‘It’s time for a change’

Published 10:24 pm Friday, July 1, 2022

Retiring superintendent reflects on legacy

Dr. Jim Thornton officially retired June 30 as superintendent of Isle of Wight County Schools, ending his 33-year career in public education. On his last day on the job, Thornton sat down with The Smithfield Times to reflect on his legacy and the changes he’s seen over the decades, from the debut of Virginia’s Standards of Learning tests to the need for regular active-shooter drills.

1. What led you to first go into teaching 33 years ago?

I was actually in the business world, but I coached a lot, like Little League baseball, Little League football. People said to me, “You seem to be a natural with kids, have you ever thought about that?” And then I started thinking about it and I actually went back to school and got certified to be a teacher.

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2. What school system were you with when you first started? How was that job and the profession in general different from teaching today?

I was at King and Queen Central High School. I was a football coach there and also coached some basketball there, so I feel like coaching and teaching is very similar. I fell in love with working with children.

Back then, I think teachers in general were more respected. I think the profession as a whole was more respected. Back then, I remember, I wore a tie every day to school because I felt I’m a professional, and I do remember I spent a lot of money cleaning my clothes because chalk was all over them every day.

Teaching is probably one of the most important professions and it hasn’t kept up with pay, and I think a lot of that is due to the whole concept of … women went into it for the “love of teaching.” We still go in it, and educators still go in it for the love of teaching and children, but we still need to make a living, and make sure our families are taken care of, so I really don’t like when community people say that. I think we need to hold our teachers higher and we need to pay them. You know there’s a major teacher shortage now. I hope it’s not too late.

3. What was it like for you when SOL testing debuted in 1998? What position and school system were you in at the time?

I was in Cumberland County — a small, rural county, and I was principal back then. When it first rolled out, I thought it was a great thing because our school system was not looked at as a very good school system. We were next to Prince Edward County, Powhatan County, that were for whatever reason, there were no scores at that point, they were seen as a better school system. … Then when the testing came out our scores were not very good and I felt like, “This is a good measure to show we can do just as well as anybody else.” And the only reason our scores weren’t there is what most schools have: Our curriculum wasn’t aligned to the test at the time. Once we aligned our curriculum within two years we were fully accredited and we actually ended up in the top three of Region 8 in scores.

4. Has there been any change in your position on SOLs since?

Oh, yes. So, I think it was a good thing to get us aligned to the curriculum and motivated, and it wasn’t that many tests at the beginning and then it became very political, and we need more tests, and more tests, to the point where we were over-testing our kids.

If you look at, this is just my beliefs, in the American system, and there’s data to prove this, the majority of the Fortune 500 company CEOs are Americans. People say we’re way behind China, we’re way behind these other countries. They’re not leading the way in creativity. They’re pounded, just simple tasks, routine tasks, to answer questions to a test. They’re great test-takers. 

I think what makes America better is we are creative because we’re not afraid to try something and fail, and what I’ve seen over the last 25-30 years of SOL testing, I’ve seen our teachers be less creative and I’ve seen our kids be less creative because they’re not given the opportunity, which is why I really push project-based learning and expos. And if you really look at it … the reason teachers are not as creative now is the teachers we have have cycled through that SOL regime when they went to high school. They took the SOLs. They saw how their teachers taught.

5. Another thing that’s changed during your tenure is the debut of regular active-shooter drills. What was the rollout of that like?

To think about that is unbelievable, that you have to worry about that, and that it could happen in your community. Once you get to central office — I’ve been a superintendent for 18 years, and probably more prevalent over the last few years — you start to get those messages and you work with the local police, and there are threats. There are young people and students taking pictures and sending some bizarre thoughts and you have to take those seriously. 

And they do happen everywhere, and if a school superintendent tells you they haven’t had a threat working through the schools, they’re probably not telling you the truth. I don’t say that to scare anyone, but it could be real, so I think you have to take every precaution, which is why I really want to see the resource officers in every school.

6. There’s been calls nationally to arm teachers, and locally to put private security guards in Isle of Wight’s schools. What’s your main reason for wanting sheriff’s deputies?

I guess it just scares me that even though you can be trained as a teacher. I’ve shot guns before, my older brother works in security and so I’m familiar with that. They’re very well trained. But to me just the training that goes behind a police officer to me is more extensive. They’re members of our community and they report to the sheriff and take their job very responsibly. I just can’t get my head wrapped around contracting that out and we do contract services in many areas. If they don’t do a good job cleaning the schools or this or that, you know, we can send them packing and try to hire someone else, but I don’t want to take the chance that a contracted security system doesn’t do their job because that is life or death. That’s not the floor’s dirty.

7. What would you consider to be your biggest achievement since coming to Isle of Wight?

The CTE (career and technical education program) has been really touted, and it probably is. … That really took a lot of time and energy. I’ll tell you, Mike Lombardo, my assistant (superintendent), helped me tremendously building those partnerships and bringing people into our schools to say look what schools could be … and we did it without increasing taxes at all to the community.

Probably No. 2 is Hardy Elementary. I can’t wait to see when those doors open. I’ve built schools before and I’ve built them in high-poverty school districts and when you see kids walk through that door and say “this is for me,” oh my god what a feeling, so I can’t wait for that to happen to the kids and the faculty members at Hardy.

8. You’ve faced escalating backlash over promoting diversity, equity and inclusion in Isle of Wight County Schools from a segment of the county over the last two years who argue it’s a “divisive” concept with ties to Critical Race Theory. How did this affect your decision to retire a year early?

As far as the equity and diversity, there are achievement gaps, and they’ve been widened by the pandemic, and it’s not always Black and white, it’s really driven by poverty most of the time. Unfortunately in this community, poverty is lining up also with Black and white, and there’s a big gap there. You have to acknowledge that and do something about it or it’s never going to change. 

The gaps haven’t closed anywhere. … I’m hoping that politics doesn’t drive what we do in schools. I think children at an appropriate age, especially high school, need to be exposed to debates and conversations. We used to do that all the time and sometimes you were assigned a side you didn’t want to research, but it made you dig deeper and understand how that side felt or this side felt. That’s education. That’s some of the best education. That’s not memorizing a date or just reading a passage and recognizing the verbs; it’s digging deeper and making kids think for themselves. And yes, they can go home and their parents have a great influence on them too, and they can discuss what they heard. That’s the beauty of education and I hope we don’t lose that.

9. What are your hopes for IWCS in the future?

I hope they continue to pursue the building of Westside Middle School. We started a plan for growth of this county and it is growing. We see it every day out here. I hope they pursue that, and that probably is going to mean a tax increase, but it will be really the first tax increase that I can remember since I’ve come here.

Now that we’re past the pandemic, I hope we go back to deeper learning and that we focus on letting kids do those expos, present what they know. if you can present what you know to a community of people, that’s when you know I’ve learned it, not a fill-in-the-blank test. All kids have, I really do believe, unique gifts and talents, and if they’re only measured by that test we’ll never see those gifts and talents. I hope we continue to push for deeper learning and not go back to test, test, test, and just worried about that.

I know I’ve been criticized some for that too. Someone said earlier scores have come down since you’ve been superintendent. That’s one score on one given day. I don’t care about that score. I want to be accredited. The measure that I have looked at ever since I became a superintendent is on-time graduation. Are we getting our kids from point A to the finish line in the right amount of time and getting them out there prepared for the real world?

10. Any plans for your retirement?

Traveling. We’re going to Canada — Banff in the end of July, skiing in December and I’m going to Mexico next spring. I’ve already planned three trips, but I have no immediate plans. I know I go 100 miles an hour and I’m going to try to just relax. I exercise a lot, I golf, I’m going to try to do that for at least a year and just take a breath. … I think it’s time to go to the next chapter, and I’ve shared this with (School Board Chairwoman Denise) Tynes and some of my friends. We were actually talking about politics and term limits and I said, “You know, once a superintendent has been somewhere seven, eight, nine, 10 years, it can get stale.” And I think that’s what happens in government. It’s time for a change – a new voice with some of the same strong people that are going to be here and were here when I came. Building that new team and taking it to the next level, I can’t wait to hear who the new superintendent is going to be. I’ll support him or her anyway I can because I’m going to stay in this community. I have nothing but good things to say about Isle of Wight County and the schools.