Q&A

Fort Collins principal who embraces excellence and equity named National Principal of the Year

Thomas J. Dodd (provided by the Colorado Department of Education)

When Thomas Dodd arrived at Lesher Middle School in Fort Collins about 11 years ago, the school’s reputation was less than sterling, enrollment was dipping to dangerous levels and a well-regarded honors program separated the haves and have-nots.

Dodd went to work breaking down barriers. He brought an equity agenda to the school, opening up a rigorous International Baccalaureate program for the middle school grades to all students. He gave anchor pins to teachers, worn to highlight the importance of students feeling grounded and to symbolize teachers’ stable roles as advocates.

Since Dodd took the helm, Lesher’s enrollment has grown from 500 to 770 with a waiting list.

This week, Dodd was named the 2017 National Principal of the Year by the National Association of Secondary School Principals, an honor he hopes will cast a spotlight on the difference that inspiring leadership can make.

By Fort Collins standards, Lesher is a diverse school. About 43 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-priced lunches, a measure of poverty. (The district’s rate is 32 percent). About 35 percent of students are minorities; about 28 percent are Latino. English language learners comprise between 25 and 30 percent of the population, and between 25 and 30 percent of students have been designated as gifted and talented.

As Dodd put it, this is a school where students from affluent families and students living in rent-by-the-month motels share the hallways.

On 2016 state assessments, 49 percent of Lesher students met or exceeded expectations in English, data show. That is about six percentage points lower than the Poudre School District average, but nine percentage points above the state average for the middle school grades.

Yet Lesher also has wide income-based achievement gaps. The gap separating students who qualify for government-subsidized lunches was about 46 percentage points on the 2015 English tests, the last year for which data are available.

We caught up with Dodd on the phone Tuesday to talk about how he sought to change the school, and the challenges he has faced. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

First off, tell me about your school when you arrived. It was on the brink of closure? How did things get to that point?

By Fort Collins standards and (Poudre School District) standards, we were struggling. There was a perception in our community that we were a quote-unquote ghetto school. There were a lot of kids choicing out. We had an enrollment decline. I was told by the leadership at the time that if we continued that decline, we’d be looking at closure. We had issues with student management and culture, some northside/southside gang tensions. We had a 1960s school with a lot of deferred maintenance. I did inherit some teachers that were highly dedicated and passionate, but some of them were not feeling inspired or energized. But we were getting a $3.7 million renovation in my first year. We had more need than that could pay for, but it was still an improvement. We had a school-within-a-school honors track that was a draw to some people. So we had some things going for us. I thought, “I can roll up my sleeves.” I believe in excellence and equity. I don’t think they are mutually exclusive. They can go hand and hand.

You have said that when you arrived, you noticed this “de facto remedial track” among students not in the International Baccalaureate Middle Years program, a demanding academic program. What did you see that concerned you — and how did you see that playing out in how students progressed, or in school culture?

IB does not necessarily mean, “I’m better.” It’s not an elitist program. It’s an elite program. I want to be an elite school. You can define that as an excellent school. But not elitist. We were a school-within-a-school honors track IB program. So when kids applied to come to Lesher, or lived in the neighborhood, they had to apply. Their grades were looked at, their state assessment scores. They had to have a teacher recommendation. And then they came to school, sat in a cafeteria and got an hour to respond to a writing prompt. That’s a whole bunch of gates, and they create a fairly elitist perspective. That is not what the IB Middle Years program is all about. It’s about whole child learning. It’s about inquiry. And it’s meant for all kids ages 11 to 16. My thinking is IB instruction is good for all kids. Why are we reserving this for kids that go through those gates, to become this little honors track?

What did the kids in that honors track look like when you arrived?

Predominantly white, Asian, upper-middle class. We were underrepresented in kids from lower socioeconomic groups, with our Hispanic community.

Our professional responsibility and, more importantly, our moral imperative, is to educate every kid to the best of our ability. That’s why our public education is a cornerstone of our American democracy. It is the civil right of civil rights.

We had a lot of tracks in our building. That is bad for our culture. When you walk into Lesher now, you see a banner that says, “All in.” Every kid needs to be developmentally challenged where they’re at. It’s great where you accelerate. We have some accelerated math, and world language because we have some bilingual kids. We are going to differentiate to kids and challenge to their level, but we are not going to do it at the expense of someone else. We are not going to create de-facto remedial tracks.

Did you run into resistance when you proposed opening the IB program to all students — particularly from parents of students who already were in the program?

A little bit. Sometimes internally, meaning from some staff. And sometimes from parents and community members or district office people. Some people with more a fixed mindset who believe that certain kids can’t learn at the same speed as others, and others with a growth mindset who think they can. There was this notion that kids are going to choice out if you do this. Some people don’t want their kids around those other kids. People won’t always say that out loud, but that’s what they’re really thinking.

But that’s not our community. We are a microcosm of Fort Collins. We are a little bit of everyone. We describe ourselves as the downtown hipster middle school. People want diversity. When I give tours with parents, I often end with this statement, and it’s bold and I realize it may push some people out the door: “We don’t produce hemophiliacs here who are going bleed to death as soon as they are nicked in the real world.”

There have been tensions at schools that are opening up their IB programs. In Denver, initiatives to include more students in George Washington High School’s program hasn’t been without challenges, and Northfield High School has faced questions about whether “IB for all” can be pulled off. What makes it so difficult?

Most of it, honestly, is fear-based. People are afraid. Fear you’re going to lose kids — or prestige. The reality is, if you make it exclusive and put up gates, there is a perceived exclusivity there.

Our kids from historically disadvantaged backgrounds  — who come with less background knowledge, less parent support — need more support. That is our challenge. Our strength is diversity and our challenge is diversity. They need more help and we are trying to catch them up academically and social-emotionally. That is where our challenge is.

How are your students from more disadvantaged backgrounds doing in the program? What do your state test scores and achievement gaps tell you? 

How are they doing? They are doing all right. How do we gauge that? Of course, we look at standardized tests. But we also look at more than that. We look at climate surveys from staff, parent surveys. All kinds of data pieces we’re assessing.

We could always do better on our statewide assessments. They’re important, and we take them seriously. But they are one indicator of our success as a school. That’s not an excuse to say we can’t do better.

We are not the highest achieving school in Fort Collins in terms of proficiency or growth. Yet we get more school of choice applications than any neighborhood secondary school in our district. That says something about what parents value, and what they care about.

Looking back at the last 11 or 12 years, what are your biggest takeaways about your equity efforts?

What I am most proud of is we have changed the culture and perception of the school. I think we have successfully changed our culture and perception as a desirable place. I want to be a destination school for kids.

Some people say, “Tom, what’s the key?” It’s the people. I believe in people over programs, and I believe in practices over policies.

What do you hope comes from your being recognized as Principal of the Year?

I think it’s a validation, a celebration of school leadership. It matters. The research is clear. We are the fulcrum point in making all these things work — federal, state, district initiatives. We’ve got to make it all work in a system that has scarcity.

An investment in leadership is an investment in learning.

Father of TVAAS

William Sanders, pioneer of controversial value-added model for judging teachers, dies

William Sanders, who developed the TVAAS method for measuring a teacher's effect on student performance, died on March 16. Retired since 2013, he had been living in Columbia, Tenn.

William Sanders, the Tennessee statistician and researcher who came up with the nation’s first system for evaluating teachers based on student growth, kicking off a contentious, decades-long debate about how best to measure learning, has died.

Sanders died late last week of natural causes in a hospital in Franklin, Tenn., his family said. He was 74.

A former professor at the University of Tennessee and senior research fellow with the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Sanders is best known as the developer of the Tennessee Value-Added Assessment System, or TVAAS. That model has become the foundation for judging the effectiveness of teachers in Tennessee public schools, and has been emulated in North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania and cities across the nation — playing a key role in one of education reform’s central debates.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen called Sanders’ death “a loss to the education community.”

“During his career, Dr. Sanders made significant contributions to the conversation on how to distinguish our most effective educators in terms of improving academic achievement,” McQueen said in a statement on Monday.

Sanders’ value-added model, also known as the Educational Value-Added Assessment System, became a lightning rod for criticism by many teachers and teachers unions skeptical about whether it yields fair and unbiased estimates.

The model has prompted numerous federal lawsuits charging that the evaluation system, which is now tied to teacher pay and tenure in Tennessee, doesn’t take into account student-level variables such as growing up in poverty. In 2014, the American Statistical Association called its validity into question, and other critics have said TVAAS should not be the sole tool used to judge teachers.

The method measures the effects of a teacher, school or district on student performance by tracking the progress of students against the progress they would be expected to make based on their previous performance. The formula is complex, the method requires a huge database, and the name is a mouthful to say. But the model is meant to show the “value” that was added by each teacher, school or district when measured by the change in student test scores each year.

Sanders’ research soon zeroed in on teachers as the most important part of the equation.

“Determining the effectiveness of individual teachers hold the most promise because, again and again, findings from TVAAS research show teacher effectiveness to be the most important factor in the academic growth of students,” he co-wrote in a 1998 paper. “A component linking teacher effectiveness to student outcomes is a necessary part of any educational evaluation system.”

Sanders went on to become a national leader in policy discussions on value-added assessments.

In his obituary, his family said that Sanders’ findings challenged decades of assumptions that the impact of student family life, income or ethnicity superseded the quality of classroom instruction. That conclusion has been complicated by other research showing that teachers matter more than other aspects of a school, but not as much as outside factors like poverty.

Sanders “stood for a hopeful view that teacher effectiveness dwarfs all other factors as a predictor of student academic growth,” his family said. He believed that “educational influence matters and teachers matter most.”

Growing up on a Tennessee dairy farm, Sanders devoted most of his research to agricultural or wildlife questions at the University of Tennessee until 1981, when he came across a newspaper article suggesting that there was no way to hold teachers accountable based on test scores. He disagreed and wrote the office of then-Gov. Lamar Alexander to say that the effectiveness of teaching could be measured against the rate of student progress.

“Basically, all I was trying to do is [say] here’s the statistical methodology that solves the problem that some of the critics are talking about,” he told Nashville Public Radio in 2014.

The Tennessee Department of Education commissioned his first wave of research beginning in 1982, and Sanders began by looking at student and teacher data in Knox County. He found that he could measure the impact that a teacher had on a student’s trajectory if he tracked that student’s data over time.

The resulting TVAAS methodology linked student academic outcomes to educational evaluation for the first time. Tennessee teachers began using the data in 1997, and their evaluations became tied to the tool under a 2010 state law.

While teachers and teachers unions pushed back, state lawmakers followed the urging of then-Gov. Phil Bredesen, who said changing the way teachers are evaluated would help the state win a $500 million Race to the Top grant, which Tennessee went on to receive.

TVAAS made Sanders a target for some teachers, who felt like he didn’t understand their work and created a system that was used against them unfairly. But colleagues remembered him as a teacher himself who cared about teachers and students.

“Pennsylvania has Bill to thank for changing the conversations about students — from why they can’t achieve to discussions about growing student[s] at all levels,” said Kristin Lewald, who spearheaded the TVAAS counterpart in that state.

mutual agreement

Dan McMinimee to get superintendent’s wages while serving as Jeffco board adviser

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Dan McMinimee at a meeting with Jeffco parents, teachers, and community members after being named finalist for the Jeffco superintendent job.

Dan McMinimee will continue drawing the same salary he did as superintendent of Jeffco Public Schools while serving in an advisory role through the end of his contract.

McMinimee stepped down from leading the state’s second largest district last week after reaching a mutual agreement with the district. He will stay on as an adviser to the board until his contract expires June 30.

In a deal approved at Thursday night’s board meeting, the board and McMinimee agreed his existing contract was modified, not terminated. If the board had decided to break the contract and ask McMinimee to leave earlier, McMinimee would have been owed a year’s worth of salary: $220,000.

McMinimee will continue to earn his regular salary and benefits but will no longer accumulate vacation time. Based on an estimate for what he would be owed in performance-based pay, the district also agreed to pay McMinimee another $27,000 when the contract ends.

The agreement does not provide new details about McMinimee’s advisory role. It states he will be available “for special projects and consideration as needed and to assist the school district with a transition to a new superintendent.”

The board approved the agreement Thursday night without discussion. Board President Ron Mitchell did note at the start of the meeting that McMinimee was not at his usual seat because “his responsibilities have changed.” He also publicly thanked McMinimee for his time leading the district.

The school board also voted Thursday to officially make Terry Elliott, Jeffco’s chief school effectiveness officer, interim superintendent. Elliott was named to serve that role at the same time McMinimee stepped down.

The district did not speak with Elliott about any salary adjustments related to his new role until Friday, said Diana Wilson, a district spokeswoman. Elliott will receive $4,000 per month from March through June in addition to his regular salary, she said.

Elliott only will hold the interim role until the end of June. He will begin a new job in July as principal of a new Brighton high school.

The firm heading up the search for a new superintendent presented findings Thursday of feedback from surveys and focus groups about what the community wants in a new superintendent.

Among the most-frequent responses were someone who can inspire trust, present a positive image of the district and “respond to the challenges presented by an ethnically and culturally diverse community.”