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.

Movers and Shakers

Meet a new class of Tennesseans of color who are tackling issues of education equity

PHOTO: Micaela Watts
Lin Johnson is finance chief for Shelby County Schools, and one of 15 Tennesseans chosen for the new class of Mosaic Fellows.

Fifteen people across Tennessee are being charged with spotlighting issues of equity and coming together to design solutions to better serve all students, but especially students of color.

The group was named as the second class of Mosaic Fellows by the Tennessee Educational Equity Coalition in conjunction with Conexión Américas, a nonprofit Latino advocacy group.

“Leaders of color must play an integral role in the K-12 education ecosystem in Tennessee, both to better reflect the communities served by our public schools, but to also bring an essential mix of experience and insights that are required for long-term improvement in student achievement,” the two organizations wrote in the announcement of the fellows.

In recent years, the state has grappled with a shortage of teachers of color. About 14 percent of new teachers in Tennessee training programs identify as non-white, compared with 36 percent of the state’s student population. More than 100 school districts did not have a single Hispanic teacher and 27 did not have a single black teacher, according to state data from 2014.

Three of the fellows are from Shelby County Schools – the state’s largest school district – including Lin Johnson, who as chief financial officer has overseen a move to student-based budgeting, a key component of Shelby County Schools’ efforts to ensure state and local money is distributed based on student need.

The fellowship launched last year with a class of 16 and was designed as the state’s first fellowship aimed specifically at educators of color. This year’s class ranges from a Nashville teacher to charter organization leaders to higher education officials.

The year-long Mosaic Fellowship will include four three-day seminars that focus on current and historic issues in Tennessee education, leadership and diversity.

West Tennessee

  • Lin Johnson, chief financial officer, Shelby County Schools
  • Jacques Hamilton, program coordinator, Tennessee Charter School Center
  • DeVonté Payton, advisor for school development, Shelby County Schools
  • Joshua Perkins, advisor, Shelby County Schools Office of Charter Schools

Middle Tennessee

  • Indira Dammu, education policy advisor, Office of Mayor David Briley
  • Laura Delgado, program director, College of Education, Lipscomb University
  • Chris Echegaray, community achieves site manager, Metro Nashville Public Schools
  • Karla Coleman García, director for adult learner initiatives, Tennessee Higher Education Commission
  • Keilani Goggins, director, Hope Street Group
  • Joseph Gutierrez, program associate, Dan and Margaret Maddox Charitable Fund
  • LaKishia Harris, director of equity and access, STEM Preparatory Academy
  • Tomás Yan, STEAM teacher, Metro Nashville Public Schools

East Tennessee

  • Janine Al-Aseer, New Hopewell, site coordinator, Great Schools Partnership
  • Denise Dean, project director, East Knoxville Freedom School
  • Brook Dennard Rosser, talent acquisition and retention liaison, Knox County Schools

Future of Schools

Eve Ewing explains why some communities just can’t get over school closings

If Chicago schools are so bad, why do people fight to keep them from closing?

Eve Ewing’s new book “Ghosts in the Schoolyard” explores that question. In doing so, she touches a wound still festering in Chicago communities five years after the massive 2013 school closings, which she calls a case study on the powerful role race and racism play in policy decisions.

“Like an electric current running through water, race has a way of filling space even as it remains invisible,” writes Ewing, an acclaimed sociologist and poet born in Chicago, and a rising cultural and intellectual force in the city.

“Ghosts,” scheduled to publish Oct. 22, is her second book, following a 2017 poetry collection.  A former Chicago Public Schools student and teacher, she dives into transcripts of public hearings where communities fought for their schools, explores the fraught relationship between black neighborhoods like Bronzeville and district leaders throughout history, and considers the emotional toll of losing a school. She also draws connections between school policy decisions past and present, Chicago’s long legacy of segregation, and the rapid gentrification reshaping the city today.

When Ewing started writing the book, she felt sad — about the loss of a school in which she had taught and about the children, community members, parents, and teachers who felt disempowered by the process.

“I’m still sad, but now with the distance of time and as we look at the city now and so many things we’re going through, it’s clear to me that the school closings were one very large piece of a much bigger pattern,” she said. “Now, I’m worried for the future of our city, which really feels like it’s at a crossroads about what it’s going to be, and if it’s going to be a place that’s habitable for poor people, if it’s going to be a place that’s habitable for black people, and for other people of color. I think the school closings played a huge part in the answer to those questions potentially being no.”

Chalkbeat Chicago interviewed Ewing about her book, the public discourse around “bad schools,” Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s political legacy, and more.

When you talk about school closings being part of this much bigger pattern, what specifically are you referring to?

A pattern of erosion of the institutions, services and resources that make a place a suitable home for vulnerable people. That includes mental health care, that includes a police force that doesn’t kill people with impunity, that includes a transportation system that is fair and affordable and equitable, that includes good jobs for people and training for those people to be qualified for those jobs. And that includes affordable housing. As I try to make clear in the book, there’s an intimate relationship between schools and housing.

Your book is titled “Ghosts In the School Yard.” What ghosts?

I think the title has multiple meanings. One, it’s referring to the many people whose experiences, specifically in Bronzeville and across the South Side and across Chicago, people who are no longer with us but whose struggles and experiences presage what we saw in 2013. It’s also referring to the ghosts of prior schools.

I sort of started thinking of the schools themselves as these entities that are no longer with us. Another thing is ghosts in terms of skeletons in the closet — the shadows and phantoms of the ugly parts of our history that we need to acknowledge to move forward with any kind of honesty.

You really dive into this idea of institutional mourning. Why was it important for you to address that, and how did you go about it?

Institutional mourning is the idea that people mourn institutions the way they also mourn people. The lost institution can be the church burned down in a fire, or the barber shop in your community where everybody used to gather that’s now replaced by an office building. Anywhere people gather that has social meaning. I argue this phenomenon is relevant especially in communities that are very vulnerable, where people often have a higher reliance on shared institutions because they have fewer individual resources. For example, some former residents are still mourning the demolition of public housing projects in Bronzeville, and that mourning is especially painful because these are often people without access to private property or home ownership.

I set out to interview people who had been directly impacted by school closings. I already had  hypothesized there was this relationship between race and racism and school closings. But in the public discourse there was this debate: Was it racist, was it not racist? I wanted to understand how the people who were most impacted understood that. I wanted to hear if they said, my school was closed because of racism or because we couldn’t cut it academically, or because our building was empty and we had too much space.

What I heard was just how often the metaphor of death and images of death was recurring in their responses. The way they used this intensely intimate and emotional language to talk about their own reaction to that perceived death is something that happened over and over, but was also a close fit with my own experiences as a teacher processing the school closures. So I said I’m making a name for it.

You also pay special attention to the nature of black grieving in describing how communities mourned their schools. Why?

The last several years have forced all of us to think about black grief, and for black people to experience tremendous ways of grieving, as we always have throughout the history of this country, but in a way that has been very visible and very consuming.

And black death has been thrust upon us in these newly hyper visible ways. I’m talking to you in the wave of the Jason Van Dyke verdict. In order for us to get to that verdict, many black people were subjected over and over again to the trauma of seeing this child (Laquan McDonald)  brutally shot in the street over and over and over.

I decided it was important to think of the ways that black people mourn in public, whether that means the mothers of children who have been killed grieving on the television camera, or people who have lost someone putting up a vigil with teddy bears and candles and flowers, or whether that means airbrushing their relative’s name on a shirt. All of these are forms of public grieving and shared communal grieving, so it only made more sense for me to understand that and link it in to this idea of institutional mourning.

Eve Ewing

You talk a lot in this book about the language of failure, the discourse about so-called bad schools. How does that language set the stage for decision-making at CPS?

Language is everything. Since the origin of public schooling in this country there’s never been anything that’s an objective measure of school quality, because communities have always had divergent definitions of what they want their schools to do. As long as you have that, you’ll always have differing definitions of school quality. If you go to a school that’s super elite but all the black kids get suspended or tracked into lower-level classes or traumatized by racist things their teachers say, that to me isn’t a good school, even though on paper to many people it may be a good school.

When we start having conversations about failures and goodness, we have to be really analytical about what we’re using to define those things. What’s emerged across the country is so many schools have been deemed failures in ways that don’t account for the lived reality of the challenges they face. Some of these schools are the only places where kids are getting fed every day or where someone makes sure they have a warm coat or tells them they love them and they’re special, even as those schools “fail” to raise that child’s test score.

I think it’s fair to talk about the idea of failure, but we also need to talk about moral failure. I think in Chicago there are at least as many moral failures of political leadership, and of the people that are supposed to be running our schools as there are “school failures.” We talk a lot about one and not the other.

You also mention this language of growth, of change, that’s in a statement like “Building a New Chicago,” one of the slogans that started appearing on construction signs when Mayor Rahm Emanuel was elected. How does that connect with the school closings?

When we talk about growth it’s always a question of growth for who and at what costs. As we know, black Chicago is shrinking. It’s really hard to hear about growth when the city has lost so many black residents.

In school closings, the district cites enrollment declines and how much it costs to educate students and operate schools. How do you respond to that idea?

The argument about scale and educating fewer kids, I think is a complicated one because as of now there has not been any analysis showing we saved money from this. (A report by the University of Chicago Consortium said the district can’t point to any savings, yet). Unless I missed it, there has not actually been a final assessment on the part of CPS of how much money this cost and if we indeed saved any money.

Aside from that, this question of efficiency and how many kids you can fit in a building and how much it costs, those questions only seem to come up when it has to do with poor kids. If you send your kids to private school or any kind of elite school, small class sizes are touted as being beneficial. It’s only when you’re talking about poor black kids the question becomes how many can we jam into a building and if it’s not efficient we need to close it.

Eve Ewing
PHOTO: Hayveyah McGowan
An illustration of poet and scholar Eve Ewing.

Can the school district afford a policy that doesn’t close schools?

It’s not that school closings are always bad, that’s not the argument of the book. The question is:  Is it possible for us to do this in a way that is humane, that is caring, that provides full acknowledgment of the emotional aftermath it presents for people, and is it possible to do it in a way that includes the people most affected at the table with something to say about their own lives and own conditions?

The problem is at this point there’s such a long history of mistrust that even if we have to close schools tomorrow and CPS comes up with a process that was amazingly transparent and participatory, people would still not trust the district! There’s a long hard road that has to be walked in this city to rebuild trust in all these institutions. The question is are people in power willing to walk it with us.

What would a school closing process look like that wasn’t racist?

To answer that question you would need to begin by asking it of the people in the school you would want to close. Parents, teachers, students, community members. I’m talking about truly asking questions of what people need, being willing to listen even if it’s something you don’t want to hear, and being willing to take that wisdom and those needs into account.

When we look back at Rahm Emanuel’s political legacy in Chicago, where will the school closings fit in?

I think that his political career did and has done a great deal of harm in many areas of the city. The school closings are a very large tip of a very large iceberg. I think for a lot of people it was a very definitive moment. He did something that Mayor [Richard] Daley, his predecessor, had already done, but had done it more slowly over time in a way that didn’t galvanize people’s reactions in the same way. The school closures were loud, they were visible, they were hurtful, and we are still feeling the aftereffects. I think for a lot of people that will be the definitive decision of his mayoral run.

Eve Ewing
Eve Ewing reading from her first book, a collection of poetry titled “Electric Arches.”