Stuart Johnson, Deseret Morning News
Lindon Elementary principal Jason Theler reads to students in the lunchroom. Theler was named Rookie Principal of the Year.

LINDON — The cafeteria has the familiar smells of hamburgers and applesauce and the familiar sounds of children's chatter.

But over the noise is the voice of the principal, Jason Theler, who is sitting on a stool and leaning over a microphone with a book in his hand.

On this Wednesday, as with most Wednesdays, the principal reads to the lunching students. A couple dozen listen intently.

"Who liked that book," Theler asks of the 120 first-, second- and third-graders as he finishes the book.

Hands fly up.

"I love this book," Theler responds. "Well, have a good lunch and see you next week."

Theler, 35, is beginning his third year as principal of Lindon Elementary. Over the summer, the Utah Association of Elementary School Principals named him the Rookie of the Year. Rookies are principals in their first three years.

"He's a real fun principal," said Michael Hardman, a fourth-grader at Lindon Elementary, recalling a time when students gelled and styled Theler's hair.

After Theler finishes reading, the students want recess. Theler negotiates with some to clean their plates before they can go outside, encouraging one student, for instance, to finish her applesauce and take one more bite of her hamburger.

The way Theler sees it, a principal has three main responsibilities: to keep the school safe, to provide teachers with support and tools to succeed and to act as the school's fiscal manager.

"The theme I have as principal is the school's role model," he said. "Our role model is, 'Work hard, learn well and play often."'

From the cafeteria, Theler heads back to his office and finds three first-graders are waiting.

At the beginning of each year, Theler reads the first half of a book to the first-grade students. The students each get a copy of the book, which this year is Jennifer E. Morris' "May I Please Have a Cookie," and get candy if they read the second half to him by the end of the year.

"I can tell you've been practicing because you begin reading before you even turn the page," Theler says to one first-grader.

Each of the first-graders successfully reads the entire book, and each receives a roll of Smarties.

The nomination for Rookie Principal of the Year noted the school's emphasis on literacy and a literacy award the school recently received.

Theler — who taught for six years and was an assistant principal for three years before his job at Lindon Elementary — wants his students to be good readers because future academic success depends on it.

"In junior high, if they struggle in literacy, they struggle in other subjects," Theler said.

The school has cleared the federal government's benchmarks for language arts and math each year since 2002, the beginning of No Child Left Behind. But that first year Lindon's clearance came only after the Alpine School District granted the school's appeal.

"Even if we were doing fantastic, (reading) would be a big push at school," Theler said.

Theler heads down the hall to the makeshift photo studio for picture day. On the way, he finds a student leaning against a wall.

"James, what are you doing here," he asks the student.

The boy is clearly playing hooky but rambles on about his friends and ultimately answers, "I don't know."

Theler escorts the boy back to his classroom and then asks the photographer if she needs anything.

"Did you guys smile?" he asks a group of upper-grade students, who answer apathetically, "No."

Lindon Elementary counts about 575 students in preschool through sixth grade, about 1,000 parents and 60 full- and part-time staffers.

The toughest part of being a principal is "trying to find a middle ground to keep everyone happy," Theler said.

Carolyn Johnson, principal at Lehi's Meadow Elementary, completed a master's degree with Theler at Brigham Young University.

"He's an incredible team player, and he's very creative," she said. "I think one of the things that stands out in my mind is he is absolutely dedicated to student achievement."

As Theler heads back to his office, a district repairman talks to him about a broken light. Back in the officer there are questions about a budget and the upcoming school carnival.

"I've always had a lot of energy," Theler said.

"I hope you always do," school secretary Sandy Larsen jokes in response.

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