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.

petition drive

School chiefs in Memphis, Nashville join education leaders urging protection of ‘Dreamers’ under Trump

The superintendents of Tennessee’s two largest school districts are among 1,500 education leaders to sign a petition asking for continued protection from deportation for “Dreamers,” young people brought to the U.S. as children.

Dorsey Hopson

Dorsey Hopson of Shelby County Schools and Shawn Joseph of Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools are among chiefs of at least 15 urban districts to sign the letter. Also joining the campaign are at least 30 educators from mostly Memphis and Nashville, as well as leaders from charter and nonprofit organizations and teacher’s unions from across the nation.

The petition was released this week before Donald Trump’s inauguration on Friday as the nation’s 45th president. During his presidential campaign, Trump vowed to do away with the federal policy known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals Policy, or DACA, as part of a crackdown on illegal immigration. However, he recently told Time magazine that he would “work something out” for people known as “Dreamers,” so named for the failed DREAM Act legislation that would provide a path toward citizenship.

The petition calls DACA “crucially important to public education across the country” and also urges passage of the DREAM Act. The drive was organized by Stand for Children, a nonprofit group that advocates for education equity in 11 states, including Tennessee.

Cardell Orrin, director of Stand for Children in Memphis, said the signatures show that “leaders in Nashville and Memphis care about what’s happening with our kids and want to see the dream continue for Dreamers.”

He added that school leaders are mobilized to work together in behalf of students if Trump attempts to do away with DACA.

“There may not be as many undocumented students here as in some of the others states (such as) Texas or Arizona. But this could still have great impact on kids in Tennessee,” Orrin said.

Among other Tennesseans signing the petition as of Friday were:

  • Marcus Robinson chief executive officer, Memphis Education Fund
  • Maya Bugg, chief executive officer, Tennessee Charter School Center
  • Brian Gilson, chief people officer, Achievement Schools, Memphis
  • Sonji Branch, affiliate director, Communities in Schools of Tennessee
  • Sylvia Flowers, executive director of educator talent, Tennessee Department of Education
  • Ginnae Harley, federal programs director, Knox County Schools

Read what Trump’s inauguration means for one undocumented Nashville student-turned-teacher.


 

moving on

Jeffco school board votes to launch search for new superintendent

PHOTO: Cyrus McCrimmon, The Denver Post
JeffCo Public Schools Superintendent Dan McMinimee, at his office, in 2014 during his second week on the job.

Citing a desire to seek out a more effective leader and denying that politics were at play, Jefferson County school board members voted unanimously Thursday to launch a search for a new superintendent.

The vote comes a little more than a year after all five board members were sworn in after a contentious recall election that ousted the members that hired current superintendent Dan McMinimee.

The governing board of the state’s second largest school district expressed its desire to let McMinimee serve out the six months left on his contract.

Last month, the board met twice in executive session, including once at a conference in Colorado Springs, to talk about whether to renew McMinimee’s contract.

Board members on Thursday each made statements, some reading prepared remarks, before the vote. The board members, seeking to address the community, denied that any decision was made behind closed doors, outlined what they value in a leader and insisted their decision was not political.

“It’s true we’ve been through difficulties, but children in our schools can’t afford for adults to just let things settle,” said board member Brad Rupert. “We’ve got problems to solve.”

Board members said they needed to see if there was another leader who might be more effective. In outlining their desires for qualities of a new leader, they talked about looking for someone with experience as an educator, who is inspiring and a good communicator.

Board member Susan Harmon said she struggled with the decision but pointed out that although McMinimee has done good work, some people still don’t trust him or the district.

“How do you shake distrust? How do you change perception?” Harmon asked. “Perception unfortunately matters.”

After the vote, a district spokeswoman said McMinimee had signed up to speak during a public comment period near the meeting’s end. But he did not take the microphone. McMinimee left the meeting without speaking with reporters.

Of seven people who spoke about the superintendent during public comment, four were against launching a search for a new superintendent. Three who spoke in support of a new superintendent said it was not based on McMinimee’s performance, but based on the original process in which he was hired.

One woman who supported the search for a new superintendent, said she “condemned” the past process in 2014 because she said it was “predetermined.”

One speaker, Jim Fernald, who supported retaining McMinimee, said McMinimee succeeded despite being put in an “impossible situation,” and said that justifying looking for a new leader because of a search process three years ago is not appropriate.

“I find this to be an incredibly weak argument,” Fernald said. “Everyone knows if you vote against retaining Dan that you’re doing it to spite the previous board and their supporters. This board should go on record as rising above the pettiness.”

John Ford, president of the Jefferson County Education Association, the teachers union, spoke in favor of launching a search for a new superintendent, saying that the process that led to McMinimee’s hiring was “one of the failures of the previous board.”

“We need a fair and open process,” Ford said. “JCEA looks forward to ensuring and entrusting you with that mission. Listen to the voice of the classroom teacher to help provide input for what our students deserve.”

McMinimee, who was the sole finalist for the job, was hired in the summer of 2014 by a board majority made up of the three members that were the target of a recall in 2015. During his time leading the district, McMinimee, among other things, has helped lead the work on the district’s new strategic plan, reorganized two groups of schools on the district’s eastern boundary and increased school level autonomy over budgets.

On Wednesday McMinimee told Chalkbeat he was puzzled about why the board was considering looking for a new superintendent, saying he had not been given any indication that they had a problem with his work.

He did not speak during the board discussion Thursday.

According to McMinimee’s contract language, the board will not need a separate vote to end his $220,000-a-year contract. If McMinimee doesn’t receive notification of a contract renewal by the end of March, the contract will automatically expire June 30.

If the board wanted to part ways with McMinimee before his contract expires without attempting to fire him with cause, the district would need to pay him the amount of one year’s base salary, according to his contract. If the superintendent wants to terminate the contract, he would have to give the board six months notice or be charged for damages.

The board directed the human resources chief to find a search firm that will create a process that allows for community input in the search process.

The new district leader will face the challenge of the district’s budget after county voters rejected two tax measures in November.

Three of five Jeffco school board members are up for re-election in November, meaning it’s possible the board majority might change again after that election.