‘What are we doin’?’ A veteran school administrator reflects on changing lives and education choice

Ashley Elliott and Mark Thomas

Editor’s note: reimaginED guest blogger Ashley Elliott is a former Florida Tax Credit Scholarship recipient from Lakeland, Florida, and a member of the 2019 cohort of the American Federation for Children’s Future Leaders Fellowship Program.  

Principal Mark Thomas is a wonderful administrator who always goes the extra mile for his students and staff.  I first met him at Gause Academy of Leadership and Applied Technology, an alternative high school in central Florida, where he helped kids like me get back on the path to graduation.

The version of me that Mr. Thomas met was not the best. I defaced school walls with graffiti, skipped class, swore at my teachers, and got into fights. I spent more time in Mr. Thomas’s office than I wanted to.

Mr. Thomas encouraged students to behave by repeatedly asking, “What are we doin’?” He spent hours listening to students explain their actions and then questioned their methods in a polite way. These sessions had me wishing for suspension. During my sophomore year, I almost got my wish.

I had been sent to Mr. Thomas’s office for swearing at a teacher and skipping class. Mr. Thomas threatened me with suspension and sent me back to class. Later that day, he heard the electricity had been turned off at our house. He showed up that evening with my favorite food – fried chicken from Publix – and a cold Coca-Cola. He talked with my mom for a bit and then said to me, “See you bright and early tomorrow morning!”

As I got older, I came to understand his methods. He genuinely wanted to know what was in our minds, what our circumstances were. Only then could he properly address our problems. His concern helped me see he was looking out for me. When he and my favorite teacher told me they wanted to transfer me to Victory Christian Academy in nearby Lakeland, I was devastated – until they invited me to join them there.

My life changed because of Mr. Thomas and other educators like him. Here is a bit of his story, with answers edited for brevity and clarity.

Elliott: What made you want to be a teacher?

Thomas:  Long story short, this is my 46th year in education. If you add my own 13 years of K-12, that is 59 years, plus college and grad school makes 64 years. This year I am turning 68, so all but five years of my life have been associated with education.

I’m really living my dad’s life. He was a high school teacher and football coach. My sister was a high school teacher. My mom was a secretary for a superintendent, and I have aunts and uncles who are also teachers. So, I’m in the family business.

My dad wanted me to get a degree in business, but I had no clue what I would do with that. I loved sports. I loved kids. So, I just decided what I really wanted to be was a college football coach. So, when I graduated college, I had a degree in physical education and a degree in science. And my dad said, ‘Get a degree in science, because you’ll always find a job teaching science, but you won’t find a job teaching PE,’ and he was right.

Elliott: Can you tell me a bit about your journey coming out of college?

Thomas: My first job was at Wilmington Junior High in Ohio. I taught eighth grade science, and I coached football, basketball, and baseball there as an assistant coach. I was there for one year until Ohio University offered me the opportunity to become a graduate assistant while helping to coach their football team. There I got my degree in administration.

After finishing grad school, I taught and coached football in Ohio at Defiance College for a year before I got caught in a snowstorm on I-75 and decided I was moving to Florida. I worked in Florida and Georgia but eventually settled in Bartow, Florida, where I got a job as a high school science teacher and football coach.

Elliott: How did you become an administrator?

Thomas: I taught at Bartow High School for four years. During that time, I was supposed to take over coaching, but the coach who said he would retire never actually did. The principal suggested that I get trained to be an assistant principal. He already had me doing extra things like running a teacher-student mentoring program. I found that just talking to the kids was pretty cool, and so after training, I became an assistant principal in 1988.

Elliott: Could you tell me more about your journey as an administrator?

Thomas: I gained more experience as a curriculum and discipline principal at the new Frostproof Middle School they were creating at the time. Middle schools were just gaining a foothold in Florida. From there, I decided that I really wanted to teach at Union Academy in Bartow. It was there that I got the chance to be on the ground floor of a magnet school. This was when computers were first coming out, and every student and teacher had access to a computer.

I really had a chance to be creative at that school. We were able to pursue more high-level curriculum. It was there that I created an eighth-grade internship program where we took students to the school district and county government offices to show them the different jobs. The kids thought it would be a bunch of old people sitting around in rocking chairs but were surprised and interested to learn about the variety of jobs the county offered.

Elliott: What came after that?

Thomas:  I went to the district office where I worked as the director of student services. When I was director, we implemented a program that gave kids access to all their grades. From there, I went back to Lakeland High, then to Sleepy Hill Middle School. Then a colleague in the district office said he wanted to change Gause Academy from a place that you just put kids to a place where we could give them real life skills, like computer programming. It was not as successful as we had hoped, but we did implement the Penn Foster program, which put students on a path to graduation. That’s when you showed up; we went to Victory Christian, and the rest is history.

Elliott: What made you want to try a private school after all that time?

Thomas: Well, honestly, I wasn’t really exposed to private schools other than in the context of Catholic Schools near where I grew up. I did try to make Lakeland High School a charter school, but that didn’t work out. I asked the head of school at Victory if she would hold a science position open for me for after I retired. She offered a secondary principal position. I went to look at the school and attended chapel, (worship service held once a week for students) and it blew me away.

Elliott: What was the biggest culture shock moving from publics schools to a private school?

Thomas: Well, to start off, what I knew about private school was mostly stereotypical. I assumed private schools were predominantly for wealthy, white families. After working at Victory for a few weeks, I really noticed how similar it was to a public school. The student body was representative of the diverse environment that is Polk County.

The main differences between Victory and public schools are our inclusion of religion in our curriculum and our ability to adapt to the needs of the students. I loved working in public schools, and they serve their function for so many students. However, I don’t think that all schools can or should function the same way. Not one private, magnet, charter, or traditional public school is going to work for every individual student.

I have found that at Victory, both at the teaching and administrative levels, our school has total control over our curriculum, policies, and classroom management. Trying to figure out what students need is very simple if you are working directly with them. In Florida public schools, the school board and superintendents are often too far removed from the schools to know what they need individually. Instead, each school is treated virtually the same despite each one being different.

Elliott: How did you see state choice scholarships helping students?

Thomas: The Tax Credit Scholarship is a wonderful blessing for families who qualify.  It gives low-income families an opportunity for a private setting if it works for them. I can’t speak for other schools, but at Victory we have created a setting where it looks like a public school and functions similarly. Our school is accredited by the same agency that accredits public schools.

Elliott: What do you think school choice offers to the American education system?

Thomas: The American education system began as a way to prepare kids for an industrialization. It was not designed to make people smart; it was designed to make them functional. All that has changed, and now we are in an age of information; different skillsets must be nurtured and honed differently.

We live in an America that is supposed to be about opportunity and choices, and that is what this scholarship is providing. Over a lifetime in education, I’ve watched this country change. I have seen it when the civil rights movement came through, through the Vietnam War, through 9/11, through the Columbine High School shooting. Out of all the things that people have tried to do, the most positive thing I’ve seen is this opportunity for choice.

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BY Special to NextSteps