Meet Dr. Melissa Thompson, Plunkett Raysich Architects (PRA)

Growing up in a family of educators — from preschool teachers to college professors, Melissa was drawn to education and coaching. Immediately following college she began her formal career as a High School Social Studies teacher and from there held various positions from varsity coach to Student Council advisor, from High School Athletic Director to Principal, and eventually to Superintendent. Her bachelor’s degree is from Lawrence University and master’s and Ph.D. are both from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis with an emphasis in Human Resources. She is now Director of Education at Plunkett Raysich Architects, LLP.

When was your firm founded and how? 

PRA, LLP was established in 1935 in Milwaukee, WI., but our roots can be traced to 1890.  Today PRA is a national innovative architecture and interior design firm with more than 75 skilled professionals providing a variety of services from strategic planning to architectural design, interior design, and construction administration. Our goal is to transform learning environments, bring order to complex healthcare facilities, re-envision ways of working, create places for people to call home, and provide safe and inclusive worship spaces for our clients. Our portfolio spans thirty-one states across the nation based out of four offices located in Milwaukee, Wisconsin; Madison, Wisconsin; Sarasota, Florida; and Buda, Texas.

What makes your firm unique?

PRA’s client engagement to ensure a thorough understanding of complex issues and the culture within the client’s organization, coupled with future goals, is extensive. This allows for a synergistic approach to leveraging professional expertise to collaboratively transform needs into a unique solution that is beautiful, functional, and within reach as it becomes not just an extension of who they are today, but helps them realize the future they desire.

What do you like best about the educational products industry?

As a former Superintendent, I appreciate the investment into high quality research that is informing both the intentional layout of spaces as well as the products to go within those spaces. This approach increases student engagement, fosters feelings of safety and security in learning institutions, and has a positive impact on staff being able to implement instructional best practices in schools today.

What are the biggest challenges educators are facing?

Educators today are facing significant budget pressures, staffing shortages at their schools, and a break-neck pace to stay on top of technological changes. Budget pressures brought on by school funding formulas (which vary vastly from state to state) coupled with inflationary pressures make updating learning spaces and purchasing new furniture, regardless of how needed it may be and the positive impact it would have on learning and engagement, out of reach for many. Staffing shortages mean that class sizes have increased, even in some cases when the budget does not require it to have done so, because there is not another certified staff member available. As we all experience in our day-to-day lives, technological change is a constant. Educators stand to benefit from these changing capabilities to ease some workload tensions and allow for greater learning opportunities for students if districts are able to evaluate what is available and provide professional development and safeguards in a timely fashion.

What are you most proud of? 

The things I am most proud of are rooted in strong teamwork as a result of creating a shared vision via the extensive engagement of staff, students, and community in the district I served as superintendent for the prior 12 years. While achieving them is notable, what truly matters is what these awards represent as the daily student experience which support their growth and preparation for their futures. Examples include: 

  • Emerging from the pandemic as the Top Scoring District on Wisconsin Department of Instruction Report Cards (2020-21);
  • Earning the Top Score in Wisconsin for eight-grade mathematics achievement (2018-19);
  • Earning a National Blue Ribbon School in the Closing the Gaps category from the U.S. Department of Education (2016);
  • Being one of eight schools in Wisconsin to earn recognition as both a High Progress and High Achieving Title I School (2014-15).

In addition to these academically based accolades, the district was also recognized with School Health and three Promising Practices Character Education awards along with state and national communications awards.

How can EDmarket help you professionally? 

The marketplace is vast for educational products and services. EDmarket provides the chance to stay abreast of current research and new products to assist clients in finding the best solutions to their needs along with engaging networking and professional development opportunities.

How can EDmarket best serve the industry?

Educators want quality research to rely upon in making decisions that is easy to find.  By serving as a clearinghouse and providing articles and development on products that can have a significant impact on the ability of staff to meet instructional design goals and objectives for the benefit of students, EDMarket creates tremendous value for the industry.

What would you like to see EDmarket champion?

Space within learning institutions is scarce — especially for storage — as is funding. I would like to see EDmarket work directly with researchers and vendors to find more cross-functional, safe, durable solutions that are cost-effective. 

What advice would you give others in our industry? 

Many schools are looking for volunteers to share about career pathways and substitute teach. One of the best ways to learn is by doing — if we can all find ways to give back to local learning institutions, we may also get ideas for product improvements, have inadvertent authentic feedback from user groups, and grow our future employee pipeline all at the same time!

Are there any fun facts, hobbies, or personal connections you would like to share?

My husband, who is also a district level leader, and I have four teenagers. As a family we love to travel both within the United States and abroad to learn about communities, cultures, and experience things we might not where we live. I am also a member and past President of the Hartland-Lake Country Rotary Club.

Melissa Thompson, PhD, Plunkett Raysich Architects

Dr. Melissa Thompson has more than 25 years of experience as a public K-12 educator and District leader combined with industry experience in her current role as Director of Education Strategy for Plunkett Raysich Architects. She is a member of the EDmarket A&D Council.