Bob and Betty Tointon were looking for ways to give back to their community. That vision turned into a life-changing leadership program for principals and their teams.

Sweet success. That’s how students, teachers and administrators at Centennial Elementary School in Evans, Colo., describe the progress they’ve seen over the last several years.

Placed on a Priority Improvement Plan in 2015, the school struggled to meet state standards; but with guidance from a unique program at UNC, they’ve worked hard to change that.

As of 2018, Centennial has been named a state Performance School and is outperforming the district average in kindergarten and first grade reading.

“Being a school that’s 100-percent free and reduced, 90-percent minority, 70-percent language-learners, but still being a Performance School, it’s really just putting a lot of good things together,” says Principal Anthony Asmus.

It’s a huge accomplishment, aided in large part by Asmus’ transformational experience at the Tointon Institute.

Centennial isn’t the only school in the state of Colorado seeing these results. Principals all over the state have been given the tools to build successful schools thanks to the vision of Bob and Betty Tointon.

Building Better Leaders

Established in 1995 thanks to a generous gift from the Tointons, the Tointon Institute has one simple goal: building better school leaders.

The Tointon’s gift has made it possible for thousands of school principals, like Asmus, to attend an intensive, residential five-day academy focused on developing leadership skills that can guide their schools to success.

“Every time I host an academy, I’m overwhelmed by the passion, talent and commitment of the leaders in front of me who truly desire to improve their own skills as leaders so that they may better meet the needs of students in their schools, their districts or their classrooms,” says Janet Alcorn, director of the Tointon Institute.

The Tointon Institute embraces a concept that Bob Tointon has long championed — “The road to success is always under construction” — by providing professional development that can improve the overall quality of education through systemic changes.

“You know, we have the same issues around engaging kids, it doesn’t matter whether you’re in Cherry Creek or Deerfield. We have the same issues around teachers feeling worthy. We have the same issues around how to choose the best curriculum and how do we make it not about programs, but about learning. Those kinds of conversations are universal, eternal,” Alcorn says. “The Tointon Institute is a safe place for these principals to have those conversations. By about the second day of the Principal Leadership Academy, the guards are down, and they have these amazing discussions about leadership. It’s a really fertile ground for those important conversations to take place.”

And that’s exactly what the Tointons intended to create.

Once a Builder, Always a Builder

Having spent decades at the helm of Hensel-Phelps Construction Co., building structures all over the state of Colorado, Bob Tointon decided to translate some his most valuable leadership experiences to building leaders in local schools.

“You know, from the very beginning, the focus has been on leadership, and that really goes back to the experience that I had at Hensel-Phelps with the beginning superintendents’ seminar,” Tointon says.

The program Tointon is referring to was an annual training program started under his leadership at Hensel-Phelps. Every year the six top managers of the company took 20 assistant construction superintendents to Estes Park for a week of intimate, hands-on leadership training that empowered their employees to perform at a higher level.

“Principals are just like construction superintendents in many ways. A principal is in charge of building young minds while a construction superintendent is just in charge of building a building,” Tointon says.

He thought the success they experienced through the Hensel-Phelps’ beginning superintendents’ seminar could easily translate to schools.

And he was right. Thus, the Tointon Institute was born.

A Family Affair

Although neither Bob nor Betty Tointon are originally from Colorado, when Bob joined Hensel-Phelps in 1963 they moved to Greeley and never looked back. They love this community — and they’re always looking for ways to give back.

“You want to support the community. You want to make things better in your own community,” Tointon says.

And they see local schools as the perfect place to do that.

Betty grew up in a family full of educators. Her father was a principal, coach and superintendent of schools, and two of Betty’s uncles were also prominent educators.

“In my case it was a little bit different. It wasn’t that any of my family had been teachers, or principals, but I felt that the education I got was key to my success,” Bob says. “We look at this as a way to help people become self-sufficient. It’s a hand up instead of a handout.”

“Our Tointon graduates so appreciate Bob and Betty,” Alcorn says. “They get it. They know they’ve gotten something special because someone gave a lot of their own money to support them and want nothing in return. What Bob wants is better schools, better learning for kids, but he doesn’t expect results overnight. He understands that it’s a process. Bob knows that without the thoughtful, informed, smart and resilient leaders in our schools, little will change.”

Taking it One Step Further

To better meet the needs of educators and build better schools, the Tointon Institute expanded in 2002. Repeated requests from Tointon graduates who were eager to come back for more prompted the creation of the School and Teacher Leadership Academy.

Held twice per year, this second residential academy provides graduates of the Principal Academy the opportunity to bring a team of teachers together to discuss not only leadership, but concrete strategies they can take back to their schools.

“They have conversations that they would never have at their schools because there are bells ringing and parents knocking and kids needing help…you know all of those things,” Alcorn says. “What we try to provide is the information and the time for them to have the crucial conversations about change, the time that would otherwise not be available to them.”

Together, these educators create plans they take back to their schools and put into action. And the results speak for themselves.

A Lasting Impact

“What we hear over and over again is that the experience is life-changing and that it’s the best professional development they’ve ever had. I don’t take that with a grain of salt because teachers and principals participate in a lot of professional development,” Alcorn says.

Not only that, Alcorn says graduates of the Tointon Institute are staying longer at their respective schools. And consistent leadership is a crucial component of successful schools.

“Change in a school is a process. You implement it the first year, you don’t see real change until three years later. It can take about seven years in a school for significant changes to take place. So, having a principal and several teachers, or a leadership team who can lead an initiative through that time period is absolutely crucial,” Alcorn says.

And that’s exactly what’s happening at Centennial Elementary.

“My experience at the Tointon Institute has helped us to not be so top down, but more people-centered,” says Asmus. “We have a lot of great leaders in our building, and how you bring out leadership within every single person and treat them is important. We’ve got a lot of smart teachers in this district with a lot of great ideas. So how do you bring all the best ideas out and on the table and then have the best plan?”

“We’re after just exactly what Anthony has done. His school is number one in the district he said. It’s fantastic. And he gives his experience with the Tointon Institute quite a bit of credit for it,” Tointon says. “I think you find quite a few stories like that all across the state. That’s what we envisioned when we started this. Things don’t always turn out as well as you hope, but I would say because of Janet, the Tointon Institute has turned out as well as we hoped if not better.”  UNC

–Kaitlin Berry