New LHS principal’s road to ‘dream job’ at alma mater has been winding, including recent life-threatening health scare
photo by: Matt Resnick/Journal-World
Last winter, Quentin Rials’ future was suddenly thrown into doubt after he faced a life-threatening medical emergency that required open-heart surgery. Now, just a year later, he has not only overcome the health crisis, but has claimed the top post at his alma mater.
“This is my dream job,” Rials said after he was named the Lawrence High School principal last week. He had been serving as the interim principal since June.
After suffering what’s known as an ascending aortic aneurysm, Rials underwent open-heart surgery, during which he had a stroke, followed by a nearly three-month recovery. The stroke has made it difficult for him to smile fully, but his happiness in being exactly where he wants to be — the “special place” that he calls LHS — could not be more apparent.
“There is a lot of tradition in this building, which I think helps bind people together,” he said.
And Rials would know. As a decorated 6-foot-2 multisport standout at the school, he helped lead the Chesty Lions to the Class 6A state basketball championship during his senior year in 1995. It’s a memory that he will always cherish and that resulted in lasting camaraderie “with almost all of those guys,” he said. Some of his teammates included the sons of former KU basketball coach Roy Williams and the late KU athletic director Bob Frederick.
“Being a former Lawrence High student myself, it’s important that I give back to the community,” he said.
photo by: Matt Resnick/Journal-World
Lawrence Superintendent Anthony Lewis said that he’s banking on Rials to bring stability to a role that has been occupied by a handful of people since Lewis was hired in 2018.
“I’m excited that staff will have that consistent leadership,” Lewis said. “To go back and get the honor of leading the school where you graduated from is a huge honor.”
“I don’t think anyone bleeds ‘red and black’ more than Quentin Rials,” Lewis said, “… he’s “truly a Chesty Lion at heart.”
The principal selection process, according to Lewis, entailed an anonymous survey as well as face-to-face feedback from staff. Lewis said that it was “almost immediately evident” that Rials, who had been serving for a few months as interim principal, “listens and responds” to staff.
“The feedback was everything from ‘go ahead and remove the interim tag’ to ‘Dr. Rials is the best thing that has happened to us in a while,'” Lewis said. “There was a veteran teacher that said this has been the smoothest start to a school year in their 20 years here. It was just a lot of positive feedback.”
Lewis also touted Rials for his leadership qualities, which he said were on full display during a November emergency lockdown at LHS after a student allegedly brought a pellet gun to school. Lewis said that during a casual conversation a few days after the incident, he asked Rials if he had “any reflections.”
“He had already gotten feedback from the staff and documented how everything was handled,” Lewis said.
Rials told the Journal-World that morale is high at LHS and that staff and administration in the building were “pulling in the same direction to do what’s best for kids.”
“I know lots of places where that relationship between administration and staff is adversarial, and I don’t see that here,” he said.
Another important aspect of Rials’ recent promotion, Lewis told the Journal-World, is his ability to be a role model for students.
“I had a Black parent reach out to me to thank me for placing Dr. Rials (as principal),” he said. “She said that her son, an LHS student, for the first time has a Black (male) leader — someone that looks just like him that’s leading the school. And it’s exciting.”
Choosing a path
Rials began his teaching career in the early 2000s in Texas. But it was the courtroom, not the classroom, that turned out to be his early passion.
After earning a law degree from Washburn University, he spent several years in the legal field. One day a case involving a teenager accused of setting a police car on fire came across his desk. It was around 2012 and Rials was working as an assistant public defender in Sedgwick County. He said the case made him reconsider his chosen profession, because he had a sense that he needed “to get to these kids before they make decisions that ruin their lives.” His experience with the criminal justice system allows him to offer students “a firsthand perspective of what it’s like when you make bad choices,” he said.
After leaving his legal career, Rials, who has a master’s degree and pending doctorate from KU, served five years as a math teacher and coach back in Fort Worth, Texas. He then served four years as assistant principal at LHS and two years as a learning coach at West Middle School, where he was also interim principal for a time.
Though Rials is now firmly planted in the education arena, Lewis agrees that Rials’ legal background is beneficial as he leads and interacts with students.
“He is a very strategic thinker,” Lewis said. “And having a previous career as an attorney helps in terms of processing systems that are in place for the school.”
Since the beginning of the school year, Rials has been focused on student attendance.
“Getting kids to class on time and staying the entire period has been difficult,” he said, “and everything branches out from there.”
As the Journal-World reported in August, chronic absenteeism has been a serious issue, specifically with high school upperclassmen. During the 2022-23 school year, 39% of the district’s high school students and 49% of its seniors were chronically absent, meaning that they missed 10% or more of the school year.
“Chronic absenteeism is a districtwide focus, as well as a focus here in our building,” Rials said. “And we look at data with our student-support teams every single week. We’re reaching out to students individually to figure out why they’re gone, and if we can do anything to help families get their kids here.”
Relationship-building with students is another top priority for Rials.
“This needs to be the most important place that kids want to be at,” he said. “I don’t think we can get them here by just saying ‘this is where you have to be.’ They have to want to do it.”
“I want to continue to foster that and make sure our kids are ready for college,” he said, “or whatever career they decide on when they leave here.”
Rials, the father of two young daughters, will be leading LHS in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, which left many students struggling and created lasting impacts on the educational environment, which he noted was a nationwide problem.
“It’s everywhere,” he said. “I have a lot of friends in surrounding districts going through the exact same thing.”
Rials said he would like to see the district dedicate more resources to the area of mental health, but he noted that the school has several student-support teams featuring school counselors, social workers, and mental health specialists from Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center’s WRAP program (Working to Recognize Alternative Possibilities).
WRAP is a school-based initiative that provides mental health professionals and other related resources to local schools. During the county’s budget deliberations in July, Stephen O’Neill, chief operations officer for Bert Nash, said WRAP’s overall cost of service has “risen significantly” as therapists have received “long overdue” raises. As a result, he said that WRAP does not currently have the personnel capacity to fully service each school.
“I’m very supportive of that program,” Rials said, “and wish that we had more support here, because mental health is one of the biggest things.”