After moving up the ranks from custodian to principal, Michael Atkins has his sights set on an even broader goal– transforming the education system.
From time to time, while Michael Atkins (MEdu’15) cleaned the floors of a classroom or hallway at Smiley Middle School in Denver’s Park Hill neighborhood, he overheard students stumbling over a word or two in a story. More often than not, he set down his dust mop and read with them.
Eighteen years later, as the head of Stedman Elementary School, he now shapes the education of an entire student body in the same district.
Atkins’ unlikely path from custodian to principal was not an easy one. In 2001, determined to work in Denver’s public school system but unable to land a role in the classroom, he accepted the custodial job at Smiley.
Adversity is guaranteed. Perseverance is a choice. Go be great!”
In the years that followed, Atkins gradually advanced through the system — eventually earning his shot to be a teacher and then moving into administrative roles such as assistant principal. Until finally, in fall 2019, Atkins became principal at Stedman. Atkins does not regret the long road he traveled to reach his current position. He believes each stop on the way helped prepare him for the next while also enhancing his ability to be effective as a principal who oversees nearly 60 employees and 350 students.
“Ultimately, all of the different hats I wore within the district were critical to my professional growth and current lens as a leader,” he said.
So much so, Atkins believes anyone who wishes to lead a school ought to spend time working in a non-academic role such as custodian or clerk instead of limiting themselves to administrative positions while they work their way up the professional ladder.
“I am a true believer of the phrase ‘walk a mile in someone else’s shoes,’” he said. “It helps you to develop sympathy and understanding for the daily grind and nuances of that particular position. It also allows you to navigate from experiences instead of assumptions.”
Atkins, who earned a master’s degree in educational equity and cultural diversity education in CU Boulder's School of Education between receiving a bachelor’s degree in behavioral science and elementary education from Metropolitan State University of Denver and an additional master’s degree in K-12 administration from University of Denver, credits his own education as another significant factor that shaped his approach as a school administrator.
“My time as a student has deeply impacted the way I carry out my daily responsibilities,” he said. “My work is technical, and my course work [at universities] supported my adaptive growth and mindset.” While it might be natural to view Atkins’ promotion to the principal’s office as the culminating moment in his story, the 39-year-old father of three insists he is just getting started.
Beyond leading Stedman Elementary School, he wants to spark fundamental changes in how “diversity is done” throughout the educational system.
“I think it is essential to build intercultural capacity within my educators and celebrate our differences while understanding we all react to cultural differences,” he said. “Knowing those reactions will allow us to foster authentic relationships and meet all students and community members exactly where they are.”
Atkins’ interest in this issue stems from his own experiences as a student growing up in Northeast Denver, when he was bused to school outside of his community as part of an effort to desegregate the schools.
“I distinctly remember my middle school teachers referring to us as the ‘bus kids,’” he said. “There was nothing in place to support the adults in adaptive change — professional development designed to shift mindsets while providing opportunities for intercultural development.” The application of Atkins’ philosophy has already led to tangible changes in the day-to-day experience of Stedman’s students.
“Our classrooms, for example, are distinctly different from a traditional one. Our classroom libraries are made up of culturally responsive books. We think it is important students can see themselves within the curriculum,” he said. “We also want classroom configurations to meet cultural orientations. It is critical that students are comfortable in their classrooms, and it feels similar to home. For example, there are designated areas within the classroom for students to bring pictures of their families.”
Drawing from his past, Atkins has tried to foster a different kind of environment for the employees at Stedman as well. One of his first priorities as principal was to ensure his custodial staff — and all other school staff who work outside of the classroom — are treated as full-fledged contributors to the students’ learning experience. They participate in all schoolwide professional development activities and are recognized at assemblies for the relationships they foster in the building.
“Custodians are a vital part of the education of our children. They interact with them during times when children develop their social intelligence and emotional competencies,” Atkins said. “They must have the capacity to build authentic relationships while modeling the school’s values.”
Stedman’s facility manager, Brandon Mercadel, oversees the school’s custodial staff and building maintenance. He appreciates the new principal’s efforts.
“Mr. Mike understands from personal experience that someone in my position can contribute a lot to the students’ lives,” Mercadel said. “If I have a thought or idea, I know he will listen. And he treats everyone here that way. It is a community-based environment. Everybody has a voice.”
Of course, Atkins’ central focus remains the students. His concern for them extends far beyond the responsibilities associated with his job. Stedman Elementary School happens to be located in Park Hill — the same neighborhood where Atkins was raised as a child.
“I see myself in my students, and I can relate to their experience inside and outside of school,” he said. “In a sense, in an earlier generation, my friends and I were those kids. Several of the students are the children of people I grew up with. So, long before I was their principal, I cared about these kids and their future.”
He also takes great pride in knowing his journey has motivated many young people to believe in the same core values that have guided him.
Said Atkins: “My students see me as their principal with a story of perseverance. Many of my students recite a quote of mine — ‘Adversity is guaranteed. Perseverance is a choice. Go be great!’”
Photos by Glenn Asakawa