LifeChanger of the Year Nominee Profile

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Dustin Thomas

Position: Physical Education, Health and World Music Teacher
School: Prince Street Elementary School
School District: Wicomico County Public Schools
City, State: Salisbury, MD

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Music that Describes Dustin

Dustin Thomas was nominated by his principal, Jason Miller.

Mr. Thomas is a Wicomico County Public Schools (WCPS) alum and graduate of Salisbury University (2009, B.S. in Physical Education and 2015 M.S. in Applied Health Philosophy). He has taught Physical Education for 12 years. Mr. Thomas has received the McEducator Award, WCPS Extra Mile Award, Elementary Wellness Coordinator of the Year, Hertrich's Cash for Class Community Choice Winner, and the 2021 – 2022 Wicomico County Teacher of the Year. He was also one of eight Maryland State Teacher of the Year finalists. Mr. Thomas gives back to his community by coaching Nothin' But Net, volunteering at local charity races, founding the Rhythm and Roots drum program, and creating a World Music class. He and Rhythm and Roots scholars have earned local and national recognition from WMDT, WBOC, Inspire One magazine, SHAPE Maryland, Hip Hop Public Health, and NBC's Today Show.

"I have had the pleasure of working with Mr. Thomas for the past seven years, and of knowing him personally for the past 24 years," said Miller. "Throughout this time, his commitment to his students and drive to be the best educator he can be has never wavered. Mr. Thomas has worked exceptionally as a physical education and health teacher for our Pre-kindergarten through 5th Grade students. His working relationships with the administration, staff, students, parents, and community are very positive, with open communication with all these groups."

Mr. Thomas is a selfless, humble, passionate, kind, and hard-working educator who is constantly looking for opportunities that will allow scholars to reach their fullest potential. His relationship with students is beyond comparison. He is continually talking to students on a personal level to gain insights into what will motivate them to be successful. Mr. Thomas can reach even the toughest of students because they know he truly cares about one thing: their success! 

Molding well-rounded scholars requires dedication, commitment, and hard work. It's essential to look for opportunities where scholars can showcase their talents outside the school setting to enhance their intrinsic motivation.

Three students unexpectedly lost their father during the 2018-2019 school year. Mr. Thomas could see a change in their schoolwork and behavior, and he knew he had to find a way to connect with them. Knowing their father played drums, he created an after-school music program, Rhythm and Roots, to engage these struggling scholars and strengthen their connection to their father's legacy. The program began with a whistle, drumsticks, and paint buckets donated by a local paint store. Many Prince Street scholars asked to participate as they heard what was happening. Mr. Thomas began writing grant applications to obtain funding for additional equipment. Rhythm and Roots became a program with local, state, and national recognition in many outlets, including Inspire One Magazine, SHAPE Maryland, Hip Hop Public Health, and the NBC Today Show.

Rhythm and Roots affords scholars the opportunity to showcase their talents and speak a common language through music. Scholars explore Urban culture by creating music that highlights Hip-Hop. They learn and perform the five elements of Hip-Hop: emceeing, deejaying, break dancing, the art of graffiti, and knowledge. Rhythm and Roots supports their academic, social, emotional, and behavioral growth. Parents share how this program has built their children's confidence and self-esteem. Former Rhythm and Roots students return from middle school to mentor the younger students, ensuring that new family members understand the meaning of the group and its message: Discipline, Respect, and Unity through Music (DRUM).

"In working with me, Rhythm and Roots and the Multicultural Dance Crew entered two parades, winning 1st Place in the Pocomoke Christmas Parade and the Grand Marshall's Award in the Salisbury Christmas Parade," said Miller. "Rhythm and Roots was also featured on a local level through DelmarvaLife, in a news spotlight called "The Bright Side," on radio stations and in Inspire One magazine, and on a national level by the NBC Today Show and Hip Hop Public Health. The group has become well known and respected and has been invited to play at many community events such as Trunk or Treat for Halloween at churches and another school, the Juneteeth Celebration, Mizzle Fest, Salisbury Festival, the Pocomoke City Summer Concert Series, and the teacher vs. student basketball game at Bennett Middle School."

Rhythm and Roots has provided student-led workshops and performances on the five elements of Hip Hop to another local school. Many families and community members come to these events, and there is an immeasurable impact on families, particularly younger siblings. They often dance and sing at the events. Parents and family members quickly ask how their children can join, even if they aren't Prince Street students.

Another memorable gig was in August 2019, when Rhythm and Roots opened for nationally renowned education innovator Mr. Ron Clark during the countywide teambuilding kickoff for Wicomico County Public Schools. The drum group and the Prince Street Hip Hop Dancers played in front of 3,000 school system employees to build enthusiasm and set the stage for the energetic Mr. Clark.

"With opportunities like this one, our scholars truly represent the five House pillars of Prince Street: Integrity, Courage, Perseverance, Creativity, and Responsibility," said Miller. 

Mr. Thomas assists other teachers and instructional assistants in bringing content alive through music, call and responses, chants, and cheers in the classroom. He also teaches a portion of an MSDE-approved course to academic staff in various counties about Music in the Classroom.

Once Mr. Thomas knows what a student's interest is, he works to find ways to connect to that interest in meaningful ways. He has developed several successful after-school programs that allow students to explore and excel, including Rhythm and Roots (drums) and Futsal (indoor soccer).

"Music, especially Hip-Hop, motivates his soul," said Miller. "Knowing that music is an internal motivator, Mr. Thomas began searching for other ways to share his passion with our diverse population of scholars. He presented an idea to me for teaching a World Music class. This one-of-a-kind World Music program enriches scholars' understanding of the music they play in Rhythm and Roots."

His commitment doesn't stop there. Mr. Thomas knows finances can be an obstacle, not only for students who wish to participate in the programs, but for the school to obtain the materials to operate the programs. As a result, he is constantly researching opportunities and writing grants. If a grant application isn't successful, he keeps his head up and continues to try other options. Due to his perseverance, Mr. Thomas has been awarded many grants that have expanded the school's offerings for students.

As a teacher in a Title I School, he works with diverse populations of students, both culturally and socioeconomically. Mr. Thomas makes it his mission to create programs and collaborate with parents, staff, administration, and the business community on programs that will motivate, inspire, empower, and encourage scholars in activities they love. School funds are often insufficient, so he has obtained numerous grants from businesses, foundations, civic groups, and private donors. Mr. Thomas is creating a music-based nonprofit organization with Rhythm and Roots as its foundation to provide an opportunity for youth in the larger community. 

During COVID, he continued Rhythm and Roots and World Music in a virtual format, knowing that through these programs, scholars developed a love and passion for music and instruments that they may not have discovered otherwise. Mr. Thomas' scholars' grades and attendance in school have increased, and student behavior issues have decreased. They understand that they are role models and are a part of a prestigious group that's held to high standards, and they carry themselves accordingly. Rhythm and Roots long ago fulfilled its founding goal of helping three siblings through the grieving process, and it continues to support and empower Prince Street scholars every school year.

"Mr. Thomas wants to ensure students are well-rounded individuals with self-confidence, determination, and esteem. When we receive many requests for the Rhythm and Roots program to perform in the community, Mr. Thomas willingly accepts and gives his time, as he knows the value of these opportunities," said Miller. "They provide personal growth beyond the classroom and help prepare students to be productive citizens in society."

"Mr. Thomas is truly a leader within the district and state and a well-known figure in the community due to his hard work and steadfast approach to meeting the needs of all students," said Miller. "He has been nominated for Teacher of the Year every year since I became his principal, but until the 21 – 22 school year, he would not accept because he genuinely wanted to keep his focus on his students. Although he is no longer the official Teacher of the Year, he continues to touch and change lives through his workshops, outreach efforts, and leadership. I have never endorsed a person more deserving of an award than Dustin Thomas."