Eric Thomas has worked with school districts of all demographics and sizes during his 26 years in education.
Much of the variety in that work came during his five years as the chief support officer for the University of Virginia Darden/Curry Partnership for Leaders in Education, which partnered with districts around the United States. But he’s also seen schools through the eyes of a teacher, school administrator and district administrator, most recently as a deputy superintendent and the chief turnaround officer for the Georgia State Board of Education, a position he’s held since 2017.
Thomas told the Cap Times that his experiences have shown him how to help students of all kinds find academic success.
“My background is very much anchored on supporting all students,” Thomas said. “That’s sort of why I wake up every morning. The notion that all students are able to achieve at a high level, I truly not only believe it, but I’ve seen it, I’ve experienced it. I know it’s possible.”
He will be the third and final candidate for the Madison Metropolitan School District superintendent position to visit for his Day in the District. Thomas will be here Thursday to meet community members, interview with the School Board and hold a public session from 6-7:30 p.m. at La Follette High School, 702 Pflaum Road.
Various news reports have listed him as a finalist for multiple superintendent positions in recent years, as well as being among 51 applicants for the superintendent position in Hillsborough County Schools in Tampa, Florida. An Atlanta Journal Constitution article says there has been “long running tension between (Thomas’) office and that of state school Superintendent Richard Woods, who has always wanted control” over the turnaround program Thomas leads.
Thomas began his career as a high school social studies teacher in Cincinnati in 1994, and after four years moved into a district coordinator position for a program supporting "overaged" eighth graders (those older than their peers) until 2002. He then moved to the nearby Middletown City School District to be an administrator at an alternative high school.
After two years, he returned to Cincinnati as a principal in the city’s public school system while also working as a part-time adjunct instructor and facilitator in the University of Cincinnati’s educational administration program. He also worked in Cincinnati Public Schools as a turnaround principal coach and the district’s chief innovation officer.
In 2012, Thomas moved to his position with the University of Virginia, which he held until 2017, when he moved to his current position in Georgia. Last summer, a former employee alleged inappropriate behavior and discrimination in the department, but Thomas sent along the results of an internal investigation that found those allegations without merit.
Thomas said his time in the position has shown him the best way to transform schools is to make changes at a district level. When he started in Georgia, he said, “that was not their lens.”
“Their lens was a school lens that, ‘This school was not successful so you need to do something with this school,’” he said. “What the research says, and my experience is, that you really have to take a look at the culture, the structures and the condition at the district level and (see) how is the district supporting schools, how is the district holding schools accountable, how is the district putting conditions in place so that schools can transform themselves?
“It’s really a district focus and not necessarily a school focus.”
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Georgia state legislators and then-Gov. Nathan Deal created Thomas’ current office in 2017 as part of a plan to improve struggling schools.
He’s proud of what’s been accomplished in the years since and feels like he’s created “the structure and the foundation that this work could continue.”
“Anyone who goes into a role, you want to execute whatever the deliverable was, whatever the expectations were, you want to deliver on that. I think we’re starting to see that,” he said. “We’ve implemented some strategies and practices, we’ve had success with schools and districts and now we’re seeing those practices and strategies be implemented much more widely than just the schools and districts that we’re working with.”
The work he’s done there and throughout his career would match up with what Madison needs right now, Thomas said.
“If (Madison residents) take a look at my background, as they get to know me a little bit better, I think they’ll see that there’s some really strong alignment in how I see things and why I wake up in the morning that’s very much aligned to the work that they want to see done,” he said.
Madison’s ‘unapologetic commitment’
Thomas hopes his visit can clarify both his interest in the job and Madison’s interest in him.
“These situations are marriages,” he said. “The school district, community, board, they’ve got to see Eric as the person that fits their need, but I also have to feel good about this is the right fit for me.
“It’s not good or bad, right or wrong if this doesn’t work out — it’s a marriage. You want to pick your mate very carefully.”
His early research has him thinking it would be a good match, though, specifically mentioning the district’s focus on Black Excellence and its strategic plan goals, which “provide a great foundation,” he said.
“The very unapologetic commitment to all students, I think that’s a huge strength,” he said. “I think the strategic framework provides some coherence to the work so it’s not just a lot of things going on, there’s a strategy to it.”
He said the “all students” definition needs to include high-performing students as well as those who are struggling, something he experienced while a principal in Cincinnati.
“Students who were not doing well, we expected them to improve, but we also put structures and systems in place for our students who were doing well,” he said. “That’s going to be something that’s really critical in Madison.”
The “very diverse” School Board has some seemingly “very passionate individuals,” Thomas added, which he’s hopeful would help accomplish the necessary outcomes for students. That combined with the benefits of being in a college community makes the idea of coming to Madison appealing to Thomas.
“This is missionary work,” he said. “This isn’t about turning around schools or improving test scores, it’s about turning around kids’ lives.”
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