College of Education > News and Publications > News: Oct.-Dec. 2012 > Principal and Doctoral Candidate’s School is Awarded National “Breakthrough” Schools Award

Principal and Doctoral Candidate’s School is Awarded National “Breakthrough” Schools Award

Doctoral candidate Tom Dodd is the principal at Lesher Middle School in Fort Collins, Colorado. His school was recently recognized as a Breakthrough School by a partnership between the National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP) and the MetLife Foundation.

Tom Dodd Recieves 2012 MetLife-NASSP Breakthrough Schools AwardJust eight years ago, Lesher Middle School in Fort Collins, Colorado had a declining enrollment and a bad reputation. Staff morale was low, student misbehavior was high, the facility needed improvements, and the way things were going, it was likely the school would be closed in a few years when the school district’s neighborhood boundaries were to be revisited. As an older school downtown it was difficult to compete with the newer, larger facilities being built around town. Then they hired Tom Dodd as their principal.

Under his leadership, enrollment has grown from projections in the low 400’s to 750 students and a waiting list. “Now we’re over capacity,” Dodd says. Lesher now has more teachers than classrooms and “nobody's even thinking about closing this school.” More importantly, Dodd points out, “Our students are happy, we’ve got high levels of diversity and high levels of student acceptance of each other. We’re a very different school then we were when I got here.”

Because of this transformation, Lesher Middle School was recently recognized as a Breakthrough School by a partnership between the National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP) and the MetLife Foundation.

The Breakthrough Schools program recognizes ten schools a year nationwide for breaking ranks in three areas of school reform (collaborative leadership, personalization, and curriculum/instruction/assessment). The schools receive a $5,000 grant from the MetLife Foundation, are featured in Principal Leadership magazine, and are invited to participate in dissemination activities at the NAASP national convention and other public policy forums throughout the year.

Dodd refuses to take the credit for the success of the school. “It’s all about our staff,” he insists. “We’ve got great teachers who work hard, and we’ve got awesome parents and some real curious and interesting kids who are fun to work with.”

Still after talking with him, you can’t help but feel that he is a big part of the change. You hear raw passion when he talks about his school. “I believe culture has to precede structure. You have got to change your school climate and culture to a place where you really believe every kid can succeed.” Otherwise, structural changes, like grade level teams and common planning for teachers, won’t be effective.

Tom Dodd with Students at Lesher Middle School

Effective change is becoming more and more important for educators like Dodd. New laws in several states are linking educator effectiveness to student growth and performance. In Colorado, fifty percent of a teacher’s evaluation will be based on student achievement data beginning in 2013-14. Poor performance on these annual reviews will soon lead to loss of tenure.

As a doctoral student in the educational leadership program Dodd focuses on the consequences of such policies. “Tenure and that level of job security are being called into question. That’s a welcome change for a lot of folks, but how that works out and how you tie student results to which teachers, all the logistics that go into that, and the metrics around that kind of data analysis are complicated.”

Although he now works from Colorado to finish his dissertation, Principal Dodd has fond memories of his time on campus. “I have a lot of pride in Penn State, and I loved my two years on campus working in the certification office and for the American Journal of Education while having the opportunity to do coursework towards my doctorate.”

-- by Chris Whitehead (October 2012)