Being selected from a highly competitive field of educators as the National Association of Secondary School Principals’ (NASSP) National Principal of the Year for 2017 wasn’t the first time that Tom Dodd, principal of the Lesher Middle School in Fort Collins, Colorado, got his picture in the paper. As a scholar/athlete at New Paltz High School in 1987/88, Dodd was interviewed by Craig “Scoop” McKinney for one of his biweekly senior profiles. But his true moment of teenage glory was yet to come.
As football season reached a fever pitch, young Dodd and a few teammates decided to customize his 1971 Ford Galaxie, which he describes as so wide that he could lie down full-length on the front seat. The friends hand-painted the sedan in their team colors of maroon-and-white, added a picture of the Huguenots’ mascot, tied squirrel tails to the antenna, wrapped barbed wire around the rear bumper and even tried, with somewhat less success, to affix a cow skull to the front grille. The Maroon Machine, as they christened the modified car, got its picture in the paper as well; and Tom and his gridiron buddies would sprawl on its hood or roof while attending games on Saturday afternoons when NPHS wasn’t playing, trying to intimidate the other teams in the league. “We played Friday nights, because we were the only MHAL team with lights on the field,” he explains.
Pressed for tales of youthful misbehavior, that bout of being “knucklehead high school kids” is about the worst that Dodd can muster. “I never got into trouble,” he admits. He and his elder brother Jimmy and younger sister Jennifer led wholesome childhoods of hard work and hard play on his grandparents’ farm at the very end of Plains Road — the one that surrounds Plattekill Gorge, viewable from a trestle on the Wallkill Valley Rail Trail. “That view that everybody takes a picture of is our farm,” he says proudly.
Both of Tom’s parents, James and Veronica Dodd, grew up in New Paltz and attended school here. Both were high achievers who went on to become professional educators. James Sr. was a principal in the Poughkeepsie City Schools for 27 years before becoming director of Teacher Education at Marist College. Veronica taught at Washington Elementary in the Kingston Consolidated School District before coming back to New Paltz to teach when the Lenape School opened. Tom says that education was valued so highly in his family that no vacation trip was considered complete without stops to check out the schools and colleges in their destination city.
So it may seem inevitable that, once he had finished college, Tom Dodd would go on to become a teacher and school administrator. “I don’t think I picked education; education picked me,” he says. But, although “School wasn’t really hard for me,” young Tom was more motivated to excel in sports; coaching was the profession that first called his name. He can list many favorites among his teachers in the New Paltz school system — Helen Coutant, who “gave me a goldfish” in kindergarten; Betty Taylor, who taught him to make quilts in third grade; Gerri Nickerson, Audrey Shriver, Ingrid Fogg, Peter Goss, Bob Feld, Donna Utley, Pat Cinquemani, George Campbell, Kathy Evans, Frank Davis, Barbara Clinton and Jeff Ackert — but the educational leaders who inspired him most were NPHS wrestling coaches Kemble Matter and Frank Ciliberto and football coaches Bill Freer and Jerry Craig.
“I loved going to practice every day,” he says, and cherishes the memory of the camaraderie of being a Huguenot. His football team had an 8-1-1 season in 1987; as a freshman, he played on the 1985 MHAL championship-winning football team. He captained the NPHS wrestling team for three years and went on to earn four varsity letters in wrestling in college. He racked up academic honors as well, earning a BA in History as well as teacher certification at Susquehanna University in Pennsylvania; two MAs, in Secondary Education and Health, Physical Education and Recreation, at Adams State University in Colorado; a Principal’s License from Colorado State University; and, just two years ago, a PhD in Educational Leadership from Penn State. (That’s the short version.)
It was an offer to become a wrestling coach while a graduate assistant at Adams State that introduced Dodd to Colorado and its manifold opportunities for active outdoor recreation, including the mountain biking that he had loved as a teenager in New Paltz, along with fly-fishing, skiing, snowboarding and whitewater kayaking. “I was always drawn to college towns in mountains,” he says. He also continued to pay frequent visits to his family, and at his ten-year NPHS reunion became reacquainted with Amy Heaton, a high school friend who had been a cheerleader for the Huguenots. “We hit it off immediately, and within a month we moved to Colorado together,” he recounts. The couple now have two daughters: Riley, 14, and Chloe, 10.
Fast-forward to his career as a school administrator: In 2001 Dodd became a vice principal in Aspen, and 13 years ago he was offered the challenging task — what he calls a “turnaround situation” — of becoming the new principal of the underperforming Lesher Middle School in Fort Collins. “People called it a ‘ghetto school’ when I got there,” he says, though Dodd himself prefers the description “downtown diverse hipster middle school.” Lesher already had an International Baccalaureate (IB) program for the most academically elite kids; but it also had gang activity and a “tagging” problem, not to mention a deteriorating physical plant. “The facility was falling apart…There was not a lot of accountability on staff,” he says. “We were losing 30 or 40 kids a year. They were ‘choicing out’ to other schools.”
So Dodd made it his business to get rid of the dead wood and run a tighter ship, instituting more stringent competency-based evaluation methods but also creating a greater focus on the needs of the individual student. He helped secure grant funding to improve the school building and, he says, “put smartboards in every classroom.” In a move that raised a few eyebrows but ultimately proved successful, he opened up the IB program to the entire student body. “A principal’s job is to create the conditions for teachers to teach well and for students to learn well,” he says, summing up his administrative philosophy in a nutshell.
“Giving students continual feedback with multiple opportunities to improve their current performance level toward set criteria (concepts, content, skills) as well as emphasizing the most recent and frequent evidence encourages students to advance their performance over time,” says NASSP’s summary of the reasons why Dodd was singled out for the Principal of the Year Award. Nowadays, student enrollment at Lesher is at capacity (770, compared to 500 when he came on board) and has a waiting list even longer than the roster of awards that the school has won in recent years.
Dr. Tom Dodd’s 2017 National Principal of the Year designation was announced last October, so, he says, “My reign is actually coming to an end.” After nearly a year of being offered lots of opportunities to participate in special leadership trainings and symposia, he spent this past weekend in Washington, DC as part of the NASSP panel interviewing the top three candidates for the 2018 award. “It’s like the Principals’ Pageant,” he jokes.
“I wanted to be the best teacher I could be, the best coach I could be,” says Dodd, looking back at his formative experiences in New Paltz and beyond. “I didn’t want to be just average.” His professional peers seem to concur that he hit his mark.