Editorial – Thornton leaves broad legacy

Published 6:46 pm Tuesday, June 14, 2022

It’s unfortunate that Dr. Jim Thornton’s tenure as Isle of Wight County Schools superintendent could be defined by recent controversy over the division’s equity and inclusion efforts.

Thornton has himself at least partially to blame, with not-so-veiled references to “political agenda” as the reason for his decision to retire now instead of serving out a contract that was to run through the end of the 2022-23 school year.

With no disrespect toward the parents who’ve expressed concerns about Critical Race Theory and its tenets, nor toward Thornton for his response to those critics, we take a much broader view of Thornton’s seven-year tenure, the culmination of a 33-year career as an educator, coach and administrator.

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Ten years from now, when America has rejected or accepted CRT and a different hot-button issue is guiding the national narrative around public education, Thornton should be remembered for a number of enduring accomplishments, most significantly a multimillion-dollar renovation of the school system’s career and technical education facilities in 2017.

Those first-rate facilities sprang from Thornton’s deep, continuing belief in the value of vocational skills and trades at a time when the education bureaucracy tries to push too many kids into college enrollment. We agree with him wholeheartedly.

If you’ve tried to find a skilled worker to come to your home or business for a repair or installation recently, you know just how acute is the shortage of people who can still work with their hands. Isle of Wight County Schools, under Thornton’s leadership, has prioritized career and technical training in a way that could benefit the local economy for decades to come.

The Isle of Wight County School Board has proposed to name the Smithfield High School career and technical education building the “Thornton Career Center” in honor of the retiring superintendent. We strongly endorse the proposal.

Thornton also deserves credit for the county’s commitment to replace the aging Hardy Elementary School. It’s an expensive undertaking, but the superintendent was tireless in convincing county supervisors to borrow the necessary funds.

Yet, Thornton told The Smithfield Times after his retirement announcement that he was leaving early because he’d become “saddened that staff and children have been directly affected by politicians that have used k-12 education to further their political agendas.”

It was a clear reference to the national, state — and increasingly local — debate over how to properly teach children about America’s complicated history of racial discrimination and whether schools today have any lingering obligations to help achieve social justice for disadvantaged students.

That debate continues to rage as Thornton departs. It should be a footnote, rather than a chapter, when reflecting on Thornton’s tenure in Isle of Wight.