New leaders of Colorado Springs-area school districts focused on students, innovation
Author: Debbie Kelley, The Gazette - August 6, 2018 - Updated: August 23, 2018
COLORADO SPRINGS — Two Pikes Peak region school districts are starting the academic year with new superintendents: the area’s largest, Colorado Springs School District 11, and the small mountain community of Woodland Park School District RE-2.
Board members in each district said their new superintendent’s desire to concentrate on student needs gave them the edge over others vying for the job.
The leaders arrive at a time when funding has loosened due to voter-approved tax increases and a little more generosity from the state. Both districts also are struggling with declining enrollment and identifying the best ways to boost student achievement.
“I have a strong commitment, and I’m very unapologetic for doing in my heart what’s best for students,” said Michael Thomas, the new D-11 superintendent. “I’m very student-focused, and I believe this district is student-focused.”
D-11’s seven-member board of education selected Thomas in June from 1,100 applicants, 79 vetted contenders and two finalists.
He replaces Nicholas Gledich, who retired in June after nine years as superintendent. Thomas signed a three-year, $245,000 contract.
It’s serendipitous, the 46-year-old said of landing his first job as a district superintendent. Seven years ago, his Minnesota family vacationed in Colorado. Since then, “We have always wanted to move to Colorado,” he said.
Thomas, the father of two daughters and husband of a fellow educator, was chief of academics, leadership and learning for Minneapolis Public Schools and before that associate superintendent and chief of schools in the same district.
He’s in the final stages of writing his doctoral dissertation in educational leadership and is to defend his position at the University of St. Thomas in Minneapolis no later than October.
The affable Thomas said he’ll begin his new post listening and learning. He’ll hold a “listening tour” meeting for the public at 2 p.m. Aug. 11, at the East Library, 5550 N. Union Blvd. Monday, he’ll present a “state of schools” address to key community leaders and media.
“I’ll be making a lot of observations and taking my time to assess the current landscape to take it to its next life cycle.”
What ‘we promised’
“I’m not wedded to status quo or what used to be,” Thomas said. “Not that I’m coming in to reform education, but I am looking to ensure we’re being innovative, we’re being responsive to students and our families, and can embrace change and not change for change’s sake.”
Developing a new “comprehensive, multiyear strategic plan with beliefs, values and strategies” is one of his priorities. The project had been on hold while D-11 sought and won a $42 million mill-levy override last November to fund salary increases, building upgrades, additional technology, safety and security enhancements and other improvements.
The plan will be used to guide anything from school improvement strategies to individual student plans.
“Everything’s aligned and flowing in the same direction, so what I’m doing as an individual teacher is just as powerful as what I’m doing as superintendent,” he said of the intent.
Thomas also will focus on delivering “on everything we promised the community with the (mill-levy override), making sure we earn public trust in how we’re using our resources.”
He is embarking on a comprehensive marketing and communications plan, which will be embedded in the strategic plan.
“D-11 is losing market share. Students and families are choosing to go elsewhere, to charter schools, private schools, home school, other districts,” Thomas said.
“I support choice and believe in choice, but I want to make sure when my families are making choices, they are informed choices. Meaning you truly need to understand what’s happening in our schools and district to help you make a decision to choose D-11.”
With nine of D-11’s 58 schools on the state’s lowest performance rankings last school year and three on the bottom rung of “turnaround status” — meaning intense improvement plans got underway in January — Thomas said he realizes there’s work to be done.
The best marketing plan is “our ability to deliver high-quality outcomes,” he said. “Families can overlook a lot of factors, but what we want to ensure is the success of our kids.”
Frank discussions on academics and instruction are in the works.
As a former district coordinator for equity and integration in Osseo Area Schools in Minnesota, Thomas said he’s aware that “race and poverty are synonymous,” and “as a leader of color” he will work to “open conversations around racial issues,” including “how generational poverty significantly impacts learning outcomes of our students and how we interrupt that.”
Thomas said he is public about living his Christian faith. And his background as a social worker taught him to look at not only the student, but also the student within the family, and the family within the community.
“Our classrooms are microcosms of this country, and we will push our community to take a close look at the broad ecosystem of the family, the job market, the health market,” he said. “Every aspect to life needs to be wrapped around supporting the students and the families.”
‘Good things can happen’
Steve Woolf, the new superintendent in District RE-2, will tell you he’s never worked a day in his life. He loves what he does so much, it feels more like play than work.
“I looked at the questions on the application and thought, ‘Is this a job?’” he said of the Woodland Park position. “Every question tied into my strengths and passions.”
And when you love what you do, “good things can happen,” he said.
The five-member board in March selected Woolf to replace the departing Jed Bowman from a pool of 30 applicants and three finalists.
Woolf, 55, had been superintendent at Erie USD 101 in southeast Kansas for the past five years. In his new job, he’s being paid $140,700.
The gregarious Woolf has done some film and commercial acting and enjoys mountain man re-enactment. He wrote a book, “Heart 2 Heart Teaching,” about building school culture, and he speaks nationally about the topic.
“I truly believe every kid wants to be seen, heard and loved,” he said.
Building a school culture around the pressing needs of children “takes learning to a whole new level,” Woolf said.
Citing his “love for people” as a major strength, he said he will help the district and its five schools develop relationships among staff and students, the key to creating a positive and successful school culture.
Woolf throws out a word he’s coined, “staffulty,” a combination of the words staff and faculty.
“In a lot of districts, there’s a division between teachers, administrators and everybody else,” he said. “Everybody else is the key to what we do — the bus drivers, the cooks, the paras, and the teachers and administrators. All of us are on the same team, and together, we are a family.”
Getting there, he believes, requires having the right people in the right jobs and having the right goals. With that in mind, Woolf has reorganized administration at Woodland Park High School.
Principal Del Garrick is now the district human resources director, and Woolf brought Kevin Burr, twice named Kansas High School Principal of the Year, as interim principal for this school year and made other changes, including appointing Joe Roskam, high school football coach, as athletic director.
Emphasizing the outdoors
Woolf is hoping to introduce a variation of an environmental, outdoor after-school program and curriculum he started in Kansas.
The WILD program brings students to such activities as fishing, gardening, camping, hunting, raising chickens and other outdoor pursuits. Many Kansas schools integrated environmental concepts into the curriculum as well. The idea went statewide in Kansas, with the third state conference held in July.
RE-2 is the perfect place to launch a Colorado initiative, he said, given the district’s environmental studies program for all grades that includes field work at Aspen Valley Ranch in Woodland Park.
“We want to involve the community in getting engaged in the environment,” Woolf said.
A father of three children and two adopted children, Woolf also brought his trusty licensed therapy dog, Benjamin, a chocolate Labrador retriever. Benjamin is Woolf’s constant companion in the office and will make his rounds in the schools, where the professionally trained canine will comfort, calm and motivate students and staff.
“When we put him with a kid who’s upset and lonely, the kid is no longer upset and lonely,” Woolf said. “The atmosphere changes.”
Woolf tells the story of a truant seventh-grader in his former district who started attending school every day after he asked her to get Benjamin water, snacks, exercise and love in the mornings.
“She didn’t want to go to school because she didn’t have any friends. She showed up every day to look after Benjamin, and shortly, she had an entourage, who became her friends,” Woolf said. “I got Benjamin as a tool to work with kids. Life is about connection.”