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.

moving on

Dismissed by KIPP over sexual harassment allegations, co-founder Mike Feinberg starts new organization

KIPP co-founder Mike Feinberg, who was fired earlier this year over sexual harassment allegations, has started a new organization.

Called the Texas School Venture Fund, the group describes itself as helping individuals start and grow schools. It has already drawn a handful of prominent education reform advocates to its board.

This new group’s existence and Feinberg’s prominent role in it raise questions about how education leaders will deal with sexual abuse and harassment allegations. Its board indicates that some will continue to support Feinberg’s work despite the specific claims against him, which he has denied.

According to KIPP, which has grown to over 200 schools nationwide, Feinberg was dismissed due to allegations of child sexual abuse in the late 1990s and two separate sexual harassment allegations by adult KIPP alumni and employees from the early 2000s, one of which resulted in a financial settlement.

A 2009 photo of Mike Feinberg. (Via MerlinFTP Drop.)

That investigation found the allegation “credible” but did not “conclusively confirm” it, KIPP said. “I do not condone, nor have I ever condoned, or engaged in, misconduct of this kind,” Feinberg said in the statement at the time.

Feinberg’s dismissal sent shockwaves through the education reform community, where he was deeply connected.

Feinberg, who is listed as the president of the new group, declined to comment for this story through his attorney. He described his ambitions for the organization in a LinkedIn post, saying the Texas School Venture Fund would be “a catalyst to the creation of innovative and responsive schools” that would work with educators on “starting new schools, helping single-site schools start to grow, [and] helping networks of schools continue to grow.”

Howard Fuller — the former Milwaukee schools superintendent and prominent advocate of private school vouchers for low-income families — is on the Texas School Venture Fund’s board. He told Chalkbeat that the “core group” that Feinberg will work with are KIPP alumni who want to start their own schools, though he said it will not be limited to KIPP graduates.

“I felt like this was something Mike can do well, so I’m happy to help in any way I can,” he said.

Fuller said he does not believe the allegations against Feinberg and they did not give him pause in continuing to work with him.

“Mike is a very close friend of mine,” Fuller said. “Mike said he did not do it.”

Also on the board of directors of the new group are Leo Linbeck, III, a Texas businessman who is listed as the chair of the board, and Chris Barbic, who led Tennessee’s school turnaround district and now works at the Laura and John Arnold Foundation. Linbeck declined to speak on the record. Barbic did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Fuller said the group is in its early stages and is seeking funding, though he couldn’t say whether it has any funders presently. (Neerav Kingsland, head of the education giving at the Arnold Foundation, did not immediately respond to an email asking whether his group was funding Feinberg’s organization, which is not listed among Arnold’s current grantees.)

Few new details have emerged about Feinberg’s dismissal or the investigation that precipitated it.

A brief video of KIPP Houston’s board meeting the day before Feinberg’s firing was announced shows members immediately going into executive session, which is private, to consider a personnel matter. Feinberg did not appear to be present.

Three hours later, the board voted to delegate authority to the chair to negotiate and execute “employment arrangements” with Feinberg.

All but one of the board members present supported the move. The exception was Karol Musher, who abstained. Musher is now on the board of the Texas School Venture Fund. She did not respond to a request for comment.

Meanwhile, in March, Chalkbeat filed a public records request to KIPP Houston seeking information about Feinberg’s dismissal, including the investigation conducted by an external law firm.

In an April letter to the Texas attorney general requesting an advisory opinion, a lawyer for KIPP contended that the information is shielded from public disclosure due to attorney–client privilege. (The version of the letter provided to Chalkbeat is partially redacted.)

Chalkbeat has yet to receive word on an opinion by the attorney general.

Where they stand

Where candidates for governor in Michigan stand on major education issues

There’s a lot at stake for students, parents, and educators in this year’s Michigan governor’s race.

The next governor, who will replace term-limited Republican Rick Snyder, could determine everything from how schools are funded to how they’re measured and judged. Some candidates are considering shuttering low-performing schools across the state. Others have called for charter schools to get some additional oversight.

To see where major party candidates stand on crucial education issues, Chalkbeat joined with our partners in the Detroit Journalism Cooperative to ask candidates for their views on school funding, early childhood education, and paying for college.

All seven major-party candidates on the ballot in Michigan’s August 7 primary were invited to sit down with the journalism cooperative, which also includes Bridge Magazine, WDET Radio, Michigan Radio, Detroit Public Television, and New Michigan Media, to answer a range of questions.

Six candidates — three Democrats and three Republicans — accepted our invitation. The one candidate who declined was Attorney General Bill Schuette, who is generally considered the Republican frontrunner.

The candidates were largely asked a standard set of questions. Read some of their answers — edited for length and clarity — below. Sort answers by candidate or see everyone’s answer to each question.

Or, to see each candidate’s full response to the education questions, watch videos of the interviews here.

(Full transcripts of the interviews, including answers to questions about roads, the environment and other issues are here).