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A Matter of Principal

2017 National Principal of the Year Turns Struggling Fort Collins Middle School Into Place of Pride

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Sometimes when his family drives past Lesher Middle School late in the evening, Fort Collins seventh-grader Enrique Castillo sees the lights on in the principal’s office.

“He stays late,” says Castillo, referring to his principal, Dr. Tom Dodd. “I know our principal is a hard worker.” Now the whole country knows, too.

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Dodd was named 2017 National Principal of the Year by the National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP). He was bestowed the honor at a surprise assembly on October 17 in the school’s gymnasium, surrounded by students, staff, and family members.

“I am humbled and flattered,” Dodd says. “Best of all, it is validation that our hard work is paying off. Not just mine, but the work of all of the staff and students.”

Changes at Lesher Middle School

When Dodd took over Lesher 12 years ago, the school was struggling. Enrollment was down to about 500 students, neighborhood families were choicing into other middle schools, and the staff was unhappy.

Today, not only are the neighborhood students eager to attend Lesher, but also families from throughout Fort Collins apply to choice their children into the school. The school is at capacity with 770 students. About 45 percent choice in from other attendance areas.

Staff members are proud to say they work at Lesher. Teacher Jennifer Dinkins says she feels privileged that Dodd hired her two years ago. Once hired, Dodd exhibited trust in Dinkins, and empowered her to develop ideas and use her creativity in reaching students, she says.

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“I feel valued here,” Dinkins says. “I come to school knowing that each day I am contributing to something greater than myself.”

Under Dodd’s leadership, the school eliminated de facto academic tracking by opening the International Baccalaureate Middle Years Program (IBMYP) from a select few to all students. Dodd is passionate about excellence and equity for all of his students.

About 45 percent of Lesher students qualify for free and reduced lunch, an indicator of poverty. About 35 percent are students of color. Just more than one-fourth of the students are English language learners. Dodd is insistent that Lesher offer classes and experiences that push each student to reach his or her highest potential.

“Tom Dodd believes deeply that student equity is the true path to school-wide success, and he lives that belief in his priorities and decisions,” says NASSP executive director JoAnn Bartoletti. “His passion for personalizing the school and meeting the needs of each student—a key element of the Professional Standards for School Administrators 2015—marks his leadership throughout his tenure at Lesher, and NASSP is proud to recognize him as a model for school leaders.”

Lesher was named a MetLife Foundation-NASSP Breakthrough School in 2012 and a National School to Watch every year since 2014 by the National Forum to Accelerate Middle Grades Reform.

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Relationships Over Test Scores

Dodd believes that inspiring a child to achieve is about more than test score data. Creating caring relationships, along with the proper academic support, results in a thriving learning environment.

“The quality of our school is in direct proportion to the quality of the adult relationships,” Dodd says. This is one of Dodd’s mantras that he uses to keep himself and others focused on the mission of serving students.

“I maintain a bias for ‘yes” to promote ownership in a community of practitioners where experimentation, collaboration, reflection, and learning are the norm,” Dodd says. “Innovation rarely comes from the top. It’s the people doing the work, closest to the solutions, most likely to find ways to do things better and more efficientlyThis is what I believe.”

Teacher Noelle Brown thrives on Dodd’s vision and his belief in her abilities. “He knows how to motivate people, how to get a team together,” she says. And he walks the walk. Brown says she loves that each morning he raises two fingers in the Lesher Viking “V” sign to students on their way to classes. He knows the kids” names and genuinely likes them.

“He’s funny,” says seventh-grader Jack Ballard. “I”ve been to other schools and you don’t always see the principal. Mr. Dodd is in the hallways. We see him in the cafeteria.”

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High Standards

Dodd has high standards for himself. He believes that if you want people to work hard, then you need to work hard. If you want staff members to believe in themselves, then you need to believe in them.

In addition, his expectations for his teachers are high; he expects a welcoming front office; a clean, well-kept learning environment for students and an engaged support staff. In return, Dodd promises high support for his staff and students.

“Education is the great equalizer if we”re committed to improving learning experiences and outcomes for all kids,” says Dodd. “Some principals don’t want the magnitude of that responsibility on their shoulders, to make society better, but I do.”

Michelle Ancell is a Denver-based writer and mother.

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