From a one-room school to being honored with a Blue Ribbon award by the White House, Swallow Elementary School appears to have transcended the decades with aplomb. Named for community leader and long-ago school board member, Henry Swallow, the school, which was also known as the Corner School and the Log School, opened its doors on Jan. 1, 1844. It continues to serve the needs of kindergarten through eighth grade students in the Arrowhead School District.
At the helm is Dr. Melissa Thompson, the superintendent. Prior to joining Swallow School six years ago, Thompson was athletic director and then assistant principal at Waukesha South High School. Her career path then took her to Waukesha West where she served three years as principal before leading Swallow.
Thompson comes from several generations of educators and family members who value education. Her father was a research chemist who taught at a community college; her mother taught French and Spanish for more than 30 years. Her husband currently works for the Elmbrook School District; her sister is also a teacher.
Several of her paternal uncles have earned doctorates. All of her grandparents have degrees from selective private colleges -- one grandmother even earned a master’s degree in nursing from the University of Michigan.
“Everybody gets the mission-driven work in the family,” she said, “the idea of growing people, growing community and supporting others.” Growing up the message Thompson received was always “How are you going to better yourself for the sake of the community?”
A Sense of Community
Thompson came to Wisconsin for college from Kirkwood, Mo., although she was no stranger to the Badger State. Her extended family has property in Door County, which was a summer gathering place when she was growing up.
Graduating from Lawrence University in Appleton with a major in psychology (and concentrations in history and political science) led to a teaching certificate in social studies. The opportunity to compete in collegiate volleyball and play viola in the orchestra along with a friendly campus determined her choice of colleges.
“The sense of community was something I was looking for,” she said of her decision to attend Lawrence, as well as “the accessibility to knowledge and skill development.” Lawrence offered her a more “well-rounded experience” compared with a Division I or II school. “I could have my cake and eat it too,” said Thompson.
Her collegiate volleyball playing days were soon suspended when she was named men’s volleyball coach for her four years at Lawrence. The club team lost its coach and tapped her to take over. “It was terrific,” she said of the opportunity to test her leadership skills.
Coaching ultimately inspired her undergraduate thesis on sports performance psychology. Her research question? “How do you predict who’s going to be the next Michael Jordan?” she said.
Based on the work of University of Pennsylvania psychologist, Dr. Martin Seligman, called the father of the positive psychology movement, Thompson found that by comparing both individual athletes’ scores for optimism along with those of their teams, she found that teams with the least winning records had the players who registered the lowest sense of optimism.
Another interesting finding: negative self-talk in boys served as a positive motivator while girls who practiced negative self talk couldn’t turn their performance around on the court.
Thompson later earned her master’s degree and doctorate in educational administration from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Her dissertation studied the criteria for recruiting and selecting principals in three large urban school districts.
Priorities: Family and Work
Thompson and her husband will celebrate their 15th wedding anniversary on Thanksgiving this year. She credits “good communication, teamwork, trust and love” as the glue that holds them together. The couple has four children, two girls and two boys who attend a neighboring school district.
Her parents, now retired, live in Door County year-round after moving there from Missouri. Her in-laws also relocated -- from New York State to Lake Country -- to be closer to their grandchildren.
In her spare time, it’s family that’s the priority. “My free time is devoted to spending time with my kids and our families,” said Thompson, adding “family time crosses over with exercise time. You have to feel well to be your best.”
Like most professional women, Thompson manages to eke out a hard-won balance between her professional responsibilities and her family although she admits it isn’t easy. She believes that work-life balance can happen if it’s measured “in totality” rather than on a day-to-day basis. “You have to decide what’s best for you,” she said.
The “Secret Sauce”
Swallow School is one of seven K-8 school districts each with their own superintendent and school board that feed into Arrowhead Union High School. With 654 staff members, Swallow currently serves 530 students.
A definite cheerleader for the school, Thompson is always ready to share its latest successes. “We have so many great things going,” she said. “Our staff is the very best at what they do.”
Parents are not only involved in their students’ lives, some 85 percent even volunteer in the school every year. This supportive community works together for the good of the whole.
The school has previously won awards from the State of Wisconsin for its high achievement and high progress rankings. “High progress is significant,” said Thompson especially in a district with a significant number of high-achieving students.
A special program called SOAR (Surpass Obstacles and Achieve Results) assesses where students are and then adds additional learning opportunities to move them forward. It’s a way of “closing the gap” and is what earned the school the White House commendation.
“Closing the gaps is dedicated to both the kid who is struggling and the one who is beyond the existing curriculum before they even start,” said Thompson. “Our kids grow at a rate that’s faster than what would be expected in a normal level because of our teachers.”
Each student has a set of goals that they strive to reach. These goals are not only based on academics, they touch on social and emotional aspects as well. “I believe that our kids are more than the score [on a standardized test], she said.
These components, much like the pitching technique and batting stance components that won the Cubs the World Series this year, combine to create an overall focus on positive momentum.
Every student in every grade has a daily 30-minute block of time to work on their goals. Shepherded not only by grade-level teachers, but specialists, aides and support staff, the students work in small groups as they strive to move forward. “It’s what I call our ‘secret sauce,’” she said.
Swallow is one of this year’s honorees that will receive the national award for Exemplary Achievement Gap Closing; other schools honored with Blue Ribbon awards are honored as “Exemplary High Performing” schools. Five staff including Thompson, the principal, and three teachers, as well as two school board members traveled to Washington, D.C. in November to receive the honor.