While students will be returning to the classroom this week, educators throughout Harvey County have been hard at work since the start of the month (and beyond) getting ready for the school year. As students readjust to the routine and new surroundings, some educators will be in a similar position— like new Santa Fe 5/6 Center assistant principal Brandon Cheeks.

Cheeks comes to Newton from USD 305 in Salina, where he taught seventh grade Social Studies, and is taking on his first administrative role in the Newton school district this year. Having the chance to make an impact in the community and build relationships were reasons Cheeks said he was drawn to the position, but he admitted a big hook was the Santa Fe redesign and focus on a student-centered educational system that provides support and resources for individual success through collaboration.

"I just feel that it's great for kids. I think we can reach more students as opposed to the traditional approach," Cheeks said, "and Kansans Can (the new initiative behind the redesign), that's the direction that the state is going in. Why not start now?"

Focusing on personalized learning, relationships, social/emotional responsiveness, citizenship, personal accountability and more, Cheeks was more than excited to come on board with Santa Fe's redesign.

Those key elements of the redesign also line up very closely with Cheeks' own ideas of what an educational model should look like, which made it an easy sell to join the Santa Fe staff.

"All those pieces that are a part of our redesign, I think it fits right along with my own personal philosophy of education. The biggest piece for me is building those relationships with the kids because I think if each student can have a relationship with someone, then hopefully that will help the whole education process for them," Cheeks said. "I feel that each child should have a positive relationship with some adult in the building, and I feel within that positive relationship we can encourage, we can empower the young people to do great things not only in this school, but in this world."

Building relationships has been central to Cheeks' approach to education since he started teaching 13 years ago — and that is not always limited to the classroom. In Salina, Cheeks eventually took on roles as a department leader while also serving on the board of directors for the Greater Salina Community Foundation and working as a youth pastor at St. John's Missionary Baptist Church.

Serving as both a pastor and a teacher, it should come as no surprise that Cheeks is "all about kids," also having six of his own with his wife, Ralita (who will be a counselor at Chisholm Middle School this year). The Memphis native's ties to education run even deeper, though, thanks to his family and the impact he saw first-hand that educators could have in students' lives.

"My family had a history of educators and, also, I just wanted to make a difference in the world. I had some great mentors and some great people in my life who were family members and also teachers who just touched my life so much that I just wanted to make sure I could give back to not only my community, but the world," Cheeks said. "I just didn't think there was any greater job. It was just my passion to be involved with kids and help them."

With the Santa Fe redesign, Cheeks said he is looking forward to taking an approach that promotes student ownership of their own education — though he is also eager to forge relationships in the school and the community at-large to give students as many resources as possible to help in the new educational model.

Having taken a leadership role on multiple fronts in Salina (where he also attended Kansas Wesleyan University before getting his master's degree from Kansas State University), transitioning to an administrative position is not something Cheeks foresees as being much of a struggle. The biggest change, he admitted, will likely be learning the new terminology in Newton.

From the "#SFCrew" to district administration, Cheeks said everyone in USD 373 has been great to work with so far and he is looking forward to big things to come at Santa Fe. While he will miss teaching, he said he is ready for this administrative opportunity. As one door closes, another one opens — and he is ready to see what's in store through that next door.

"It was always a dream and it was always in the back of my mind. I enjoyed teaching, I enjoyed the classroom, I enjoyed building relationships, but it was just that I was destined to do this. There was just a desire in my heart to do more and I felt like it was the right time," Cheeks said. "It's a step of faith to move and leave somewhere that you've been for so long, but I think I've stepped in the right direction and I'm just really excited about it."