Walking into the brightly lit foyer of Ashford School in Ashford, Connecticut, smiling kids and kind “hello’s” are exchanged by staff and students at eight o’clock in the morning as the school day begins. It’s a cold Tuesday morning in late November following Thanksgiving break. The hallways are filled with student’s seasonal artwork and the sound of sneakers screeching across the basketball court from gym class can be heard throughout the building.
Further down the hallway is a tall man smiling and wearing a black blazer, khakis, and a tie with different countries flags on it. Troy Hopkins, the principal of Ashford School, is handing out certificates to show his appreciation for help with “Veteran’s Day Contributions.” Approaching a long ramp connecting the main office to the entrance of the building stands Garrett Dukette, the assistant principal, greeting students in the hall. Introducing himself, Dukette takes a moment to acknowledge Principal Hopkins. “He has the best ties in the school,” Dukette says.
As Principal Hopkins walks around, he addresses every student he sees by name followed by a polite, “Have a great day.”
“I know almost every kid’s name in the building,” Hopkins says. Quite a feat considering Ashford School is a public K-8 school of 400 students. “I think it lets them know that someone cares.”
Principal Hopkins has had himself quite the year. He was recently named 2018’s Elementary School Principal of the Year by the Connecticut Association of Schools, established a German exchange program, and had two staff members recognized for their excellence on both the state and national levels. “Our Spanish teacher [Rebecca Aubrey] was named national language teacher of the year,” Hopkins says. He also mentions that Dukette is, “in the running for Connecticut assistant principal of the year.”
Despite achieving such excellence, Hopkins humbles himself by giving the credit of his accomplishments to his staff and students.
“It all starts with a great staff,” he says.
Hopkins rewards teachers for their good work by giving them “Golden PAWS.” Paws is the school’s wolf mascot. It is a way to recognize teachers for going above and beyond in the classroom by demonstrating many of the core beliefs of the school.
Giving autonomy to the teachers and staff is another one of Hopkin’s priorities.
“If every idea in this building was my idea, we wouldn’t be sitting here right now,” Hopkins mentions.
For example, a teacher had suggested that every classroom should have two teaching assistants. This means that two students in each class, every day, will assist the teacher (while still learning, of course), and help the teacher with passing out papers and other classroom duties. The students are issued a lanyard and a laminated card that says “Teacher Assistant” on it for the day. The mentorship role empowers students, teaching them valuable leadership skills that they will be able to use later on in life. Principal Hopkins believes that “group ideas create a better learning environment.”
Principal Hopkins also, pushed the Ashford Board of Education to allow the school to hire a school counselor, something they did not have before. The school already had two psychologists, but Hopkins felt the school needed just a little more to assist the kids who needed help.
“It can make a difference for a kid if a teacher, or someone such as the school counselor, has a connection with a kid.” Ashford is high in acreage but low in population. A high percentage of the town’s tax base goes to supporting the school. With that being said, Hopkins wants to maximize the potential of student success with each given opportunity. He knows that some children have challenges at home and parents that may work two jobs, so the counselor gives students, “someone to talk to and connect with.”
Hopkins repeatedly mentions that, “every kid wants to succeed.” This is something he strives for every day and takes pride in knowing. For this reason, Hopkins takes a different approach to learning and teaching by practicing “project-based learning.” By giving a student a project to do, instead of overwhelming them with tests or quizzes, it gives the student a sense of autonomy and leadership. Students are able to choose a topic, develop it for an extended period of time and in essence learn by doing. By doing a project, Hopkins believes the information will stick with the student as well as give them a sense of pride that they were able to learn and show what they learned to an audience of their peers.
One year, second graders were able to pick a fruit or vegetable of their choosing, learn about it, and then bring that fruit to a local farmers market and sell it. This year the school was chosen by Amateur Radio on the International Space Station to communicate with an astronaut. Ashford was only one of nine schools in the country given this opportunity. Sixteen students were able to ask questions to the astronaut while receiving answers back through the radio. “That’s something those sixteen kids will remember forever.”
In terms of disciplining and consequences for students, Principal Hopkins, isn’t a huge fan. He goes back to the mantra that “every kid wants to succeed.” He believes that getting to the root of the problem and developing skills is better than punishing a kid for doing something wrong. He brought up the scenario of a kid being disruptive in English class while writing an essay; instead of punishing the student, he suggests helping the kid write their paper instead. The reason behind the student being off task may be because he or she is struggling with their writing. Hopkins believes by simply getting to the root of the problem and building essential life skills, the rest will take care of itself. “You have to remember; every kid wants to be successful.”
As the semester winds down and winter holidays near, the students and certainly Principal Hopkins have a lot to celebrate. Having already achieved the highest honor a principal can earn in Connecticut, Principal Hopkins hopes to build upon his success so more students can benefit from the solid foundation he has built in rural Ashford.
Headline photo courtesy of Tom O’Donnell for Blue Muse Magazine.