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Wendy Birhanzel

Wendy Birhanzel’s parents were both teachers. Her mom, a high school honors teacher. Her dad, a high school math teacher and football coach.

“I wasn’t going to go into education, because I didn’t want to do what my parents did... like all teenagers,” said Birhanzel. Instead, she went to school to become an actuarial scientist. But later, realizing that she needed to be around people, and that she wanted to make a difference, she changed course, pursuing elementary education and reading.

Birhanzel has dedicated her entire professional life to education. Her first job was as a teacher in South Central Los Angeles. Since then, she’s been a literacy coach; an assistant principal; a principal; a curriculum, instruction and assessment officer; and a chief operating officer.

For Birhanzel, being the superintendent of Harrison School District 2 means she is an advocate for her students and staff — and responsible for ensuring they get the support they need.

One of her goals has been to redefine the community’s perception of Southeast Colorado Springs and District 2: “Every time someone actually steps foot in our schools, they apologize for having made preconceived ideas of what they thought they’d see. They are amazed by our students. They’re amazed by the instruction. And they’re amazed by what’s happening.”

Fostering an inclusive environment where students’ diversity is celebrated — and where their needs are advocated for — is one of the central tenets of the district. “To me,” said Birhanzel, “DEI means that regardless of your background, regardless of your parents’ income, regardless of your race, your religious preferences, you have an equal opportunity to be successful.”

When the federal government did away with free school lunch, District 2 decided to continue with the program. “And because we know our students so well,” said Birhanzel, “we found that they were still hungry after our first lunch. So we have a second lunch program, where we use our general fund to fund an extra lunch for all our secondary kids who are still hungry.”

D2 prioritizes accessibility, not just when it comes to food, but in academic and extracurricular programs as well. Unlike other districts, which might charge for participation in school sports, at District 2, it’s free. The same goes for school supplies, transportation, field trips, and even before-school and after-school child care.

Birhanzel has focused on serving D2’s unique needs, making sure that schools are safe, supportive places for their students. “We have really upped our supports around social-emotional learning,” she said. “We have social workers in every building, and we have restorative practices, so students can learn from their behaviors.”

“This award is not about me,” said Birhanzel. “It’s a team effort. It’s really the hard work of our whole district, the whole philosophy, the support from the school board all the way to the bus drivers, to the nutrition teachers. We all really believe in our kids and really believe in the work around diversity, equity and inclusion. I’d invite anyone to come to Harrison and see it in action, because we have it happening every day in our classrooms.”

Anna Fiorino is a graduate from San Diego State University. She is a journalist with (more than three but less than twenty) years of experience. In her free time, she edits novels.