Ross Elementary principal Nick Gardner has a vision for East Topeka

Nick Gardner grew up knowing he could be a manager, but it took him a while to want to be.

Her father, Cleo Gardner, had been a teacher and principal in school districts throughout the region, before the family moved to the Topeka area.

“I saw my dad go to work in a suit every day, and that really inspired me to see education as a path in which I could become a leader as well,” Nick said.

While in college at Emporia State University, Gardner senior helped Nick settle into physical education as a major, but it wasn’t until Gardner returned to teach in Topeka Unified School District 501 that he began to see himself as a potential future headteacher.

Now, more than a decade later and after his final year as an administrative intern at nearby Eisenhower Middle School, Nick Gardner takes the reins of Ross Elementary School as the next principal.

“Dr. Tiffany Anderson and the (Topeka) school board have really helped and supported me through this first year as an administrative intern,” Nick Gardner said. “I know they trust me to do this job, and I know they’re excited to see what we can do at Ross.”

Nick Gardner wants to strengthen community ties at Ross Elementary

As an administrative intern at Topeka USD 501, Nick Gardner completed an accelerated program last year to expose him to the duties and responsibilities of management.

He remembers when a girl walked into his office, referred for a discipline problem.

“She said, ‘Mr. Gardner, you don’t know my life. You get in your fancy car and go home,'” Nick Gardner said. “It really struck me, that to be involved in a community, relationships are key.”

That’s why, leading up to the fall semester, Gardner took the opportunity to attend so many community events and meet so many groups in the southeast Topeka area.

One of its objectives will also be to hire at least 10% of the school staff in the vicinity of the school. So far, he has hired a few Highland Park High School graduates and a few parents to serve as support staff at the school.

And while parent and family involvement has been reduced in recent years due to COVID restrictions, Gardner said he wants to explore ways to invite the community back into the building through volunteering and of events.

“I know schools can’t do it on their own, and with Ross, I really want the community to be part of our school,” he said.

Gardner also wants to expand a program he started at Eisenhower called Achievement and Inspired Minds, which works to give college students positive adult role models and mentors.

Extending this program to younger classes makes no sense, especially since Ross is connected to Eisenhower by a bridge.

“With AIM, we focused on belief,” Gardner said. “Kids will make mistakes, but our curriculum has focused on teaching kids to be consistent, always show up and understand, how can we do it right?”

In leadership, Ross Elementary’s Nick Gardner finds a passion

In his first year as Principal of Ross Elementary School, Nick Gardner wants to strengthen the school's relationship with the East Topeka community.

Ross, like most Topeka USD 501 schools, is reflective of its immediate neighborhood, and the school’s projected 530 students in 2022-23 will also likely be about one-third black, one-third Hispanic, and one-third of whites.

Being a black principal then takes on added meaning for Gardner, just as he did when he saw his father running schools.

“It creates a sense of belief,” Gardner said. “It’s a job, but I also see it as a responsibility, not only to help make Ross the best school in Topeka, but to open doors for these students. They see that a minority African-American principal, and it just becomes a reality for them – something they can achieve too.”

In elementary schools, there is always a sense of urgency to make the necessary interventions in students’ lives before minor issues become major learning disparities, he said.

It’s a big job and a responsibility for 500 students and their families, Gardner said. But he sees it as his role and that of other teachers to work with parents to help students see themselves as capable of succeeding and achieving their dreams.

“(My parents) believed in me before I believed in myself,” he said. “In this job, I can do the same for my students and help them learn to believe in themselves. I want to accompany my students on this journey and be in the trenches with them while they learn and in the field. of play as They play.”

For his part, Cleo Gardner says he sees himself a little bit, a little Nick’s mother and a little Nick in the new principal of Ross.

“I think as a parent you want your child to be happy and you want them to find that passion,” Cleo said. “Nick has found that, and every day is not a job, but an opportunity for him.”

Gardner and his team are now preparing for the first day of school, just weeks away. The soft-spoken headteacher says he had some nerves, but is confident as he has the support of his family, staff and district leaders.

He’s here for the long haul, he said.

“I am aware of the magnitude of this position,” he said. “I want to make sure Ross becomes the best school in Topeka, and that’s what motivates me every day when I wake up. And with my staff and my vice principals, I know we can do it.”

Rafael Garcia is an education reporter for the Topeka Capital-Journal. He can be reached at Follow him on Twitter at @byRafaelGarcia.

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