“It’s a great day to be a dolphin!” says Principal Ryan Towner as he walks through Walt Disney Elementary in Mishawaka, Indiana. Indeed, the school has a lot to celebrate. Towner has raised the bar for both student achievement and educators’ practices at the Title I school since he took the helm in 2017. He introduced tiered academic interventions with ongoing progress monitoring, new curriculum maps with common assessments, and a renewed focus on phonics instruction for the school’s younger students. Towner created a teacher leadership team that holds regular professional learning community meetings, pushing staff to make data-informed decisions in curricular planning, differentiate instruction, and push each other toward excellence through strategic collaboration across grade levels. The school has seen steady gains in student achievement, exceeding state averages in all performance domains with some of the strongest growth in the district. Walt Disney’s fourth and fifth graders have won the district spelling bee twice, a first in the school’s long history.
Towner mentors aspiring administrators from other elementary schools in the district, sharing a comprehensive understanding of the joys, challenges and responsibilities of the principal’s role as they walk the halls discussing teacher leadership and differentiated instruction. He serves on the advisory committee for elementary education at Indiana University South Bend, his alma mater, and often visits undergraduate classrooms to share a real-life perspective on instructional practices. Towner encourages Walt Disney staff to invite pre-service teachers into their classrooms for mentoring and observation. He helped create a three-week STEM camp, chaired the district’s wellness committee and led its federal grant program for several years. Education runs in Towner’s family—his father served as a longtime administrator for a nearby district and has strongly influenced the principal’s career.
Towner creates an environment where staff and students feel valued, motivated and appreciated. Walt Disney’s annual Culture Night, one of the best attended events in the district, celebrates the school’s linguistic and cultural diversity. Towner works closely with families and local businesses to facilitate extra programming and academic supports for students who need help. He knows all 550 Walt Disney students by name and often delights them at arrival or dismissal by playing the piano or ukulele. Towner’s students perform at high levels because they know their principal cares about them and expects great things.
Towner earned a bachelor’s in education in 2010 and a master’s in education administration in 2016 from Indiana University South Bend.
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