DOVER- Bill Anton isn’t someone who is often shown the door. So when he was told he had to leave the room during a Vermont Principals Association Executive Council meeting, he didn’t realize it was because he was about to be the topic of the group’s discussion.
When he came back into the room, he found out he had been selected for the National Distinguished Principal Award, given annually by the National Association of Elementary School Principals. He is the only winner from Vermont, and is in select company as one of only 52 winners from around the country.
Anton, who has been at the helm of Dover School for five years, was his typical enthusiastic self when talking about the award earlier this week.
“The award is a reflection of what the community of Dover has been doing for a long time,” Anton said. “The foundation for this school has been built during the past 15 or 20 years. We have a community that is extremely supportive, we have a board that constantly challenges us (the school staff) to improve and get better, and we have students willing to set goals and work for good outcomes.”
Anton was nominated for the award by Twin Valley Middle School principal Keith Lyman, who described Anton as a role model and inspiration in his nominating letter.
“Few people have inspired me more than Mr. Anton in my career,” Lyman wrote. “He has provided me the mentorship in my early stages as a principal that all new principals should have. I have learned so much from his wisdom and experiences and cannot imagine having a better resource for improving instruction.”
Anton will be feted for his recognition at the VPA Leadership Academy in Killington in August, and then in October he will head to Washington, DC, for the NAESP national awards. There will be presentations, professional development workshops, and a formal dinner that will include meeting Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. He could barely contain his excitement when talking about the opportunity to visit the nation’s capital and rub elbows with educators from around the country.
“I’m going to be open and listen to see what I can learn from others,” said Anton. “I’ll be really curious to learn about how others work with money, technology, and how to get better in challenging times.”
Anton will also talk about some of his experiences at Dover School. “In Vermont, we’re small, so we get to try a lot of things. We can turn a lot faster, and we have a structure that allows us to change rapidly. I’ll get to share that.”
Anton began teaching at the age of 30 in North Carolina. He became an administrator in 2003, as an assistant principal at an 800-student school in North Carolina.
“I learned a lot while I was there,” he said. “It was in a tough town, the school was 300 yards from a prison.”
In 2007 he moved to Vermont to become the assistant principal at Twin Valley Middle School. After a year, he took over the principal’s job at TVMS, and then moved to Dover in 2009.
Dover School’s successes have been well documented over the years, with top test scores, low special education needs, and innovative programs. When asked what lies ahead, Anton didn’t hesitate.
“The sky’s the limit. We’re unbelievably fortunate to have outstanding educators, a board that challenges us to be in a mode of constant improvement, and a superintendent who is supportive. It’s unbelievably fertile for our students. Our goal is to become a world class school, and keep Dover on the map.”
FitzSimons worked to change school’s culture
WARDSBORO- When Rosemary FitzSimons walked through the door of Wardsboro Elementary School seven years ago, one of the first things the new principal heard was that the small, 60-student school was located in such an isolated, rural part of Vermont that students shouldn’t be expected to do more than they were doing.
What they were doing was not very well. Their test scores were low, and the school had just been given a failing grade for its efforts to meet national education standards.
Seven years later, Wardsboro’s scores are some of the best in Vermont, and FitzSimons was just named the elementary school principal of the year by the Vermont Principals’ Association.
“In 2008, our NECAP math test scores were 35%,” said FitzSimons. “In 2013, we scored 90% proficient or above in math and 98% proficiency in reading.” Those percentages reflect where Wardsboro students rank relative to other Vermont students who took the same standardized tests in math and reading.
FitzSimons, a soft-spoken, veteran educator, is appreciative of the award, but quick to point out the award and the improvements of the school’s scores are really the cumulative efforts of the school board, the school staff, the students, and the community.
While willing to deflect the credit for the school’s rise, there is no doubt that FitzSimons has worked hard during her tenure to create a culture conducive to developing successful elementary students.
“The school board was very supportive from the beginning,” said FitzSimons. “They said we need to make a change.”
What FitzSimons brought from her 30 years in education was the belief that all students could be successful. That belief was instilled in her by her former principal during her 20-plus years teaching in central New York. “Where I taught was considered a ‘small’ school in New York. It had 500 students. We had a principal who had high expectations, and had developed strategies about how to create a great school. She was doing that before anyone had written a book on how to do that.”
After leaving her first teaching job, FitzSimons moved to another New York school, only to lose her job when that school was merged with two other schools during a consolidation. It was there FitzSimons found out not all schools were run the same way. “I just assumed that all schools ran like that (her first school), but I realized it was not so.”
FitzSimons had just finished a grant-funded tenure as a director of curriculum in eastern New York state when she applied for the Wardsboro position. Once on board, and with the support of the Wardsboro School Board, she set out to make a change in the school and its students.
“Early on, test scores were low, and we failed to make our AYP (annual yearly progress, the national measuring stick developed as part of No Child Left Behind). As a team, we made a plan and created a vision about how we wanted the school to be,” FitzSimons explained. “We thought about how to change the school’s tone, the culture, to one where we believed that everybody could be successful.”
Over time, because of those beliefs, the school began to change. The staff also developed some road maps to help focus that change.
“There were several parts to it, and we developed several action plans that drive everything,” said FitzSimons. “Lots of schools write action plans, but don’t follow through on them.”
Wardsboro did follow through, and FitzSimons said the school has fostered an environment that empowers students to be successful in reading, literacy, math, and behavior that has a positive impact on academics. To that end, the results have been rewarding.
“It’s been fun to see the change that’s taken place,” said FitzSimons, reflecting back over the past few years. “We were like ‘The Little Engine that Could.’ We began to see we could make a difference.”
Others in the Windham Central school district and around the state also noticed the difference at Wardsboro School. One of those who saw the change at the school was Dover School Principal Bill Anton. He was so impressed by what he saw that he wrote the nominating letter for FitzSimons’ award.
Anton cited not just Wardsboro’s improvements in standardized scores, but also the efforts undertaken to improve the learning and teaching environment at the school. “For the past seven years, Rosemary has led her school through systematic, disciplined, and embedded professional development. Wardsboro has inculcated the work of Fountas & Pinnell along with internal reading and literacy coaches. The staff has worked extensively with Dr. Mahesh Sharma of the Center for Teaching and Learning Mathematics to improve math instruction for all students. These strategic and focused investments have paid off for student outcomes and teacher instructional capacity.”
Anton’s nomination, along with Wardsboro’s impressive track record, tipped the award in FitzSimons’ favor. She will be recognized, along with Anton and other top principals, at the VPA Leadership Academy awards banquet on August 5 in Killington. FitzSimon’s award is formally known as the Henry Giaguque Vermont Elementary Principal of the Year.
For her part, FitzSimons was appreciative of Anton’s nomination, and of the support she has received from him and others in the supervisory union, including WCSU Superintendent Stephen John. In the end, she comes back to the team effort that had led to the changes at Wardsboro School, saying the real reason for the upswing has been the efforts of the students, teachers and staff, parents, and the school board.
“It’s not just one person,” said FitzSimons. “It’s too bad they don’t have awards for schools that do well.”