For new Thoreau principal, connecting with students comes first 

By Kelly Walters  Correspondent
January 5, 2024

At 8:50 each weekday morning, you’ll find Thoreau Elementary School’s new principal, Justin Sparks, greeting students as they shuffle through the front doors on their way to class. He’ll return at 3:30 to send them off before inching his way through the Route 2 roundabout traffic line on his long drive home to Westminster.  

For Sparks, connecting with students comes first. He brings over a decade of teaching and administrative experience to his position, as well as six years of working to improve his own children’s district as a school board member.  

Sparks wasn’t looking to leave his position as a Fitchburg Public School principal when he was invited to interview in Concord, he said, but “from the minute I met the interview committee … just those conversations and having the opportunity to tour the school and meet staff and students … I was hooked.”  

Sparks assumed his new role in July, after former Principal Angel Charles became director of student services, and spent his inaugural days building as many relationships as possible. He met with every Thoreau staff member he could to hear “what’s working, and what’s not working yet,” he said. Sparks held an ice cream social to meet students before the school year began, calling the event “the highlight of the summer.”  

Building connections, supporting students’ mental health and creating a sense of belonging are key priorities for the educator.  

“I try to spend 25% of my day in classrooms, to build relationships and celebrate their great work, but it also allows me to spot trends,” he said.  

Sparks recently circulated a “belonging survey” to identify which students feel they have a “trusted adult” at school, so staff can build relationships with kids who don’t yet have that support. 

“You can judge a school’s culture based on how kids feel on Sunday night,” he said. Sparks said schoolwide events, like an “indoor glow run” and programming featuring the new mascot, “Henry the Husky,” will help build “the culture and climate” of the community, he said.  

Also on Sparks’ agenda this year: a series of internal and external upgrades to the school itself, including dealing with classrooms in the building’s “old ‘94” wing that saw a fire and a flood before he arrived. 

In the meantime, he said, students and parents can look forward to continued collaboration. 

“My word of the year, instead of a new year’s resolution, is ‘elevate,’” Sparks said — “really just making sure that we’re elevating all of our work in teaching and learning [and] making sure that I’m doing the very best I can every day and bringing my best self to the work.”