Principals for a day

A return visit to Thoreau Elementary School
Principals for a day
Photo by Jeanan Yasiri Moe
Thoreau Elementary School Principal Dave Bray

The first time I participated in the “Principal Experience” for the Foundation for Madison’s Public Schools, I was worried that walking the halls might trigger the bad dream that almost everyone has at some point.

The one where you’re late for an exam, but can’t find the classroom. Or, worse, the one where you find the room and get the exam, but realize you haven’t been to class all semester.

“I don’t think they have final exams in elementary school,” my wife said.

She was right, and we were going to Thoreau Elementary School. What’s the worst thing that can happen in elementary school? You get sent to the principal’s office.

Well, we were going to be the principals. That was 2014, and the morning turned out to be so rewarding that when we were asked to do it again, earlier this month, we said yes in a heartbeat.

The program on Oct. 8 was at schools throughout town, matching principals with outside partners for a few hours so the latter get an insider’s view of a public school. There’s a chance to ask questions, share information and ideas and peek into classrooms. There were 115 “Principal Experience” participants this year.

Jeanan and I once again drew Thoreau Elementary. The principal who welcomed us, Dave Bray, is serving on an interim basis, something Bray has done annually at various Madison schools since retiring from fulltime work in 2011.

Bray seemed remarkably settled after less than two months at Thoreau. He’s originally from Valparaiso, Indiana, and after teaching for eight years, got his first principal’s job in Crothersville — just down the road from John Mellencamp’s hometown of Seymour, Bray said with a grin. He came to Madison in 1990.

Our morning commenced in Bray’s office where he gave us the lay of the Thoreau landscape, which we were familiar with from our visit five years earlier. There are now 500 students at the school, many of which come from families that are ethnically and economically diverse. The goal is to bring them together on the common ground of respect and responsibility.

“Good morning, Thoreau Nation,” Bray said into the public address microphone that’s near the desk in his office. He mentioned a full school assembly that would be starting in a few minutes in the gym. We walked with Bray to the assembly and stood in the back while he addressed the students.

“I say ‘Rosa,'” Bray began. “You say — “

“Parks!” the students roared back.

They sang the official Thoreau school song, written by Madison musician and educator Leotha Stanley.

“I say, ‘Jackie,'” Bray said. “You say —”

The kids shouted, “Robinson!”

In 2014, we were given a tour of the school by the then-principal Kathy Costello, who retired last spring. Costello was great — she’d been at Thoreau a decade — but this year we were given a tour by three fifth-grade girls. (Thoreau has students from 4K to fifth grade).

Imani, Georgia and Jasmin were terrific guides.

“We’ll be working for them someday,” Jeanan said.

There is art all over the walls at Thoreau, thoughtful, multicultural pieces. A large wraparound mural tells the story of Henry David Thoreau. In the library is a striking sculpture by the late Madison artist Harry Whitehorse, fashioned from a tree outside the school that was hit by lightning. On a downstairs wall there is an image of a tree for which the students used their hands to make the leaves. I believe it’s in honor of Costello, the departed principal, but regardless it’s beautiful.

Jeanan asked our guides what the biggest issue is at Thoreau. “The boys throwing the playground stuff on the roof.”

“Get used to it,” Jeanan said.

On a slightly more serious note, we asked Bray about the challenges facing public education. He mentioned the declining number of young people who want to be teachers.

“I have a concern with numbers going down,” the principal said. “Maintaining strong public schools takes good people. My biggest concern with public education right now is dwindling enrollment nationally in education programs.”

It’s a thorny subject. Most of us have heard stories in recent years about unruly classrooms and how things are different now from “when we were growing up.”

Most things are. By coincidence, a week before I went to Thoreau I ran into Karen Ragatz, a woman I hadn’t seen in more than 50 years. She was my fifth-grade teacher at Midvale Elementary School in Madison, and she was excellent.

That was the year I stuck my tongue on an outside iron railing in January. I panicked and tore it away. There was blood everywhere. I may not have been unruly, but I was pretty stupid.

Things seemed calmer at Thoreau on this visit. Principal Bray handed us a color sheet that was titled “Thoreau School’s School-wide Expectations.” It listed appropriate behavior in class, in the lunchroom, in the hall, on the bus and on the playground. I noted it neglected to say don’t throw things on the roof.

It probably doesn’t hurt that Bray has a background in conflict resolution and works as a consultant in that area. When all else fails, you go with the tried and true. Bray gave us “bingo tickets” to hand out to students who seemed to be doing a good job at whatever they were undertaking. Those faces — inquisitive, hopeful, mischievous — are still what it’s all about. I’m not sure what the bingo tickets got them, but I felt like Willy Wonka.

Doug Moe is a Madison writer. Read his monthly column, Person of Interest, in Madison Magazine.