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The Redefined Principal

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Otho Thompson, the principal of Morristown Elementary School, sits in a conference room alongside many of the familiar faces that show up at strategy sessions on how to serve families better.

Today, Katie Furney, a University of Vermont faculty member, coaches the crew on how to train their colleagues to use McGill Action Plans--a method to help children and parents make colorful visual maps of their dreams and outline steps to achieve them. Educators, social workers, clergy members, employment counselors, and child-protection workers have all been signing up for training.

"This is helping professionals all talk the same language with families and with each other--and putting families' hopes and dreams first," says Thompson, who helped introduce this mapping process to his colleagues.

The approach also reflects studies showing that children need positive visions of the future to succeed--a lesson Thompson didn't learn just from research. His father was a superintendent of schools for the blind, and he grew up seeing blind children master seemingly impossible tasks with pride."Any school worth its name has to be dedicated to that for every student," he says.

Thompson says he started thinking in earnest about his school's wider role in the community after he heard compelling speeches by Cornelius Hogan, Vermont's state secretary of human services, and Rick Mills, then its education commissioner. He began attending monthly meetings of human-services managers and soon became engrossed in many joint ventures. He helped put together Morrisville's recipe for Success by Six, a program designed to help families raise young children in a healthy and literate environment. Not everyone understood Thompson's interest in involving a school in such services as lactation counseling. But to him the connection was clear: `We thought if we could get families to see the school as caring about their baby, later hopefully they'd see us as allies."

One area where the community's collaborative efforts have fallen short, Thompson says, is in pulling classroom teachers into policy discussions. They're busy teaching during day meetings, and he doesn't want to press them to give up evening time they need for class planning. But he's exploring ways to involve them more.

Thompson has earned high marks for all his community partnering. But he admits some teachers wish he were around more.

"Their definition of the principal is to know and be supporters and cheerleaders of their work, which it is," he says. "But it's also more than that. And in this era, that means finding more ways to work with the community.

--Deborah L. Cohen



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