Inclusive, equitable, and joyful: District’s new head of elementary education is eager to help enhance the school environment

Matt Hilton lauded as caring, thoughtful leader

By Jo Mathis/AAPS District News Editor

As much as he’s enjoyed being principal of Mitchell Elementary, Matt Hilton is eager to get to work as AAPS’ new executive director of elementary education.

After months of remote and hybrid learning, Hilton welcomes the chance for principals, teachers, students and families to collectively reflect on how classroom learning can best be designed to serve students and families.

“It’s been essentially 18 months since all of our kids have been together at one time,” says Hilton, who is still principal at Mitchell until his replacement is named.  “And so the opportunity is for us to think collectively as an elementary program about what it is that we want to bring kids back to.”

He says the goal is to improve services to create a “safe, inclusive, caring and equitable and joyful school environment” serving all students’ academic and social-emotional needs, while preparing them to become competent, caring, and knowledgeable middle schoolers.

Many have been insisting that school districts ought to make sure they’re not running back to the way things were.

“And I think that’s true,” he says. “But we need to be intentional about naming and planning for what we want to bring kids back to, and that involves thinking about inclusive and equitable and joyful environments.”

The role of executive director of elementary education has been vacant for the past two years since Dawn Linden left that role to become assistant superintendent, teaching and learning.

Hilton says principals felt that void. He knew he could rely on Linden as someone he could consult regarding challenging situations and talk over potential solutions to help him make the best decision.

Although Hilton himself has served as one of the lead principals in the district this past year, the role he is now assuming is an important one partly because each of the district’s elementary buildings is so different.

“And there are opportunities for us to learn from one another and cover and support one another, and then come around common planning for how we might implement and sustain initiatives across the elementary program,” he says. “And I think that’s one of the things that has been missing most. There’s the one person who can kind of see the big picture of the elementary program in Ann Arbor, and then think together with the principals and the teacher leaders about what are the things that we can do to have the greatest impact.”

At Mitchell, where he was the assistant principal to Kevin Karr before eventually taking the helm, Hilton is known as a careful listener who makes time for students and staff alike.

Mitchell Occupational Therapist Christy Yee recalls the time she noticed a student in our Young 5’s classroom desperately trying to peek into the Community Room. He was just tall enough to see that there was something cool inside (Leslie Science Center was setting up) and started to jump up to see better in the windows.

He jumped up several times, struggling to push off the small window sill, to catch a glimpse of what was inside. Matt came out of the office and noticed him as well, immediately walked over and the boy stopped and started quickly walking towards class. Hilton called him over, crouched down as low as possible, and spoke quietly with him.

“After a minute or so, Matt stood up, picked the boy up, and held him there as they discussed all the things the young man noticed,” she recalls. “It was not only a sweet moment to have witnessed, but it also epitomizes Matt. He also always makes time for staff, no matter how much he has to do. Just like he did for that young man, Matt seeks out opportunities to help the staff meet their goals, takes the time to problem-solve with us, and most importantly, really truly listens.

“Matt will be dearly missed at Mitchell and I take comfort in the knowledge that what he has done for Mitchell staff, students and families he will now be able to do on a much larger scale to benefit all of AAPS. “

Mitchell Building Literacy Expert Vanessa Sanmiguel has worked with Hilton in various roles for about 15 years and says there are many . small moments, great gestures, and memorable events she could share.

Matt Hilton at a Mitchell staff meeting in 2019

“However, what comes to mind most when I think of Matt is his character; he is fair, trustworthy, but most of all kind,” she says.  “Matt is a storyteller who creates connections and makes those around him feel understood.  That is his gift,  from students to families, to his staff, Matt makes all who he interacts with feel seen and heard.  His trust, faith, and respect allow us to be the best version of ourselves.”

She says he is singular in his ability to empathize with others and build relationships based on trust and respect.

“Matt has accomplished a tremendous amount at Mitchell but mostly he will always be remembered as someone who created a culture of kindness and understanding. This level of community is hard to recreate and our district is lucky to have him.”

Building Literacy Expert Vanessa Sanmiguel

Mitchell parent Ingrid Racine has mixed feelings about Hilton’s promotion.

“It’s bittersweet because he’s so fabulous and he’s built such a great sense of community here, but we know it’s also a win for the district,” she says. “We’re glad he’ll be continuing to lead in our elementary schools.”

Her son, Anton Hill, who will be a first grader at Mitchell in a few weeks, doesn’t yet see the big picture.

“I think he should still be the principal,” said Anton. “He’s a good principal.”

Will serve the district’s 7,000 PreK-5 students well

Matt Hilton at a Mitchell assembly in 2018

When announcing Hilton’s appointment in a letter to the AAPS community recently, Superintendent Jeanice Swift noted that as a highly regarded teacher, instructional and transformational leader since 2005 in AAPS, Hilton brings a proven record of excellence, depth of experience, and established relationships in elementary education to the role that will serve the district’s 7,000 PreK-5 students, staff and families well.

Swift also listed highlights from Hilton’s years with the district, including:

  • establishing a multi-tiered system of supports resulting in increased student achievement
  • building partnerships with community agencies to develop after-school tutoring, an onsite food pantry and access to legal, social and health care services within the greater Ann Arbor community
  • continuing the teacher development partnership with the University of Michigan School of Education
  • leading the Mitchell Elementary team as they transformed to become an IB World School,
  • embracing significant growth in school enrollment,
  • facilitating three expansions of the Mitchell campus.

Mitchell Assistant Principal Alison Epler says she feels privileged that she was able to work with Hilton the past three years, and notes that his top priority was for every person in our school community to feel important, cared for, and valued.

“What stands out most is the amount of time he devoted to building relationships with every person, the calm he brought to some of the most challenging situations, and the joy he found in celebrating other’s victories and accomplishments,” says Epler.

Joyful students, staff and families welcome

In fact, “calm” is a word frequently used to describe Hilton, and “joyful” is a word Hilton uses frequently when talking about the environment he believes every AAPS student, teacher, and family deserves to feel in the building.“I know that the environment is joyful when you see kids getting down the hall,” he says, “because I have never seen an unhappy child skip.”

Only half-kidding, he says he’d love to see principals, parents, and teachers skipping down halls, as well.

Mitchell School Social Worker Cat Hogans says that as a leader, Hilton provides a foundation for staff to do their best work.

 “Matt supports and acknowledges the strengths in his staff, gives feedback and asks questions, empowering staff creativity and independence,” she says. “He sets families at ease and provides our students with love and respect while also setting limits calmly and safely.”

Mitchell teacher Jackie Bolanos said her own children attend Mitchell, and when she asked them what they liked about Hilton, they mentioned his consistent greetings throughout the day.

“They knew what to expect when he was around,” she says. “They knew who he was and that he cared about them. There is a quote about leaders and the idea is that you aren’t really a leader until you have people willing to follow you. He worked to build trust and meaningful relationships with the staff and families so carefully. All of his efforts have led to a community of people willing to follow him through whatever obstacle was coming next.”

Bolanos said that when staff had an idea, he would encourage them to develop and implement it.

“His biggest statement was, `Go slow to go fast’ and `Start small, do it well, and grow it,'” she says. “I’ve worked to keep those as my mantras and guiding principles as I continue my journey as a teacher.” 

Mitchell Teacher Consultant Carrie Nelson says Hilton greets students by name and with a smile in the morning and ends the day with the same—which sets a positive tone at school.
“Matt is a leader who leads by example,” she says. “Anything he expects from his staff is something he is willing to do himself. I have often seen Matt clean up a spill, break down a lunch table, or play basketball at recess. Matt has been very helpful in my role as teacher consultant. I often work with students that need behavior support and Matt has been part of some of these plans, often with a student earning some one-on-one time. Matt knows that students seek attention and he is very aware of how important it is that this is positive attention.”

West Michigan roots

Hilton grew up in Grand Haven and went on to nearby Hope College, where he met his future wife, Sara. Right out of college in 1998, he became a first grade teacher in Holland Public Schools.

He worked in Holland until 2005 when he read about an opening for a reading intervention teacher at AAPS. That job perfectly aligned with his interests, so he applied, got the job, and—for the first time in his life—moved away from Michigan’s west coast.

Five years ago, eager to have a little more space, the family bought a farmhouse on five acres in Tecumseh, where they raise chickens, Babydoll sheep, and two Nigerian Dwarf goats.

Jeffrey & Dutch
Saide Mae & Ned

Sara Hilton is a writer and contributor to Homefront Magazine in Tecumseh. The Hiltons have two children, daughter Hailey, a soon-to-be senior at Tecumseh High School, and Tyler, who will be a sophomore.

The Hiltons miss lake Michigan—even in the winter—and can envision retiring “back home” decades from now.

A lifelong sports fan, Hilton enjoys swimming, running, cycling, and competing in sprint distance triathlons.

Developing young adults ready for middle school

As he looks back on his career in education, Hilton says he was always passionate about education, particularly literacy development.

“But the thing that I don’t think I fully realized was just how rewarding it is to be part of an elementary program and get to see kids develop over the years—not just academically, in terms of learning to be readers and writers and mathematicians, but also to see them grow as young people,” he says. “We’re creating the right kind of environment for kids where we’re certainly growing them academically but we’re developing compassionate, caring, competent, young adults, young citizens and getting them ready to go to middle school.”

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