COTTONWOOD - Even when you ask Jennifer Chilton a question that is not related to education, she can still find a way to track the conversation back to schools, students and teachers.
From the elementary grades to high school and secondary education ... from traditional public schools to private schools, Chilton loves it all.
It's the kind of contagious enthusiasm you'd like to see in, say, a high school principal, which coincidentally is exactly what she became last week.
Jennifer Chilton is the new principal at Mingus Union High School.
She succeeds former colleague Tamara Addis, who accepted a principal position with the Mesa School District.
Chilton brings two decades of experience to her new position, having started her career as an English teacher in the Pacific Northwest in 1991.
She came to Mingus seven years ago and has worked on both sides of the instructional/administrative aisle. She began as a freshman English teacher and three years later began the transition to administrator.
"The teaching experience is my foundation," Chilton emphasized. "I have a great passion for students. I will remain very committed to that. I will be staying in the hallways, staying in the classrooms and finding the good balance between office work and being out with the students."
But she also credits her systematic transition through administrative roles at Mingus with giving her the skill-set needed to take on the principal's position at the high school.
"When I first moved into administration, our Freshman Focus program was one of my original administrative projects and I have carried that through and it has become a strong intervention program," she said.
Prior to being appointed Mingus principal, Chilton served as the school's Student Intervention specialist and Dropout Prevention coordinator. It allowed her to do teacher evaluations and instructional coaching.
"It was a 'Jack of all Trades' administrative position and most helpful training for me," the new principal said.
Chilton believes she is coming into Mingus at a perfect time. The high school is currently six points shy of being an A school, according to the state's grading system for schools.
"This is a good transition for me because I know all of our teachers and the staff, faculty and students at the other schools," she explained. "One great challenge is to continue to support the growth; I've been here seven years and my feeling is that Mingus has improved every year. So that push for continuous improvement is a big challenge because we are doing so well. Programs are doing well and test scores have improved. It's a great position to be in, but it also brings with it a lot of pressure to make sure we continue to grow with Common Core, with instructional improvement and professional development."
She's equally enthusiastic about the community's entire education system. She currently has a child in college, and another who will be a freshman at Mingus next year as well as a fifth grader, "so I'm really passionate about our whole school system ... all the way through.
"I have worked a lot with the Cottonwood-Oak Creek School District because we have our Gear Up grant that begins with seventh graders. That grant has been a great opportunity for me to be at the middle school, getting to know their administration and their programs. That is another good relationship I am happy to have."
Chilton also discounts the perception that she is the newest in a revolving door of principals at Mingus.
"Many of the principals here have come from the teaching ranks and introductory level administrative positions. I'm a good example of that," she explained. "Tamara Addis taught here for 13 years and she had several instructional/administrative positions before she became principal. The Mingus philosophy for the last few years has been to cultivate leadership from within and that is true now as we have several really strong teachers who are completing master's degrees in educational leadership and taking on more responsibilities with our instructional coaching. These are natural progressions. We continue to have excellent teachers taking on more leadership within our school."