-by Patricia Erikson
Tiffany Regan Robert ’00 joined Thornton Academy Middle School’s faculty the first year it was founded. As a full-time sixth grade teacher, little did she know that four years later she would end up leading the new school as Principal for most of its first decade.
“I had completed my bachelor’s at the University of Maine-Farmington with a certification in elementary education when a mentor suggested that I enroll in the Masters in Education Leadership program at the University of Southern Maine. I loved Thornton Academy and the Middle School already. Then, former Headmaster Carl Stasio offered me the opportunity to become Principal. Not in a million years did I expect to work as an administrator. But I found that I could apply what I was learning as a classroom teacher to my leadership role. I said ‘yes’ because I was passionate about making a difference, about having an impact on student experience by working with the teachers. I try to be my staff’s biggest cheerleader; I help them do the best they can with their students. For example, I help teachers—if the five or six strategies that they normally use aren’t working—to identify additional instructional strategies that work best for particular students.
“We all know how much society is emphasizing standardized testing right now. I help guide the teachers to find a middle ground with respect to this testing. At Thornton Academy, we don’t want to ‘teach to the test,’ but we do find value in saying ‘what can we learn from these test results?’ I like having those conversations with staff.
“It has been important to me to create a culture at the middle school that is inviting for students and staff. I foster opportunities for staff to grow and set professional development goals. But a successful workplace boils down to relationships—in this case between me and the teaching staff. It’s important to model the value of relationships and let this trickle down to students. I want the Thornton Academy Middle School to be a place where students know that we care about them. They’re not only a student, but a person and an individual.
“We foster this culture of respect in the very first few days of school called ‘Community Building Days.’ We devote three days to exploring what a community looks like and how each student can play a role. We form ‘mix-it-up’ groups and engage with the Four Pillars of Respect, Responsibility, Compassion, and Investment. We ask them: ‘What does it mean to be invested? What does it look like to be responsible?’ Then we role play. They really get it. It’s the foundation of what we do and why we have a school climate of respect.”
Thornton Academy Middle School was built in partnership with Arundel, to answer the community’s need for additional space and programming for its middle school students. “The result,” Headmaster Rene M. Menard ’88 said, “has been nothing short of amazing with TAMS echoing the strengths of M. L. Day School by providing Arundel students with high quality education in a small and personal environment. Arundel students in both the middle and high schools have succeeded here, becoming citizens who contribute to our TA community in positive and productive ways.”
Tiffany reflected on the changes, “For each of the past ten years, we have improved and refined our practice. Over the years, our student diversity has increased. Now, in addition to Arundel students, we serve students from Saco, Dayton, Scarborough, South Portland and Portland.”
Now that the ten-year contract through which all Arundel middle school students attend Thornton Academy will expire in June 2016, many parents are wondering what will happen next. Tiffany said, “Even though the Arundel contract is ending, we will continue to be a choice for Arundel families. We were built as their school and we will continue to serve them.”
In a letter to all Arundel residents this year, Headmaster Menard explained how, after the contract ends, “Arundel families with students in grades six through twelve will still have educational choice. Thornton Academy is one of their choices and they will not be classified as private pay tuition families. Preparing students for the changing world that awaits them is Thornton Academy’s primary community responsibility. Taking into account the high school, we have been Arundel’s school for the past century and we look forward to continuing that relationship in the years ahead.”
Tiffany concurred, “People ask about our future: ‘Where is the school going? When the Arundel contract ends, will it continue?’ The answer is ‘absolutely.’ The school is thriving. We’ve never been positioned better. We will continue.”