An Arizona principal whose instructional leadership and teacher mentoring turned around two schools was honored recently with the nationally prestigious Milken Educator Award.
When Timothy Thomas became principal at Rogers Ranch School in Laveen Elementary School District, he led the Title I school from a D-rating to a B-rating in just one year.
It wasn’t the first time he’d done something like that. In his first year as principal at Cordova Middle School in Alhambra Elementary School District, the school beat state and district averages in student achievement, became the district’s highest performing middle school, and led the district in student and teacher attendance.
Thomas is also credited with creating a sense of family at both schools.
“Where others see challenges, Timothy Thomas sees potential. He knows how to level the playing field and provide educational opportunities for achievement, regardless of the socio-economic conditions of the students or school he serves,” said Lowell Milken, chairman and co-founder of the Milken Family Foundation during an assembly at the school to honor Thomas.
“To turn around one school is quite a feat, but to turn around two schools is exceptional and a roadmap for others to follow,” Milken said. “Timothy is that special type of leader all schools deserve.”
Milken Family Foundation Video: Rogers Ranch Principal Timothy Thomas is an Arizona Milken Educator
What made those positive changes possible were challenging curriculum, caring teachers, increased family engagement and one other key thing, Thomas said.
“We’ve developed a family here at Rogers Ranch where everybody looks after and takes care of one another,” Thomas said. “It makes it real rewarding to see that every day, and to see that we’re improving the lives of students.”
Thomas is always teaching and learning, and he’s the instructional leader you hope for in a principal, said Dr. Bill Johnson, superintendent of Laveen Elementary School District.
“He is always growing, refining and improving,” said Dr. Johnson. “Staff and students readily strive to achieve the high expectations Mr. Thomas has for them, because they see that he holds himself to the highest standards.”
Thomas said the key to his school’s success are the teachers and staff.
“I have a highly-skilled and well-trained staff that is able to not only incorporate best teaching practices, but who also are committed to improving the lives of kids,” Thomas said.
Another key is responsive district leadership, Thomas said.
“Our superintendent is always there to deliver whatever resources or whatever we need to ensure our students are getting a quality education,” Thomas said.
Q: What has been key in increasing growth in academic achievement at Rogers Ranch School?
A: Being able to hire and retain great teachers has obviously helped.
We’ve hired and retained teachers who make great connections with our kids and who are committed to building positive and reassuring relationships to reach our kids and meeting their social and emotional needs which therefore leads to meeting their academic needs.
We’ve been able to retain those teachers who have that commitment as well as give them some training through professional development.
The other thing is that we have great academic programs in Laveen. We’ve adopted a math and reading curriculum aligned to Arizona College and Career Readiness Standards with digital components. We still have textbooks, but we also are a 1-to-1 school when it comes to technology so our students can also access those digital components. The digital platform has also helped teachers’ planning and presenting of quality instruction.
Q: Why is mentoring teachers so important to students’ achievement?
A: Mentoring our teachers is important because there’s a teacher shortage. Some of them come out of school not knowing all the demands of the teaching profession, so mentoring them and taking a mediocre teacher and making them good or great is important.
Where the rubber meets the road is inside the classroom with teaching and learning.
It’s important to grow new teachers and mentor teachers to help support them and keep them in the profession and to ensure we don’t have untrained or unskilled teachers, substitute teachers or no teachers in any given classroom.
Q: What makes teaching and leading your school so rewarding?
A: The positive results that we’re getting. Our parents are very satisfied and support us, because they know their students are safe, their needs are being met and they’re getting a quality education. That’s what makes it fun.
Knowing that the trajectory that we’re on from where we started is another. This is my fourth year at Rogers Ranch, the school’s only been open five years. The first year the school opened it was chaos, there were boundary changes teachers being hired after the school year started and teachers resigning in the middle of the school year. One parent told me that their child had five different teachers in one school year. The school was a D when we had school labels. We went from a D to a B in one year, and we haven’t had letter grades or labels since then.
Now, we’ve had great success in all that we do, whether it’s sporting events, the arts, technology, or our kids. Our discipline is down and our kids socialize and interact appropriately.
We’re a K-8 school, so I have what some would say are at-risk, challenging teenagers on campus, but they’re not challenging. They’re role models for kindergarteners, first-, second- and third- graders.
My staff is fantastic. That’s important because your staff can make or break your school.
Everybody works hard, we have high expectations, everybody’s held accountable, we have fun, and we make sure we celebrate, recognize and value each other. That’s what makes it rewarding as well.
I’m blessed and grateful. I have the best staff that I believe exists in all of education. They are just outstanding from top to bottom.
Q: How has integrating technology, STEM instruction and providing tech training for teachers helped students and teachers?
A: The integration of technology has helped increase engagement for our students. Obviously, technology is embedded in everything they do in life. It’s their tool to go to work each day, which is to go to school each day.
I like to make the analogy it’s like the hammer to the carpenter. When we take away their technology, we’re really taking away their tools. So rather than taking it away, let’s promote it.
It increases their engagement and their interest in school and in learning and allows them to communicate and collaborate with their teacher as well as classmates, submit and get feedback on their assignments.
It’s a real passion for me personally, but also at Rogers Ranch. We’re a Title I school and our students are going to enter a workforce where high-earning careers are in the STEM field, and we want them to be able to compete and win those jobs to break the cycle of poverty they‘re growing up with. It’s why we think it’s so important that we embed science, technology, engineering and math into everything we do.
Q: Why is parent involvement and family engagement so important to students’ success?
A: The home-school partnership is crucial in the success of a student and the school. We try to build that home-school bridge by giving parents numerous opportunities to be involved or to come onto campus and partner with us to ensure their child’s success.
We do that by providing ample opportunities for them to engage with the school whether it’s STEM nights, band and music concerts, sporting events, carnivals, PTO meetings, parent-teacher conferences. You name it, we offer it.
Parents know we’re invested in their child’s education, and we know that they are as well. Parents want what’s best for their child.
When a child is successful at school – whether it’s an A+ on a spelling test or as a student of the month – we call the parents and let them know. Then you’ll have their support. If you ever do need to call them with something challenging or negative, the parents know that you’re invested in their child. We’ve done a lot of training on that.
We’re an inner-city, Title I school with 80 percent free- and reduced- lunch and a very diverse demographic.
When you’re dealing with an under-resourced learner, it’s crucial to win the parents over and get them to partner with the school.
Q: Could you tell me a little about what students have said to you when they come back to talk to you about how they’re doing in high school and college?
A: Yeah, that’s what ultimately leads me to get up every day and do what I do is some of those success stories. I’ve been doing this 15 years now. My sixth-graders from my first year of teaching have graduated college and entered the workforce and I keep in touch.
Some of them are teachers, some of them are in law school, one who I keep in touch with is an accountant. They come back and let me know that they’re in college or that they’re in the workforce.
It’s good knowing that we provided them with a vision to see beyond tomorrow, to go to college and be a productive citizen and member of society.
Since I’ve won the Milken Educator Award, I’ve gotten many emails from students saying they remember sitting in my class and how it made learning fun or inspired them to go to college and stay positive and stay on the right track. I hear success stories from former students all the time, and I’m very proud of them.
My new custodian is a former student of mine. He told me the only test he ever passed was his eighth-grade AIMS math test when I was an eighth-grade math teacher. He’s in college now and goes to school at night. He came in for an interview one day with my assistant principal, walked by my office, looked in and said “Mr. Thomas?”
I remembered him and he ended up getting the job. He’s going to school for HVAC, working here as the head custodian in the meantime, and he’s 22 years old. It’s stories like that, that make it all worth it.