Leading with Character: An Interview with Assistant Principal of Operations Mrs. Gisell Sierra

At Brilla, we understand character to always be evolving. We speak about how our character is formed in our ordinary, day-to-day actions and choices. Yet our character is often revealed in extraordinary circumstances. One of our character exemplars, Martin Luther King Jr., put it best when he said, “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.” Brilla Veritas Assistant Principal of Operations Mrs. Gisell Sierra’s heroic response to the extraordinary challenges of COVID-19 reveal her exemplary character.

Mrs. Sierra is a proud, loyal New Yorker. Despite living in Puerto Rico as a child, she always felt connected to her New York roots. In middle school, her family moved back to the Bronx where she has lived ever since. Her professional career has revolved around giving back to the community. Before coming to Brilla, Mrs. Sierra worked for another charter network. One of her colleagues left the network to work at a new charter school in the Bronx called Brilla College Prep Elementary. Mrs. Sierra kept in touch with the former colleague, and, whenever the two would talk, the former colleague would speak about how happy she was at Brilla. “I was curious what was so special about this place, so I finally applied for an Operations Associate position.” When Mrs. Sierra got the job, she was delighted. She knew there would be room to grow at Brilla. Indeed there was: that once-former colleague is now Chief Operating Officer for the Brilla Schools Network and Mrs. Sierra herself is now Assistant Principal of Operations at Brilla Veritas.

Mrs. Sierra poses for a photo with other Operations Leads. COO Mrs. Reyes Claudio is the second from right.

As Mrs. Sierra’s responsibilities grew, so did her unwavering dedication to Brilla’s mission. As Chief Operating Officer Mrs. Reyes Claudio says, “In our main offices at Brilla, we try to be a one-stop shop for families.” When COVID hit, Mrs. Sierra and the rest of our operations staff kept this mentality alive. Within days of the announcement that buildings would remain closed, Mrs. Sierra organized a massive distribution of Chromebooks and materials for remote learning. For the remainder of the Spring, she and her team answered hundreds of calls from families. If families needed help troubleshooting a tech issue or if they were experiencing food or housing insecurity, she tried to do everything in her power to help. “I saw how much our community was suffering and wished I could do more.” In close communication with a network Task Force, Mrs. Sierra worked to provide food, supplies, and rental assistance to families facing difficult circumstances. Although she many times could not alleviate suffering, she was a trusted confidant. “I wanted to be a person that our families and staff could go to for a listening ear,” she shared.   

Brilla Veritas’s permanent campus is located at 600 E. 156th Street

Without knowing if schools would reopen in the Fall, Mrs. Sierra continued working persistently over the summer. She had an enormous task in front of her: move Brilla Veritas into its permanent campus. “Over the winter, I had made a work-plan for moving the school. But, of course, when COVID hit, that all changed.” Nimble and creative, Mrs. Sierra and her team moved the school in a safe, socially distanced manner. She shared that, amidst all of the uncertainty, it was difficult to keep morale up. “Here we were moving into a beautiful new building, but, deep down, we all felt sad: would our scholars and families get to use it?” Holding on to the hope that schools would reopen, Mrs. Sierra patiently kept working.

When it was announced that Brilla would reopen buildings in the Fall, Mrs. Sierra and the entire Brilla staff rallied. She extended gratitude to the staff of Brilla Veritas for “modeling what a ‘one-school mentality’ looks like.” She described, “It didn’t matter whether you were a classroom teacher or a member of the custodial team, everybody was willing to do whatever it took to get scholars back in the building.”

In her quieter moments, though, Mrs. Sierra will tell you how tremendously difficult this has been. From the stresses of moving buildings to the responsibility she carries of keeping scholars and staff safe, the past eight months have been some of the most challenging of her life. But she will also tell you that she is satisfied, fulfilled even. “Seeing scholars in their uniforms makes it all worth it. This is why I do what I do,” she said.   

Mrs. Sierra visited the construction site of the permanent campus of Brilla Veritas. She was joined by Assistant Principal Mrs. Kelly O’Brien (left) and Principal Mrs. Mei Ruiz (center).

Before concluding our conversation, I asked Mrs. Sierra what her hopes are for this very unconventional year. She answered: “I hope that by supporting our families in any way we can—whether that be with material things, learning, or emotional support— we’re able to communicate ‘it’s going to be ok.’” She continued, “It’s not just that our families need us. We need them too. My hope is that, just like I get strength and motivation from them, they can get strength from me.” We are deeply grateful for Mrs. Sierra and her steadfast character, leading the way through this extraordinary time.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Danielle Schirripa is Special Projects Manager for the Brilla School Network. In her role, she assists the Executive Director in external communication and fundraising. She studied Mathematics and Philosophy at The Catholic University of America in Washington, DC. Originally from Boston, MA, she enjoys spending time at the beach and watching the Red Sox. 

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