‘Servant leader’ prepares to steer Wichita’s public schools

Alicia Thompson cheers during a ceremony last week honoring three distinguished classroom teachers at Christa McAuliffe Academy. Thompson will replace outgoing USD 259 superintendent John Allison. (Feb. 24, 2017)
Alicia Thompson cheers during a ceremony last week honoring three distinguished classroom teachers at Christa McAuliffe Academy. Thompson will replace outgoing USD 259 superintendent John Allison. (Feb. 24, 2017) The Wichita Eagle

Alicia Thompson, who started in Wichita public schools as a kindergartner, will be the next superintendent of the state’s largest school district. "I knew I wanted to make a difference in the lives of kids.” (video by Jaime Green / The Wichita Eag

A framed print on one wall of Alicia Thompson’s office shows a little black girl, dressed all in white, being escorted into her elementary school by four U.S. deputy marshals.

On the wall behind her is a racial slur and the remnants of a smashed and splattered tomato.

“Ruby Bridges,” Thompson says, naming the girl in Norman Rockwell’s iconic painting.

Thompson nods her head and glances again at the print, a reminder of the hateful mobs and quiet heroes that defined school desegregation in the 1950s and ’60s.

Thompson, who in July will become superintendent of the state’s largest school district, recognizes the symbolism of the painting and her career in education. She will be the first African-American to lead Wichita’s public schools and the first woman since Rosemary Kirby, who served briefly as interim superintendent in the early 1990s.

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“I embrace that, and I am proud of that,” Thompson said.

“But what makes me even prouder is that I am working in a school district – an urban school district – with such a diverse student population, and that is also very symbolic to me as part of this community.”

Caring community

Thompson was born and raised in Wichita. Her mother taught at Carter Elementary School, where Thompson attended kindergarten before transferring to Chisholm Trail Elementary.

She subsequently attended Brooks Middle School and Heights High School, from which she graduated in 1986.

“I come from a community in which everyone was a part of your upbringing,” she said. “When I was in church, if I didn’t behave well, it didn’t have to be my mom who kind of pulled me to the side and chastised me. … It wasn’t anything for someone to pull you to the side and say, ‘Take care of that.’

“It really was a community, from the very beginning, that always put their arms around me and taught me the importance of what it means to have a group of people around you to help you become what you can become.”

Since being named superintendent last week, friends and colleagues have sent cards and e-mails. Flower and balloon arrangements fill a table in Thompson’s office on the ninth floor of the district headquarters building.

Her favorite correspondence so far, she said, was an e-mail her second-grade teacher sent to her mother.

“It said, ‘My adorable second-grade student is now the superintendent of schools for Wichita,’ ” Thompson said, smiling.

“That has just been amazing, the support that I have received, both internal and external.”

Thompson didn’t always have her sights set on school administration – or even teaching. Growing up, she says, she thought about being a pediatrician so she could care for babies and children.

Until she thought about the blood.

“Then I decided, ‘This is not the thing for me,’ ” she said. “But I knew I wanted to work with kids. … I knew I wanted to make a difference in the lives of kids.”

Leadership qualities

After earning her bachelor’s degree at Langston University in Langston, Okla., Thompson returned to Wichita to teach third grade at Ingalls Elementary near 10th and Grove. The next year she taught first grade and then remained with the same group of students through second and third grade, an educational practice known as looping.

Billy Breckenridge, her principal at Ingalls, says he recognized Thompson’s leadership qualities right away.

“She was one of those people that you just have that feeling about, when you watch her interact with parents and with kids,” said Breckenridge, who worked nearly three decades as a teacher and principal in Wichita schools.

“She’d come to me and say, ‘Mr. Breckenridge, is there anything I could do to help? Anything you need done?’ Or, ‘If there are some kids who need some additional attention, you let me know,’ ” he said.

“That’s the kind of person she was.”

When Breckenridge suggested she pursue her master’s degree and become an administrator, Thompson had to think about it, she says. Still in her 20s, she was younger than most principals and wasn’t sure she had the chops to run a school.

“That was a scary thought,” Thompson recalls. “I watched how he had to be strong and had to deal with all aspects of the organization, how complex it seemed that the job was.

“But he would just gradually kind of push me out and say, ‘OK, we need a chairperson for this’ or ‘We need a team lead now.’ … And each time I would do it, I would get more and more confident in myself and my ability to lead.”

Thompson’s tenure

Thompson helped guide Ingalls’ transition into a World of Knowledge magnet school. Shortly afterward, she became assistant principal at Cloud Elementary, in the heart of a predominantly Hispanic area in north Wichita.

She later was principal at Little Early Childhood Center, Cessna Elementary and Spaght Elementary before becoming the district’s executive director of staff development.

In 2005, former superintendent Winston Brooks named her one of two assistant superintendents for elementary schools.

Over the past decade Thompson has been part of the leadership team that guided the district’s move to Common Core State Standards, a districtwide academic and behavior blueprint known as the Multi-Tier System of Supports, an expansion of the AVID program and a new reading curriculum for primary grades.

She has heard from parents who advocated for more recess time and, in recent months, against a new schedule that keeps elementary students in school until 4:40 p.m.

During that time, Wichita’s budget challenges have prompted schools to close, class sizes to increase and teachers to rally against ever-increasing workloads.

As she prepares to take the helm of Wichita schools, the district is embroiled in a decades-long school funding dispute and is awaiting a Kansas Supreme Court ruling on whether the state’s funding system can be considered adequate.

Asked to share the top two or three issues facing Wichita schools, Thompson offers the first immediately.

“Of course we all know it’s the dollars,” she said. “We’re hopeful that we will be able to get some relief.”

After that, though, she pauses for several seconds, looks down, considers.

“There are several,” Thompson says.

But she won’t be elaborating on any today.

“I hate to say any others because I have not had the opportunity to visit with the board to determine what challenges they feel would be important for me to address at this time.”

Thoughtful, strategic

It’s easy to see why some friends and colleagues describe Thompson as thoughtful. They mean it in both senses of the word.

She is open and friendly, the kind of person who prefers hugs over handshakes and will ask you how your mama’s doing.

“She is definitely a servant leader,” said Tiffinie Irving, who worked alongside Thompson as executive director for elementary schools.

“She is willing to get her hands dirty and get out there to do whatever is needed … including in the classroom.”

She also is reasoned, strategic, precise. She pauses before answering a question, and sometimes midway through an answer. She pays attention to details.

Connie Dietz, a former school board president, recalls touring schools with Thompson and watching her evaluate classroom materials, strategies and physical arrangements.

“She just had a knack for walking into a building or a classroom and within a few short seconds, she could size up what was going on,” Dietz said.

“How did adults talk to students in the halls or one-on-one – were they using child-friendly language? Were they embracing the students verbally?” she said. “Were they obviously connecting with the students, or did there appear to be a disconnect there?

“She was always very much attuned to what people were saying to her and what they were doing. … She was really good at spotting the connects and also the disconnects.”

School board members opted not to conduct a nationwide or even regional search for John Allison’s replacement, selecting instead the person who has served the past several years as Allison’s second-in-command.

Some of that was financial, said board members, who wanted to forgo the expense of a head-hunting firm. But they also sought someone who would continue the district’s current mission.

“With John Allison, we needed an outside person. We needed someone who could look at things from a different perspective,” Dietz said.

“I think the district under John’s leadership has progressed so far in the eight years he’s been here that I, myself, am very comfortable with an internal candidate.”

The school board is expected to formally extend a contract offer to Thompson on Monday night.

Symbol of strength

On the shelves and tabletops in Thompson’s downtown office are several elephant figurines, their trunks stretched skyward.

They’re a salute to her college sorority, Delta Sigma Theta, whose founder collected elephants as a symbol of strength and determination, she explains. The uplifted trunks represent lofty goals.

Thompson jokes that their inspiration may be lost on her because she rarely spends time in her office. Similarly ignored is a fitness ball chair in the corner, which she put there in hopes of working her core muscles.

She was in her office only briefly one day last week, between visits to schools to congratulate this year’s Distinguished Classroom Teachers.

“It gives me goosebumps to be able to see all the fantastic teachers we have,” she said.

She smiles when she talks about teachers and students, and also when asked about her hopes for the Wichita district and community.

“I just hope that they continue as they always have, supporting the Wichita public schools,” she said. “Coming into our schools and learning what we do, just continuing to support us as we move forward in educating our kids.”

Suzanne Perez Tobias: 316-268-6567, @suzannetobias

Getting to know Alicia Thompson

When she takes the helm of Wichita schools in July, Alicia Thompson will be district’s 23rd superintendent. Here are some fun facts about her:

▪ Favorite musical artist: Kenny G, smooth jazz

▪ Favorite food: Salmon

▪ Favorite movie: “Hidden Figures.” She has seen it three times.

▪ Favorite TV show: “Family Feud”

▪ Favorite book: “The Speed of Trust,” Stephen Covey

▪ What she’s reading now: “Start With the Why,” Simon Sinek

▪ Most memorable moment as a student: As a student at the elementary school where her mom worked, she enjoyed cleaning teachers’ chalkboards after school. She formed relationships with teachers as a child and ended up in some of their classrooms as a student, including her kindergarten teacher, Ms. Garvey, who still lives in Wichita.

▪ Most memorable moment as a teacher: When she was able to loop with her students in first, second and third grades while teaching at Ingalls Global Magnet (now Spaght Elementary). She still keeps in touch with some of those students.

▪ An interesting tidbit not many people know: She was first runner-up in the Miss Black Langston pageant in college, and her talent was singing. She was a traveling choir in college that went to Africa and Europe.