,” says Brianna. She taught at Benicia High for three years before becoming vice principal in 2014. Brianna, called Miss K by students, became the principal in March 2016.

She owned a catering and event business, then headed back to school for her teaching credential

Her leadership skills and community roots made her an excellent candidate, says Charles Young, superintendent of Benicia schools.

“She’s a courageous leader who likes to look at all parts of the program and to recognize and honor what’s going well and then to have robust conversations around how can we continue to get better and what that looks like,” he says. “She always goes the extra mile and has tremendous energy. When we are looking for someone to do a job like this, we always ask ourselves, ‘Do they have a big heart for the work?’ She just has a big old heart for the work.”

Brianna’s term as principal began as the school was undergoing big changes. One committee was studying a new school day schedule, another working on revising graduation requirements. Plus stadium renovations were about to start. All were nearing completion when she met with Benicia Magazine in February.

She is the school’s fifth principal in 11 years. As such, she leads a school with about 1,640 students, a staff of more than 100, and a budget of just under $10 million this year. Her office is decorated with vintage Panther banners, her own high school academic and sports letter, and a photo of her 6-year-old daughter. Brianna, 37, lives in Benicia on the same street as her parents and brother.

How has the campus changed since you graduated in 1997? Half of it is new. There are a few buildings that don’t exist anymore and some new buildings that weren’t there when I was a student. B wing is new. O wing is new. H and F are all new for me. The gym expansion happened after I left. So at least half of the campus is different than when I left.

Did your experience in catering and event planning help prepare you to lead a high school? Yes.  School is like running an event every day because there’s the big picture but also the little details, and you have to be able to prioritize what you do, how you spend your time. You’re managing a whirlwind of everyday activities and working on bigger projects as well.

How did you end up back at Benicia High? While I was getting my teaching credential, I had my daughter and moved back to Benicia because of my family. I did my student teaching here and I couldn’t imagine working anywhere else.

I hoped to get a job here the next year but I didn’t, so I got on the sub list and I volunteered with the journalism class with Mr. Gibbs. I got a part-time position after the first week, then they added a third class and then they added a fourth class at the semester.  My daughter was so young that part-time was good at the time. I became full-time in 2012.

I love working here. I hope to stick around for as long as they’ll have me. I have at least a 10-year goal (to stay at Benicia High).

Why do you hope to be the principal here for at least 10 years? I say 10 years because it takes time to really learn a job and it takes three or four years for change to really occur. I can’t imagine not sticking around to see some of the things we’re working on and other things beyond that.

What’s your favorite memory as a Benicia High student? Probably attending the rallies during my senior year. We had special shirts made that said “Class of 97,” and I still have mine. And playing on the soccer team.

Because I was a student here, I have lots of school pride. I own a lot of blue and wear blue and gold often, and I’m now planning my 20-year high school reunion.

What’s your favorite memory as a Benicia High staff member? It was when the yearbooks arrived the first year that I was the yearbook advisor, so the second year I was a teacher. We sat in a circle and opened the box and looked at what we’d made. Some of the students cried, and I probably did too.

A continuing good memory is when students return to say hi.

I also had the experience of going with the marching band on a band exchange trip last year, and that was just so neat. We went to Nashville and Atlanta, and the band performed at several different venues and learned from music professors. I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to see them perform and to see them behind the scenes. We went to out one night and we all learned to line dance together.

What are the best parts of being a high school principal? I’m enjoying everything I do. I like the idea of being involved all around campus. … You get to enjoy what you’re doing more if you focus on the positive part instead of always going to the negative.

One of the best things about being a high school principal is that you get to see students at this point in their lives when they are testing themselves and seeing who they are in the world.  It’s neat to see.

What has surprised you during your first year as principal? The importance of communication. With some of the situations that have occurred on campus, gaps can occur in communication. It’s a really fine line, a balance of what we can communicate and the need to protect the identify of students. There are a lot of parents who care. We want to continue to improve.

Another huge surprise is the effect of cell phones. These devices have such a huge effect and it’s growing more and more every year.  Cell phones magnify every frustration. You take any feeling and you amplify it as kids retweet it, like it.

You can do amazing things with them, but they can be a huge distraction. I tell parents that if you can do anything, make sure your kids have some down time away from their devices. Set a time every night when it goes on the charger in the parents’ room and give the students a break.

They’ve really changed teaching. It’s not about rote memorization any more, but more about developing skills to use throughout your life. As a teacher, you deal with them in classrooms. But as an administrator, it’s very different. We’re seeing how cell phones come into play with bullying, with drug sales, with discipline. The ability to use apps that disappear affects those.

How might changes in federal education policy affect Benicia High? That’s a tough question. Because we’re in California and it seems like many things will be left to the states, my hope is we’ll be able to keep going the way we have been.

What motivates you to do this? The outcomes of seeing how the work you do makes a difference, of seeing what students are creating and what they accomplish, of seeing our staff and what they’re doing, of seeing the changes to the campus. It’s neat to see the progress.

What do you do to relax?  July is travel time. Winter break is time at home with the family. Summer time, I have one fun trip with my girlfriends and one trip with my daughter and family. I like to get out and explore somewhere new. It’s fun to be able to travel with my daughter.

What’s next for you? Hopefully nothing big. Hopefully a new bell schedule next year and a new stadium. I’m looking forward to see what’s on the edge of happening. I intend to be in Benicia for a long time.