Junior Achievement Special Section
Taming Lions at Alaska’s Largest K-6 School
Junior Achievement Educator of the Year: Linson Thompson
By Scott Rhode

n a frosty morning, Linson Thompson greets Sand Lake Elementary students before they set foot inside. “Ohayo-gozaimasu,” the principal says to students arriving for Japanese immersion classes; he says “Good morning” to those attending Sand Lake as their neighborhood school.

By the time doors open at 8:50, Thompson has been at work for more than an hour. As the first person in the building most days, according to the school secretary, he’s already met with the student support team to address concerns about the progress of two children.

When the 9 o’clock bell rings, formally starting the school day, Thompson takes off his high-visibility vest and black fleece and hangs them on hooks in his office, next to a parka, a rain slicker, and a suit jacket with a necktie. “The great thing about my job,” he says, “is that at some point in time I get to do everyone’s job. I could be leading a grade level curriculum meeting in the morning and unplugging toilets in the afternoon.” Whatever needs doing, the principal makes sure it’s done.

“We might have a future movie star or sports star in our school, but most of our students will be better prepared for life if they learn about the world of work… Not everybody gets paid a million dollars, like they see these guys on TV.”
Linson Thompson
Principal, Sand Lake Elementary School

During the first hour of classes, Thompson makes the rounds of each room, checking on his Lions (the school mascot) and letting their teachers know he’s there for them.

At the cafeteria, he checks with Mr. T (as the kids call the kitchen manager) about a potential “uproar”: no more chocolate milk. Mr. T, who works as a restaurant chef after school hours, assures Thompson that a fresh supply might arrive the next day.

The World of Work

With a current enrollment of 530, Sand Lake Elementary has the largest K-6 student body in Alaska. (Ipalook Elementary, the only primary school in Utqiaġvik, has more students but is K-5.) Sand Lake’s neighborhood boundary is narrowly drawn to make room for Japanese immersion students from all over Anchorage.

Immersed himself, Thompson picked up enough of the language to get by, he says, though he had a head start. His first job out of college in 1984 was working for Mitsubishi Semiconductor Company in his native North Carolina. He was taught business Japanese while he programmed AGVs, automatic guided vehicles, to roam the floor of the microchip factory.

He recalls, “If you were an employee there, and you saw my department coming to your section, it was just a matter of time, unfortunately, that you either had to find somewhere else in the factory to work, or your days were numbered… Typically, you did not get laid off when we were done because the company grew so much.”

That is, until the early ‘90s, when a sudden drop in semiconductor prices gutted the industry. Thompson changed tracks to education. “I started subbing in a pre-K/kindergarten class,” he says, “and I had no clue as to what was going on. And I thought, maybe I belong in high school. I subbed in a high school environment, and oof! I looked around and some of the kids were bigger than me. It was uncomfortable.”

Grades four, five, and six turned out to be Thompson’s niche, first at Rogers Park Elementary and then at Oceanview and Airport Heights. He worked at Sand Lake before, as an assistant principal in 2009. He returned six years ago after his first principal assignment at Klatt.

While at Klatt Elementary, Thompson was introduced to Junior Achievement (JA). ExxonMobil sent thirty-five volunteers to teach sixth graders about financial literacy. “It was phenomenal,” Thompson says. He brought the relationship with JA to Sand Lake, and he makes a point of hosting JA in a Day every year for every grade.

“In elementary school, when you want to get someone’s attention, you talk about food or money,” Thompson says. “What does saving mean? What does a savings account look like? How does that work?” The principal reports seeing students inspired to think about their own business or career.

“Rather than me or a teacher talking about being an engineer, a doctor, a city planner, or anything else, we can get one of those people in the school,” says Thompson, and that first-hand experience makes a strong impression.

“We might have a future movie star or sports star in our school,” he adds, “but most of our students will be better prepared for life if they learn about the world of work… Not everybody gets paid a million dollars, like they see these guys on TV. So you work, you save, you have to understand wants and needs.”

This commitment to JA earned Thompson the Educator of the Year award.

Tradition of Gifts
In his office, Thompson keeps a framed page of a newspaper, printed in Japanese, from June 2018. Underneath a headline picture of Donald Trump meeting with Kim Jong-Un, Thompson is pictured exchanging customary gifts with the mayor of Chitose, Anchorage’s sister city. His walls are covered with photos from such field trips, and two elegant white-faced dolls sit on his bookshelf, as if they escaped from the hallway case where Sand Lake exhibits most of those mementos.

Thompson doesn’t spend much time in his office this day, though. From 10 o’clock to 11 o’clock, he has just enough time to square away attendance, check some maintenance work orders, and hear an update from Ms. Aimonetti, the school nurse, about COVID-19 testing options. After an hour at his desk, Thompson is back on his feet, ushering kindergarteners to the cafeteria, where Mr. T serves hot dogs, oranges, and plain white milk.

No uproar. At least one student tells Thompson that chocolate milk is a treat, not an everyday food.

After noon, Thompson has yet to eat his own lunch. He leaves the building to pick up an order from Sara’s Sandwiches on Arctic Boulevard—not for himself but as a bonus for the two-person night cleanup crew, just starting their shift. Thompson will work into the night, too, meeting with the Parent-Teacher-Student Association and its Japanese immersion counterpart, Tomo No Kai.

“Every good thing that happens here is built on relationships,” he says. “And sometimes that takes time we don’t have, but we have to find time to get to know these little people so they can be successful while they’re here.”