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2007 Conference: First general session

Thomas-El thanks school leaders for helping him 'choose to stay'

Salome Thomas-El's presentation opened the 2007 Joint Annual Conference on Friday, Nov. 16, at the first general session.

Author of I Choose to Stay and The Immortality of Influence, Thomas-El is currently a principal in Philadelphia. He shared several inspiring stories about the influence of education on his own childhood in the inner city of Philadelphia, and about serving students as a teacher and administrator through developing their ability to play chess.

The school's chess team won seven consecutive national titles but he modestly credited his students for all of these accomplishments. Each story he related about them was personalized and his gentle demeanor showed emotion several times as he recalled those students and the challenges they overcame.

One student, Denise Pickard, became famous after defeating Arnold Schwarzenegger in a chess match, recalled Thomas-El. "You terminated the terminator," the former actor told Denise. Afterwards, the film-celebrity-turned-California-governor wrote a check to the school for $20,000.

Another student, Demetrius Carroll, didn't have adequate clothing to attend his first chess match. His teachers took up a quick collection to buy clothing for him to make the trip to Knoxville, Tenn. In that game, Demetrius was matched against an expert-level player many times his age. Although Thomas-El warned him not to expect much and just have fun, Demetrius won. Thus he became the only American amateur player to beat an expert-level player. As a result, Thomas-El said, Demetrius was later offered a scholarship to every state college in Pennsylvania.

But not all of Thomas-El's poignant memories are happy. He explained that during his first 10 years of employment in the Philadelphia middle school where he launched his career, he lost 20 kids to murder. "I've been to too many funerals; I need to go to more graduations," he acknowledged.

To motivate his students to stay in school and help them develop their abilities, Thomas-El said he tells them, "Smart is something you can become; it doesn't have to be something you are."

But the veteran administrator also lamented the shortage of teachers, particularly male teachers and role models. "[Teaching] is a tough life," he said. "And many people are not signing up for the job."

Thomas-El counseled the audience of Illinois school board members and administrators to recruit dedicated and caring teachers. "Every child deserves for someone to be crazy about him or her," he remarked. "We will be measured by the children, parents, and the [other] people we were able to touch. You will touch people who will go on to touch the lives of many more."

He also cautioned school leaders to remain humble. "If [educators] are going to be successful, we can't be arrogant. Arrogance is the Achilles heel of school leaders."

Indeed, despite his success as an author, speaker, and the subject of a major film project, Thomas-El continues to serve his profession and his students, unbending in defense of what is best for education. He noted that while Walt Disney Pictures have purchased movie rights to the story about his school and its chess team, he noted that the story has to be presented from the right angle.

"If we do make a movie, it must be about the thousands of people like you who know there is a child somewhere who has been helped through their service," he said.

Thomas-El concluded by thanking the school leaders in the audience for their service: "I am only alive because people like you gave me a chance. Every child deserves to have somebody be crazy about them. If they get that, they can make it. They deserve the best, and you know that they do."

Earlier in the conference's opening session, introduced by IASB President Marie Slater, of Wheaton-Warrenville CUSD 200, awards were presented for outstanding school architecture and for reducing workmen's compensation costs.

One top award went to Cordogan Clark and Associates, and representatives of their school design project, Aurora West District 129. Another top award went to Healy, Bender & Associates, Inc., and representatives of their school design project, Hinsdale CCSD 181.

Joanne Binotti also presented the Risk Management/David Binotti Award to representatives of Williamsville CUSD 15. Binotti awarded a plaque to superintendent David Root and board president David Knox.

The opening session also included the posting of colors by the Phoenix Military Academy, led by First Sergeant Charles Powell. Singing the National Anthem was Chris Long, superintendent of Kansas CUSD 3.

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