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Aisha Thomas, Principal Zach Elementary School Fort Collins, CO

Principal Thomas’ belief in a collaborative approach and working with people toward a shared vision is at the heart of Zach Elementary School’s success. When Aisha Thomas took the principal position at Zach Elementary School in 2013, she was no stranger to the Poudre School District. Having served the district for eleven years as an educator and administrator, she knew Zach Elementary was a good school. Her mission was to move the school from good to great by building a collaborative culture with a focus on organizational health and communication and ensuring effective instruction for all students. Within five short years, Principal Thomas created momentum at Zach Elementary, leading the school from a state ranking of 89th to 13th.

Zach Elementary School was already known as a high performing school with strong community and family involvement. But, it had experienced five years of leader turnover which led to a challenging professional culture. When Principal Thomas arrived, she continued the already established attitude of academic excellence and employed a leadership style based on consensus-building, trust, and communication, while promoting a strategic vision for the school resulting in a shift in school culture. She aligned Zach’s mission to the district vision and focused on building a collaborative culture through professional learning communities. The school implemented a multi-tiered system of intervention for academic and behavior support and created stronger administrative-classroom teacher feedback systems. Principal Thomas strengthened positive parent partnerships and guidance advisory committees and coordinated a school-wide community giving campaign called “Zach Gives Back.”

The heart of Aisha Thomas’ leadership style is shared decision-making to serve a common purpose. Focusing on a common vision, she worked with staff through a series of meetings to avoid initiative fatigue by identifying and agreeing to “4 Diamonds” that would serve as the guideposts for their work for at least four years. Understanding that initiatives are often abandoned before they reach their full potential, and by agreeing not to introduce anything new unless it aligned with one of the diamonds, staff were empowered to innovate and strengthen, rather than abandon and start from scratch. The 4 Diamonds categories – Curriculum, Professional Learning Communities, Multi-Tiered System of Support, and Assessment – provided staff with a team structure to focus their energy, time, and resources. Principal Thomas also initiated shared decision-making protocols and norms across teams and committees to ensure all voices were heard and staff were empowered to collaborate to move toward their collective vision.

To create a welcoming and inviting environment for families, Principal Thomas understood that communication was the key. She worked with front office staff to identify protocols focused on service and safety. Principal Thomas led the efforts for clear and consistent communication through social media, an active website, phone calls, memos, and newsletters. She also implemented a family engagement plan that included ample informal and formal opportunities to connect with families and the community in meaningful ways. The plan included committee meetings, informal coffee talks, and parent education nights.

One of the most impactful shifts Principal Thomas implemented at Zach was a robust coaching system. Under the new system, she and her assistant principal each designated two days a week to touring classrooms, hallways, recess, and the lunchroom for observation and reflection. This designated time provides built-in coaching opportunities and a feedback-loop while ensuring strong connections among teachers, administrators, and students.

Principal Thomas has successfully created a culture where every stakeholder is empowered to provide the best educational experience possible by focusing on the goal, treating each other with care, and inspiring a love of learning.