ithin weeks, the first day of school will be here for Colorado Springs School District 11. It will bring a fresh start, under fresh leadership, for D-11’s kindergartners, high school seniors and every student in between.
D-11’s school board recently selected Michael Thomas as its new superintendent, presenting a fresh opportunity to revamp student learning in the city’s largest district.
Thomas previously served as the chief of academics and associate superintendent for Minneapolis Public Schools, and also has a background as a district coordinator for equity and integration, and a principal and school social worker. Thomas, a black man who doesn’t mince words, makes it compellingly clear that he has a strong vision to move our students forward: collective responsibility.
The key, he says, is to bring the community and educators together to form a strategic plan that will set the course for the district far into the future — a course that uses money and resources responsibly to elevate D-11’s kids, no matter their backgrounds.
Realizing that he won’t be able to make all the changes he wants before the 2018-19 school year begins, Thomas says he wants to first work on creating a multi-year, comprehensive strategic plan.
“I inherited a district that was created for me,” he says. “Budgets were tied out last spring and decisions were made, so what I have is what I have. [There’s] some small adjustments I can make... in terms of some strategic reorganization that I think will fit my leadership style... I’ll be introducing that to our board when we meet in August.”
A year from now, though, Thomas hopes to be hosting his strategic plan release party. To get there, he will hold a series of discussions with the community and employees, and work with a consulting firm. “For me, to have collective ownership and accountability, folks need to have participated in the development so that they can see themselves in this plan, otherwise it just becomes a shelf document,” he says.
Thomas understands that not everyone will be able to have their hopes and dreams implemented, but he says, “What should not happen, is for somebody to come forward and say, ‘I never had an opportunity to express my views, or my concerns, or hopes and dreams.’”
By January, he says, “we’ll have a good sense of where we are going to need to go,” and the budget plan that follows will include his vision. Thomas says that he hopes the plan will outlast his tenure at the district’s helm. “There’s going to be multiple superintendents at some point... but whoever comes in should be able to utilize this plan and framework for many, many years.”
Thomas says there’s great excitement in the district and community about the recently passed mill levy override. That’s good, but Thomas says, “It’s not as if we’ve just won the lottery and we can get out and spend all this money. Everyone has an idea and hunger for resources and I totally understand that. But we really need to be disciplined in terms of making informed decisions where we can maximize the benefits for the new revenue coming in.”
Aside from the numbers, Thomas says one of the key points of his plan for the district is to address equity issues. When it comes to the achievement gap, he says experience has taught him, “It’s there, but nobody wants to talk about it. They’d rather pretend it’s not there [maybe] because [of] accountability or the guilt or the shame that surrounds [it] is so intense that they would not be able to get beyond that.
“You know, we can pretend it’s not there, and it’s going to continue to drag us down... Our kids deserve the conversation, every kid deserves to have a conversation about their needs.”
On that same theme, Thomas says the individual acts of a teacher can cascade through the entire school system, not just his or her classroom. And it’s important, he says, for teachers to be aware that the culture of their classrooms matters to all the district’s kids, not just those sitting in front of them.
To be clear though, Thomas says he doesn’t have an “S” on his chest. “This is not Michael’s plan... so if you’re waiting for Superman, um, I’m not him,” he says. “Yes, I will make some decisions. Yes, it’s my job to cast the vision to lead the board and guide it, but at the end of the day, if folks don’t buy into what we’re trying to do on behalf of our students and families, we’re not going to get anywhere.”
The most important thing, he says, is to remember: “If our kids shine, we all shine.”
D-11, I think you’ve picked the right guy.