Thomas J. Dodd

Lesher Middle School, Fort Collins, Colorado

Promoting excellence and equity propels this innovative educator to take stakeholder engagement to new heights

After about seven years as principal of Lesher Middle School in Fort Collins, CO, Tom Dodd had an epiphany. “I realized that we were operating as a performance-​based learning community rather than a seniority-based bureaucracy. We changed our school to make it right for kids rather than changing kids to make them right for our school,” Dodd says. “Transforming our school from what it was to what it has become meant taking on a whole new shape.”

Indeed, Dodd says that his biggest accomplishment as principal has been changing the internal culture and external perception of the school in his community. He quotes artist Charles DuBois: “The important thing is this: to be able at any moment to sacrifice what we are for what we could become.”

By adhering to a few core values and developing innovative programs to fulfill that mission, it’s no surprise to anyone who knows Tom Dodd that he has been named NASSP’s 2017 National Principal of the Year.

The journey that led to his epiphany didn’t occur by accident. It meant “confronting the mediocre performance and/or inappropriate behavior of some veteran, tenured faculty,” Dodd says. He explains that “even with support and training, not everyone is able to achieve what we want them to.” That meant executing a measured plan that reflected Dodd’s educational philosophy and core values about public education, which he calls “the cornerstone of our American democracy.” These tenets are: 

  • Excellence and equity
  • High expectations with high support
  • Great people make great schools
  • Educate the whole child
  • Character and integrity all day, every day
  • People over policies, and practices over programs

Dodd’s mission in that journey (and today) has always been about improving student learning experiences and outcomes. “My job is to create and maintain the conditions at school necessary for teachers to teach effectively and students to learn continuously,” he says.

What Dodd accomplished was transitioning Lesher Middle School from a departmentalized grade 7-9 junior high school into a multidisciplinary team-based 6-8 grade middle school. Dodd used several resources in that undertaking, including the Association of Middle Level Education’s This We Believe’s four essential attributes and 16 characteristics of successful middle schools, as well as NASSP’s Breaking Ranks in the Middle: Strategies for Leading Middle Level School Reform’s nine “cornerstone strategies” and 30 recommendations for improving student achievement.

Wrestling and Education

So, what exactly was Dodd’s journey? After receiving his bachelor’s degree in history and secondary education from Susquehanna University in Selinsgrove, PA-while captaining the wrestling team and earning All-Middle Atlantic Conference honors-he moved to Alamosa, CO, to accept a position as instructor of exercise physiology and leisure science and assistant wrestling coach with Adams State University. Then, after completing two Master of Arts degrees in secondary education-one in social studies and a second in health, physical education, and recreation-Dodd moved on to Eagle Valley High School in Gypsum, CO, as a social studies teacher and wrestling and football coach.

Taking His Principal’s Advice

Eagle Valley Principal Ivan Kershner decided to separate the roles of assistant principal and athletic director into two positions, and he encouraged Dodd to apply for the part-time assistant principal vacancy. “I wasn’t aspiring to become an administrator back then. I was loving teaching and coaching, and actually had a teaching and wrestling coach job offer from a big school in a different state whose wrestling team was ranked in the top 50 in the nation at the time,” Dodd says. “I took my mentor’s advice, applied, and became an assistant principal 50 percent of the time, a social studies teacher 50 percent of the time, and continued as wrestling coach. Looking back, I was really doing two full-time jobs, and coaching, while earning my principal license at Colorado State University in Fort Collins. I guess that’s what you do when you’re coming up through the ranks!”

A few years later, Dodd accepted the vice principal position at Aspen High School in Aspen, CO. After taking time to pursue his superintendent’s license and PhD at Penn State University, he landed at Lesher Middle School, where he’s been for a dozen years. “It’s the best job I’ve ever had. I love the people here,” Dodd says. “My dad was an elementary principal for 25 years, and my mom was an intermediate-grades teacher for the same, so I guess it’s in my blood, as they say, and I followed in their footsteps.”

Stakeholder Engagement

It’s very important that principals engage teachers, students, and parents in meaningful ways, asserts Dodd. It starts with building relationships with staff, students, and parents by being accessible and approachable. Dodd works as a servant-leader who assumes best intentions and seeks first to understand, then to be understood. For instance, he starts every meeting with celebrations and promotes student, staff, and school success in the community via the school’s website, newsletter, Twitter account, news stories, parades, etc. He promotes student participation in academic contests, clubs, and athletics as well. Dodd also took steps to embrace the school’s “Anchor Down” motto, giving an anchor pin to all students and staff to wear to symbolize being an advocate for every child.

With staff, Dodd works on building trust and confronting “the brutal facts” to eliminate the nondiscussables-conflict avoidance, cliques, and competition-that kept some teachers from sharing ideas. Dodd also changed Lesher’s master schedule from a traditional 45-minute, eight-period day to an 80-minute, five-​period modified block with building-wide common planning time to promote collaboration and teacher leadership through lateral capacity building.

The success of these efforts is reflected in various formal anonymous staff and parent surveys (including TELL surveys, climate and culture surveys, and parent satisfaction surveys), plus informal connect-the-dots survey responses gathered after meetings, as well as national recognitions. The school has been named:

  • 2014-17 “School to Watch” by the CAMEL/National Forum to Accelerate Middle-Grades Reform
  • 2016 “School of Character” by Character in Athletics-Make It a Priority (CHAMP)
  • 2016 SafeRoutes to School National Partnership Hubsmith Award Nominee 
  • 2014 U.S. Department of Education Green Ribbon School
  • 2012 MetLife Foundation/NASSP Breakthrough School

The Value of Being a Team Player

Of course, like any principal, Dodd has faced some extremely difficult situations. He recalls one of the most harrowing: “A student snuck into our gym when no one was around during the school day and hanged himself from a basketball backboard support. Fortunately, a couple of students suspected he was up to something, saw what was happening, and notified an adult immediately. We were able to save his life.”

Dodd’s work ethic and dedication to the principalship are legendary. In his personal life, “more than anything” he likes just being around his wife and two daughters. “I’m an avid college wrestling and football fan; a Denver Broncos season ticket holder; and enjoy whitewater kayaking, skiing/snowboarding, running, bicycling, fishing, motorcycling, and volunteering with my Catholic church,” he says.

Sports have always played an important role in Dodd’s professional and personal life. Here’s how he explains its value: “As a college wrestler, I learned mental toughness, to embrace the daily grind of workouts and get comfortable with being uncomfortable. As a high school football player, I learned that everyone on the team has a role to play. Follower­ship ought to precede leadership. I was never the best player on any of my teams, but I always contributed.”

Dodd has taken those lessons and carried them through to Lesher Middle School. “In athletics, the Lesher difference is all about doing better. I think the hardest worker on any team ought to be the head coach. So, it starts with me,” Dodd says. “The best coaches and leaders are empathetic and humble. Real leaders take the blame and give away the credit.”

As a coach, Dodd helped lead the Adams State University wrestling team to the 1994 Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference and West Region Championships, and played a key role in the school earning back-to-back NCAA Division II top 10 national finishes. At Eagle Valley, Dodd’s career as wrestling coach includes 43 state wrestling qualifiers, 16 state place winners, four state runners-up and two state champions. As football coach at Eagle Valley, Dodd’s notable achievements include leading the school as 2A state playoff qualifiers in 1996 and 1997 and Western Slope League Champions in 1997.

Dodd is Lesher’s biggest cheerleader. “The characteristic that sets Lesher apart from the average school is our level of dedication to our collective mission: providing excellence and equity through high expectations with high support to our students,” Dodd says. “We own our stuff, take responsibility, and don’t put an excuse where an apology should be.”

Dodd recognizes NASSP’s value to principals, which includes professional networking. “While incredibly gratifying, the principal job can also be very complex, challenging, and lonely at times,” he says. “It’s comforting to know you’re not in it alone and that most school leaders, regardless of state or urban, suburban, or rural context, are struggling with many of the same issues. We don’t need to reinvent the wheel. NASSP has designed frameworks and hosts conferences and webinars to give principals the content and skills they need to do the job right.”

Also, NASSP is the leading advocate for the principalship, Dodd notes. “It keeps information flowing in both directions to ensure building leaders are delivering on the mission of educating every child every day and provides us a voice, as low on the policy agenda as principals may be, to effect positive change at state and federal levels,” he explains.

Michael Levin-Epstein is senior editor of Principal Leadership.

Engaging Stakeholders

Here are some ways in which Tom Dodd has engaged teachers, students, and parents by personalizing the learning experience: 

  • Implementing a WEB (Where Everyone Belongs) program to facilitate effective fifth-grade transitions.
  • Shoring up schoolwide behavior through Character in Athletics-Make It a Priority (CHAMP) and the Positive Coaching Alliance (PCA), designation as an Anti-Defamation League (ADL) No Place for Hate, and partnering with community mental health resources.
  • Increasing budget transparency, using more than $400,000 of site-based money for facility improvements, plus completing a $3.7 million renovation.Creating a shared decision-making matrix to graphically represent vertical and horizontal processes.
  • Creating a dual language Spanish/English program using the Sheltered Instruction Observation Protocol in math, science, social studies, and language arts.
  • Replacing the school-within-a-school application-based International Baccalaureate (IB) program with an all-school IB model.
  • Re-examining beliefs to align initiatives, practices, and programs with the school’s vision, mission, and goals.
  • Creating a culture of collaboration with Professional Learning Community (PLC) Wednesday meetings to eliminate outdated practices, improve communication, and formulate School Unified Improvement Plan strategies to modernize the school.
  • Promoting the fundamental concepts of PLCs: learning; collaborative culture; results; and timely, relevant information to reinforce multitiered system of supports.
  • Establishing a Professional Development School partnership with Colorado State University.
  • Providing IB Middle Years Program and Discovery training to any interested staff.
  • Enhancing the role and voice of Viking Volunteers (PTO) and the School Accountability Committee.
  • Increasing enrollment from 500 to 770, necessitating wait lists for nine consecutive years.