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District 11 unveils a strategic plan and a new look 

New beginning

click to enlarge District 11's new logo.
  • District 11's new logo.
Colorado Springs School District 11 is heading into the 2019-20 school year with a new look and a new mission.

Classes don’t officially begin until this week, but on Aug. 8, the district kicked off its year with a community-wide celebration that took on the atmosphere of a multi-institution pep rally.

About 4,000 D-11 students, staff, faculty, administrators, family members, boosters and community members flooded the Broadmoor World Arena for a two-hour ceremony designed to unveil the district’s new strategic plan, including a bold mission statement, core values and logo, while also drumming up excitement for the academic year to come.

“We dare to empower the whole student to profoundly impact our world,” the mission statement proclaims.

Superintendent Michael Thomas told the assembled crowd — which included Gov. Jared Polis and Mayor John Suthers — that the message is more than superficial. “It is OK to take risks in D-11,” he says. “It is OK to step out of your comfort zone in D-11 if that is what it takes” to ensure student success. With about 27,000 students, D-11 is the 10th-largest district in the state, according to the nonpartisan research organization Niche.com. That group mines data from across the country to compile livability reports related to U.S. colleges, schools, neighborhoods and companies.

With 3,440 employees, D-11 is also El Paso County’s sixth-largest employer, district data show. Thomas called on each of those employees to embrace the district’s bold new vision, as well as its guiding strategies. They require the district to:

• cultivate a collaborative culture that promotes intentional, mission-driven change;
• align its actions to a shared understanding of and commitment to the strategic plan; and
• guarantee an ecosystem of equitable practices to meet the unique needs of all.

The sprawling district is racially, socioeconomically and culturally diverse, Thomas says. And as studies and statistics have consistently proven — and as D-11 has experienced — it is easy to predict, based on those factors, which schools will hit academic performance standards and which will miss the mark.

Earlier this year, the D-11 Board of Education gave its blessing to improvement plans for the Galileo School of Math and Science (located in the Patty Jewett neighborhood), Jack Swigert Aerospace Academy and Mitchell High School. Swigert and Mitchell are both in Southeast Colorado Springs. At least 75 percent of students at all three schools qualify for free or reduced-cost lunch.

click to enlarge The color guard kicks off the event. - REGAN FOSTER
  • Regan Foster
  • The color guard kicks off the event.

The Colorado Department of Education ranks schools’ performance and places them in one of four categories: performance, improvement, priority improvement and turnaround. Schools receiving a priority improvement or turnaround rating, the lowest scores, are put on so-called “performance watch.” As of January, Swigert, Mitchell and Galileo were on priority improvement status.

But that doesn’t mean students in those schools don’t deserve every possible opportunity to succeed, Thomas says.

At the Aug. 8 event, Thomas tells the cheering crowd: “If we truly mean to serve all kids, all means all. Far too often we miss the opportunity to shift the mood as necessary. I want to make sure we are creating a mood to accept what is possible with ambition.”

Gov. Polis echoes that call, touting both his landmark free-kindergarten-for-all legislative victory while simultaneously singing the praises of early-childhood education to close achievement gaps.

“If we truly care about the persistent achievement gaps based on income, geography and race, giving every child a strong start will make the biggest positive difference in that,” he says.

And that, in turn, has something of a trickle-up effect, the governor says. An outspoken education advocate, Polis says with free all-day kindergarten squared away, his next goal is to enable middle and high schools to reduce dropout rates by making it easier to identify at-risk students, and to improve opportunities for high school students to pursue concurrent enrollment.

“For first-generation college students, to show them, yes, you can achieve at the college level while you’re in high school … even if you’re the first in the family to do it. To show them, yes, there’s more relevancy there. You might be getting skills or a trade or finding out something that goes beyond the basic high school core curriculum. You may find something that is meaningful to you and make it easier for you to stay in school,” he says.

click to enlarge Gov. Jared Polis (second from left) joins Superintendent Michael Thomas (far right) and other guests. - REGAN FOSTER
  • Regan Foster
  • Gov. Jared Polis (second from left) joins Superintendent Michael Thomas (far right) and other guests.

Thomas was tapped
for the superintendent position in June 2018, after serving nearly two years as the chief of academics for Minneapolis Public Schools. He launched the strategic planning session in 2019 to create a long-term strategic blueprint — not just for the district’s in-class culture, but for wide-sweeping decisions.

The process included eight community-engagement meetings at locations throughout the district, and a multi-day gathering of a core planning team composed of D-11 residents, parents, students, staff and administration. All told, more than 1,500 people contributed to the vision.

The draft plan was introduced to the board of education in March and finalized in June.

Back at the Aug. 8 event, Thomas tells the crowd, “All of us here today touch thousands of young people’s lives.”

He adds that each attendee has, “a moral and ethical obligation” to care for those youths.

“No matter who you are in D-11, everything you do will be feeding up to our strategic plan,” he continues.

While the plan took months to complete, it was designed to be a flexible document that will guide decision-making for years to come. And since public education and community development go hand-in-hand, how those decisions play out could have a profound impact on not just the future of Colorado Springs but of the entire Pikes Peak region.

“All of you have taken up the charge to grow and develop the young minds, bodies and hearts of Colorado Springs, and you’ve committed yourselves to the education and empowerment of our city’s future,” Mayor John Suthers, one of several guest speakers at the event, says. “Strong schools create strong communities, and strong communities make great cities.

“The success Colorado Springs has received in national rankings can be [attributed] in part to our educational institutions and to the work that you do day in and day out.”

For fifth grader Mason Mullins, the plan is nice — but his concern is more about what takes place in the classroom. The demonstrative boy in a perfectly fitted suit is a student at Vera G. Scott Elementary School on the city’s northern side. The event’s youngest speaker tells the room full of educators that their influence far exceeds seven hours per day, five days per week.

“We’re all good kids, deep down,” he says. “We all need you [in order] to do our best.

“You see who we can become in the future. … We [will] not just study history, we can make history.”

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