Embracing the Challenge: Leading a New School
Not for the first time in his career, Dr. Donald Thornton is embracing “good scary.”
As the principal for Westminster’s new upper school on its Lafayette campus, Thornton is aware of the gravity of his position but says his years of experience in the public school system, as well as his education from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, have prepared him for the task ahead.
“All the things we’re doing, we have to take very seriously. While Westminster has been here 40 years, we’re now setting the cornerstones for the next 40 years,” he says.
“Everything we do the first year is going to establish the culture and tradition of this school. It’s something we talk about in the master’s and doctorate program — how the decisions you make, how the policies that exist, how all of that changes culture.”
Thornton earned his Master of Education in Educational Leadership from UL Lafayette in 2008 after five years teaching social studies at Comeaux High.
Through the program, he saw an opportunity to broaden his opportunities as an educator.
“I thought that would be more beneficial to me because it opened up the door for any leadership position I wanted to look at down the road in the school system,” he says. “We worked hard. There was a great mix of philosophy and practical applications.”
As Thornton began looking into assistant principal openings, he already had experience presenting, breaking down data, and technical writing — all skills he’d need as assistant principal at Lafayette High, then Paul Breaux, and then Lafayette Middle School.
Meanwhile, he enrolled in the University’s Doctor of Education in Educational Leadership program. As a first-generation college student, embarking on his terminal degree was scary, he says, but in a good way.
“I was fueled by two things: I wanted to eventually teach at the university level and personal pride,” Thornton says. “I was the first one in my family to get a four-year degree, and I took it as a personal challenge to keep going.
“It helps when you’re a big nerd for learning. It was an easy decision.”
Thornton has spent the last few years as principal at Lafayette High while fulfilling his goal to teach at the university through the M.Ed. in Educational Leadership program.
The program has seen a few changes since Thornton was a student, including moving from a fully on-campus program to a hybrid format. Students are only in class once a week, with the remainder of their coursework online.
“With the hybrid classes, it gives you a little more flexibility and lightens the load a little during that workweek,” Thornton says. “I think it’s very beneficial to working teachers, and something I’ve always applauded UL for.
“They really cater to you as a working professional, and they respect that you have a full-time job, but that doesn’t mean that they lower standards. They want to see you develop and become a great administrator, and they really work with you on that.”
Having achieved several personal and professional goals, Thornton had the opportunity to fulfill one more: serve as principal for a brand-new school.
Westminster Christian Academy has offered pre-k through sixth grade in Lafayette, but families wishing to continue with the school had to do so through the Opelousas campus. The school’s Board of Directors made the move last year to expand the Lafayette campus’ offerings to include an upper school, beginning with the 2019-2020 school year.
“I really feel this is where I need to be. It’s an exciting opportunity here in Lafayette,” Thornton says. “I learned a lot from time in the public school system, but I’m carrying out my dream of starting a new school.”
Thornton says he’ll also have a new perspective to offer future administrators in the Educational Leadership program.
“It adds a whole new level,” he says. “When we’re teaching processes, procedures, and law, you have the added element of how it’s different at private institutions — how they pass policies, what dictates policies.
“Overall, it’s going to enrich the students’ experience.”
Meanwhile, Thornton and his team have a lot to do before students begin classes in August.
“It’s a good scary,” he says. “We have a tremendous responsibility before us. I’m trying to take it head on and build around me strong leaders, whether they’re teachers or other positions on campus, so we can ensure a successful first year and beyond.
“It’s going to be a really good challenge.”
Prepare for your next career challenge through the University of Louisiana at Lafayette’s hybrid Educational Leadership program or the fully online Master of Education in Curriculum and Instruction, Instructional Specialist concentration. Request more information today.