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Cottonwood Heights Journal

Briscoe remembered as a humble, confident communicator and leader of Canyons School District

Jun 08, 2020 10:04AM ● By Julie Slama

In July 2019, Canyons School District Superintendent Jim Briscoe helps to cut and serve cake to the community to celebrate Canyons District’s 10-year anniversary. (Julie Slama/City Journals)

By Julie Slama | [email protected]

A couple years ago, Superintendent Jim Briscoe brought apples to each Canyons School District school in honor of apple appreciation week.

“It was his way of showing appreciation for the hard work of the teachers and administrators, but it was also him sharing his love of apples as he’s an apple connoisseur,” Brighton Principal Tom Sherwood said. “He’s visible, letting people know he cares, but he always puts someone else in the spotlight.”

On Jan. 13, Briscoe may have caught many colleagues off guard when he announced his retirement. He will step down June 30 to be replaced by Juab School District Superintendent Rick L. Robins.

Briscoe served six years of Canyons School District’s 11-year history.

“He is a great guy, providing healing when it was sorely needed in the school district,” Board of Education member Mont Millerberg said. “We were a new district, with growing pains, and Jim came from out of state, got out to the schools and met families. He listened to people, valued community opinion and provided real leadership with his calm demeanor.”

Board President Nancy Tingey, who sat on the superintendent search subcommittee, agrees: “He immediately fit in. His experience, his passion, his dedication of education is very evident. He’s an educator in every sense of the word. He’s friendly; he’s approachable. He’s very intuitive about people and issues; he really gets to the heart of an issue.

He visits classrooms and when invited, he’ll come and read to kids.”

She said that early on, Briscoe would visit faculty lunchrooms and sit down to have lunch with them.

“He’s such a people person and wanted to get to know them as people. It surprised and impressed them,” she said. “He often talks about his time in the classroom. That is his foundation of experiences and values and helps him so he can relate to not only teachers, but parents and students. He has an ability to connect with the people whether its individually or a large group. He’s able to relate with everyone.”

Briscoe credits having good teachers as a motivator to him wanting to be an educator.

“I always knew, especially in high school, there was no question in my mind, I was going to college to be a teacher,” he said. “I enjoy the relationships, getting to know my teachers and felt they were interested in me as a person. I always thought it was a positive thing that these teachers had so much impact on so many kids’ lives.”

After teaching, he served as a principal in Wisconsin and Illinois, before serving as a superintendent for two Chicago school districts, where he spent much of his 38 years serving in public education.

But nothing surprised him moving from 6,000 students to Canyons’ 34,000 students.

“It’s still people,” he said. “You’re still dealing with similar personalities. You’re still dealing with teachers, principals, parents, school board members. You’re still dealing with the same issues. The good news about coming from a smaller school district is you know every aspect of a school district so when you’re meeting in a large district, when you’re meeting with departments, you can talk their language, so it actually helps you when you come to a larger district, you know what the departments are dealing with since you dealt with it yourself.”

When Briscoe arrived, he immediately felt comfortable, as he said in his first interview with the City Journals in 2014.

“From the day I got off the plane and walked into this community, I could feel that the people just love being a part of this community and want to give back and help others, help the students and help the school district,” Briscoe said.

Once he settled in, Briscoe began to look at the culture of the schools.

“I needed to better understand how to address that as quickly as I could, to improve the culture in the school system, to make teachers feel valued, to make all the support staff feel valued, to make sure principals felt supported, parents and teachers had opportunities for feedback and in all the issues we deal with, it all boils down to making people feel valued in the organization,” he said. “I think I’m a leader when I need to be. I’m a facilitator when I need to be. I’m a colleague when I need to be and just another resident and patron when I need to be. I think they’re all my kids. I think every time I have a discussion with the administrators and board members, I always remember that every kid in this district is my responsibility. Every student here is important to me.”

Briscoe also reorganized the district administration.

“He came in and pushed forward with some initiatives, creating a model from the start to improve communication, principal and teacher support, and put people in the right positions and let them lead,” Canyons Chief Financial Officer and Business Administrator Leon Wilcox said.

Tingey said that streamlining the district’s organization not only made it more efficient, but it brought people together to better meet the needs of students, families and employees.

Almost immediately, Briscoe addressed and resolved issues that frustrated patrons.

After one year of no early Friday dismissals in elementary school, he restored them to allow faculty to consult and gain professional development. He added the popular elementary school “Brain Booster” rotations of STEM, art, drama, PE, library and technology.

Briscoe also resolved the boundary changes when many Alta High students shifted to Corner Canyon High, leaving a disparity in enrollment, Wilcox recalled.

“He always listens, he takes calls, he’s out in the community, talking to people,” Wilcox said. “They all may not always agree with his decision, but he listens and lets them feel valued. He gets along great with students, business partners, bus drivers, lunch workers, principals and teachers, instructional specialists, custodians, parents, our (Canyons Education) Foundation and (Canyons) Board (of Education), legislators, mayors, and even taxpayers who don’t have kids in the system.”

Wilcox recalls early in Briscoe’s tenure when the Foundation was holding a golf tournament as a fundraiser. Set on one of the two courses at Wasatch Mountain Golf Course, Briscoe volunteered to deliver water to all the golfers.

“He was talking to everyone as he was driving all over the mountain course. As he was passing out water, a golfer in the foursome recognized him as the superintendent and told him that Canyons was golfing on the other (lake) course. So, Jim drove back to us and said, ‘You won’t believe what I just did’ and he started laughing,” he said. Then, Wilcox added: “He probably made a friend or two going to the wrong course, too. 

A high school student, who wished to remain anonymous, has appreciated his support: “Superintendent Briscoe has always been at so many school activities, when I was in elementary school, middle school and now, high school. He really cares and wants to support students. He pushed for a bond for us to have updated schools so we can have the best possible buildings, equipment and technology.”

That was the voter-approved 2017 $283-million bond Briscoe had talked to the community and stakeholders about and included funds to rebuild Hillcrest and Brighton high schools, Union Middle School, Midvalley and Peruvian Park elementaries; build a White City as well as a Draper elementary, remodel Alta High and has already added a classroom wing and expanded the cafeteria at Corner Canyon High.

He also has supported students as test scores are “well above state average,” with state year-end testing and more students are graduating, Wilcox said.

“Canyons School District as a whole…we were at 83, 84% graduation rate…now, we’re almost 90% districtwide, which is a massive, huge increase in graduation rate, which we are all really proud of,” Briscoe said, adding that graduates of Diamond Ridge High, which was started under his tenure, have contributed to that increase.

It isn’t just being a champion for students; it’s also, individually, helping them. Sandy Elementary Principal Christie Webb remembers Briscoe visiting at her former school when a student was in the office after making a poor decision.

“He helped the student understand the poor choice that was made and realize a different decision should be made,” she said. “He is great with kids and he likes kids. He’s been wonderful, supportive of teachers and administration, respectful of parents, and communicates well our wants and needs to the Board. He always thinks through his decision process and looks for the impact of what his decisions are and communicates that.”


Another thing Webb and others have appreciated is Briscoe’s leadership in developing a responsive services department that can provide social and emotional wellness resources and curriculum to students and educators.


“He also put a full-time counselor or psychologist in each elementary school and said to let him know if more help is needed,” Webb said.


Briscoe got to know people early in his tenure. He was known to take his dog out with principals and Board members to hunt pheasants (“I didn’t really hunt; I had a dog that hunted,” he said) or talk with administrators while watching sporting events.


Sherwood recalls sitting on top of Brighton High’s football press box with Briscoe, watching the Bengals play, talking candidly about football, education and life.


“He loves football (Briscoe was a three-year letterman at University of Wisconsin-Whitewater), and wrestling (he lettered as a college freshman). He loves sports—skiing, fishing, hunting. He also is very quick with a joke or a funny story, but at the same time, he’s always very gracious and generous with praise. He will recognize a department or people who do exceptional or positive things. He makes people feel valued and he always is praising the Board,” Sherwood said.


The past two years, Briscoe has supported the Board’s push to increase teachers’ salaries, which when announced last year at the teacher-of-the-year ceremony, was met with standing applause.


Tingey said he gives the Board weekly updates of what he and the administration are doing and what the main things in the district are and, she added, Board members are comfortable calling him.


“He’s got a humble confidence,” Tingey said. “He approaches the duties and challenges, drawing on his experience, not only his, but of others and the skills and talents of others. He always quickly gives others the credit, whether it’s an individual employee or educator or the Board. He understands the teamwork. He’s humble and he doesn’t need or seek accolades. He has generous energy. He’s a hard worker. He’s always thinking and analyzing; he’s quick to jump and help wherever help is needed. He spends that energy serving. He has compassionate patience. He’s always calm and even when, and especially when, things don’t go as planned, he will take the time to work through the issues.”


That calm leadership was apparent especially in his final few months during the COVID-19 pandemic, Wilcox said.


“Two weeks before school was closed, he was already thinking about so many issues from lunches to making sure there was a platform for student learning from hot spots to grading, and of course, graduation and year-end events,” Wilcox said. “He was thinking of every possible contingency out there and brought in principals and others, and asked them, ‘what am I missing?’ He wanted to know how else he could support them to keep the education and learning for students going.”


While Briscoe is retiring during the uncertainty of what school will look like this fall, Tingey recalled that Briscoe always said he didn’t want a retirement gala, so the inside joke is that he shut down the schools to avoid having one.


“I have received calls and emails from principals, teachers and parents thanking me for my service,” Briscoe said. “I’m a superintendent and one person in the organization, and I appreciate some of the kind words of what people have said, but it’s a result of a lot of hard work from our school board, our parents, our teachers, our principals and our central office administrators. In a district this size you can’t really accomplish anything yourself and you can only do it when everyone feels part of the team.”


That includes Briscoe, himself, who has been known to grab an orange flag to cross schoolchildren so the Midvale Elementary principal could make his meeting, Wilcox said.


“Jim’s that kind of guy who steps up and does that kind of thing. He does anything to help out,” he said.


Briscoe plans to spend time with his grandchildren, read books about World War II, Vietnam and Civil wars, and travel once restrictions are lifted. Yet, he admits he’s a bit nervous about his future.


“This will be a new experience for me. It will be the first time in my life I don’t have another job waiting for me with new challenges,” he said, adding that he might pop into a high school game to watch. “I’ll definitely visit our new schools when they’re completed.”


While the superintendent impacted the district in many ways, Wilcox said Briscoe’s lasting footprint is that he has been visible, friendly and has been able to relate to everyone.


“He’s out there talking to the coach, the drama adviser, the PTA and SCC. He’s in the schools reading to kids and eating lunch with them, being at their events and cheering them on at the game as he listens to the band. He brings everyone together, working together for the common good,” he said. “He’s been a great boss, but a better friend, and that’s how everyone sees him, as a friend.”