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.

More money

Aurora school board campaigns pulling in money from big names

Aurora's school board candidates at a candidate forum hosted by RISE Colorado. (Photo by Yesenia Robles)

New big names are stepping in to contribute to Aurora’s school board races this year, including some longtime contributors to some Denver school board candidates.

Daniel Ritchie, a Denver philanthropist, and Patrick Hamill, the founder and CEO of Oakwood Homes, contributed to some Aurora candidates this year, according to new campaign finance reports that were due Tuesday. State records show they had not in the past. Ritchie in 2012 did support an Aurora committee to pass a tax measure for the school district.

The contributions are further evidence of Aurora’s growing profile among education reform advocates. Over the last three years, the district’s school improvement work has attracted the attention of groups and think tanks that sense opportunity in a traditionally overlooked district with a large population of underserved students. A couple of Denver’s popular college-prep charter school operators, DSST and Rocky Mountain Prep, have put down roots in Aurora.

The new campaign finance reports show that eight school board candidates vying for one of four seats on the Aurora school board raised almost $50,000 so far. One candidate, incumbent Barbara Yamrick, had not filed a report as of Wednesday afternoon.

Because four of the school board’s seven seats are up for election, and only one incumbent is attempting re-election, November’s winners could align as a majority and point the district in a new direction.

The district’s profile has risen among education watchers as it attempts reforms of some of the lowest performing schools in the state. Its strategies include an innovation zone where five schools have new autonomy from district, union and state rules, and through an evolving new process for opening charter schools.

The candidates who have raised the most amount of money are Miguel In Suk Lovato, who reported $14,181 in donations, and Gail Pough, who reported $10,181.32.

How much did candidates raise, spend?

  • Gail Pough, $10,181.32; 6,533.24
  • Lea Steed, $1,355.00; 878.24
  • Kyla Armstrong Romero, $6,365.55; 3,019.81
  • Kevin Cox, $2,554.00; $2,291.93
  • Miguel Lovato, $14,181.00; $9,336.96
  • Jane Barber, $150.00; $988.10
  • Debbie Gerkin, $7,755.43; $2,350.24
  • Marques Ivey, $4,965.30; $2,791.84/li>
  • Barbara Yamrick, did not file

Both received donations from Ritchie, Hamill and Democrats for Education Reform. Lovato also reported donations from Linda Childears, the president and CEO of the Daniels Fund, and other Daniels Fund employees. Lovato works there as a senior grants program officer. Pough also reported donations from Denver school board candidate Jennifer Bacon, and Democratic state Rep. Rhonda Fields.

Candidate Lea Steed and Debbie Gerkin also received donations from Democrats for Education Reform.

The organization had contributed to Aurora candidates in the past, but on a smaller scale.

Union interests also have been active. Four candidates, Gerkin, Kyla Armstrong-Romero, Kevin Cox and Marques Ivey, are organized as a slate endorsed by Aurora’s teacher’s union. The Public Education Committee, which is a union funded committee, donated $1,125 directly to candidate campaigns. The same committee also reported in-kind donations, meaning non-monetary, of almost $3,000 to three of the slate members, for polling.

The candidates also reported their expenditures, which mostly consisted of consultant fees, advertising materials or yard signs and rental space or food for volunteers.
Reports filed earlier in the week from independent expenditure committees show Democrats for Education Reform and union groups have also spent money this year to advocate for some Aurora school board candidates on their own. Independent expenditure committees are not allowed to donate directly to candidates, but can campaign on their own for or against candidates. Their reports were due earlier this week.

Movers & shakers

Haslam names three West Tennesseans to State Board of Education    

PHOTO: TDOE
Members of the Tennessee State Board of Education listen to a July presentation about TNReady scores by Education Commissioner Candice McQueen.

A Memphis real estate executive, a Cordova lawyer and a Decatur County high school student are the newest members of Tennessee’s State Board of Education.

Gov. Bill Haslam announced appointments this week to dozens of state boards and commissions, including the 11-member education panel, which sets policy for K-12 schools in Tennessee.

The new members are:

  • Darrell Cobbins

    Darrell Cobbins is a Memphis native and third-generation real estate professional who attended Catholic, public and private schools. He has degrees from Rhodes College and the University of Memphis and worked for the Greater Memphis Chamber of Commerce. He is president of Universal Commercial Real Estate, which he founded in 2007. Representing the ninth congressional district, he replaces William Troutt, who retired this year as president of Rhodes College and is moving out of state.

  • Lang Wiseman is an attorney in Cordova who graduated from Bolton High School in Arlington. He attended the University of Tennessee on a basketball scholarship and finished as the 24th leading scorer in the school’s history. Wiseman went on to graduate from Harvard Law School and is a partner at Wiseman Bray Attorneys. Representing the eighth congressional district, he replaces Cato Johnson, who accepted a position on the University of Memphis Board of Trustees.

  • Haden Bawcum, of Bath Springs, is the board’s student member, a position that changes annually. He is a senior at Riverside High School in Decatur County.

The appointments became effective in July and are expected to be confirmed by state lawmakers early next year. Board members are not paid.

B. Fielding Rolston is chairman of the board. A retired executive with Eastman Chemical Co. in Kingsport, he was first appointed in 1996.

You can find answers to the board’s frequently asked questions here.