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.