KIPP Colorado Schools is excited to welcome Noah Tonk as the new school leader at KIPP Sunshine Peak Academy. We sat down with Mr. Tonk to learn more about his journey leading up to KIPP and his vision for the school.
When Noah Tonk thinks about the teacher who made the biggest difference in his life, he thinks about his early days as a high school student, when he knew he had gotten involved with the wrong crowd. His friends at his Schaumburg, Illinois high school had been known to cause trouble around campus, and he had little interest for his teachers’ lessons in the classroom.
“I was probably beginning to spiral,” says Mr. Tonk.
But in his fall semester of his sophomore year, he auditioned for the school play, having been pushed into theater by his mother, who thought it would be a more productive use of his ability to fabricate stories that weren’t always totally truthful. After reluctantly auditioning—and knowing that he hadn’t given it a good effort—he was surprised to find that he had been cast in the school’s fall play.
As he begrudgingly began to prepare for the play, Mr. Tonk began to learn lessons that hadn’t come to him in his other classes. He learned self-discipline, responsibility, and, most important, self-respect. And instead of being surrounded by the type of students who had once set a dumpster on fire, he found himself surrounded by kids who were happy, and who were motivated to do well.
When he thinks back to this time, he is certain that his audition should not have landed him a part in the play. Instead, his theater teacher saw that he needed help and took action.
“This teacher took a chance on me,” he says, “and really, I think, saved my life. I look at my kids today and realize that they might not exist, had this teacher not taken this chance on me and my success.”
With a new outlook on school and life, it didn’t take long for Mr. Tonk to realize that he wanted to be a teacher. He started at several different colleges, but didn’t find the right fit until he ended up at Metro State University of Denver, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in secondary English education with a minor in theater.
He began his teaching career in Thornton, teaching Language Arts to students in grades seven to 11. After teaching and coaching other teachers for several years, he realized that he could have a bigger impact on school success by training other teachers, so he went back to school to earn a master’s degree in educational leadership at Northern Arizona University in Tucson.
In July 2014, Mr. Tonk took over Morey Middle School in Denver as Principal. While Morey had consistently been rated Green two years prior, student enrollment had declined by nearly half, and a culture of low expectations and a lack of systems created an environment unconducive to learning.
His first year as principal was difficult. He was in a new school, learning new rules, and getting to know the community. But, by his second year, he had a new assistant principal and a new group of teachers who were eager to make changes and build a strong school culture. He also implemented new systems, like mindfulness, into the classroom. The following year, suspensions at Morey dropped by 80 percent. By the third year, the school had earned a Green rating, up from an Orange rating when he started.
“That was an incredible validation of all the work we had done there,” he says.
After leaving Morey, Mr. Tonk spent a year in a school district closer to his home, but it was quickly apparent that it was not a good fit, as he didn’t see the right mindset in the district’s culture. When he saw the opening at KIPP Sunshine Peak Academy, he saw opportunity.
“At KIPP, I saw evidence of kids who were engaging in highly rigorous academics, but who were also exhibiting joy, and that equity and inclusivity was a strong focus,” he says. “I thought to myself, I want to be a part of that.”
When asked what families and students can expect this year, Mr. Tonk says that the emphasis on strong academics and cultural systems that have made KIPP Sunshine Peak Academy such a great school will continue to be a focus. He says he believes it’s important to get a true understanding of the school and community before implementing any major changes. But he also says that making sure systems are in place so the staff feels supported and can function well as a team will be one of his priorities.
When he’s not at school, Mr. Tonk is relaxing with his family—usually with a cup of coffee and a book in his hand. His favorite book? Anything by Margaret Atwood.