Colorado Springs School District 11 held a special meeting about the future of Mitchell High School for parents and staff last month — and that meeting was filled with both personal pain and future hope from the district’s top leaders.
At a time when about 10 teachers have resigned or retired, and 23 await possible new assignments, District 11 Superintendent Michael Thomas called for change and new directions for the embattled high school.
Mitchell faces the possibility of a takeover by the state Department of Education and management by an outside entity because of its failure to reach state education goals.
To address this perilous future, the District 11 Board of Education and Superintendent Michael Thomas held an open house for community members at Mitchell High School on July 8. During the two-hour long event, attended both by District 5 City Councilor Nancy Henjum and Rep.
Tony Exum (D-HD17), Thomas unveiled plans for both the future of District 11 and Mitchell High School, which will start the 2021 school year with new administrators and staff, as part of a sweeping personnel decision announced Jan. 27. The decision was a result of Mitchell’s failure to improve its status on the Colorado Department of Education’s school performance framework. It required staff to re-apply for jobs, retire or face being fired.
Change and innovation was a recurring theme of the evening. “There’s no question that these past 15 months are ones where we’ve learned a lot, been challenged and pushed to our limits,” said Thomas. “I will say that we have to find those bright lights that came out of such chaos like COVID. One of the things COVID did was it gave us permission to change. I always tell this joke, ‘How many educators does it take to change a light bulb? What, change?’ K-12 as an industry is a very slow-moving, slow-to-change industry.
“There are a lot of great things that happen in education, but we know each generation, as it comes to the schools, they are looking for something different. Their learning styles are different, or our teaching styles, our pedagogy, is different. We have to be open to the outcome, not necessarily wedded to it. That’s something we really had to learn. It was a tough lesson to learn with COVID, but we had to learn it.”
The D11 school board asked Thomas to focus on that kind of positive change when he took over the district three years ago.
“It was very clear there were two things the board really wanted to focus in on,” he said. “We had been losing enrollment for 10 plus years, and in addition to that we needed to look at our full, core academic programming. Why were folks leaving District 11? I know we’re in a choice state. Looking here, there’s 16 or so districts that comprise Colorado Springs, as opposed to a single city district, like Denver Public Schools. We need to look at our academic offerings and why are families not choosing District 11. Those are two big things that the board wanted us to focus in on.”
Change can be difficult in education settings, and the wounds from the district’s personnel decisions at Mitchell High School were on full display.
“To know that I got a call saying, ‘Oh sorry, we heard you got another job, so why would we give you an interview?’ It broke my heart,” said Alison Kiselich, a former Mitchell High School special education teacher. “I am heartbroken to see the way everything went down. Yes, I know we’re a turnaround school. I know we’re a priority improvement. I know these things. Our staff knew these things. I thought we had time; I did not think this would happen, in the middle of a pandemic. My heart breaks to leave after 13 years.”
Staff members at Mitchell High School were required to re-apply if they wanted to work at the school for the 2021-2022 school year. According to reporting from KOAA in June, 25 teachers were rehired, 10 teachers resigned or retired, 23 have been rehired to other positions within D11 and 22 are still seeking assignments.
Thomas acknowledged the difficulty of the situation.
“I totally understand and appreciate you being very vulnerable tonight and sharing that,” he said. “I have to say the decisions for Mitchell High School, these aren’t easy decisions. I hope you all understand that.
“My heart has been breaking ever since I walked this community. It’s been before I got here. Mitchell didn’t just happen to get to this place overnight. As many of you might now, with the history that Mitchell has, they’ve been put on a watch clock with the DoE here. You have a limited amount of time to turn the school around. We wanted to empower the community to make decisions for what Mitchell could do differently. Prior to me getting here there were two attempts to put together a plan to help Mitchell turnaround. That plan had to go before the staff for a vote. It was not supported enough by the staff to move forward.
“During my second year here, we had an opportunity for Mitchell to go for another plan. I had to address some things centrally. We — central administration — allowed Mitchell to become Mitchell. How could we allow this to continue to happen? If I’m truly committed to these students, families and communities that’s unfortunately my job as a superintendent, to make some of the hardest decisions in this district.”
George Smith will be taking the helm at Mitchell this year. A former Mesa Ridge High School assistant principal, and a Widefield High School class of ‘97 graduate, Smith now has the responsibility to improve Mitchell’s performance in the next two years.
“I feel very supported, and I feel that there is a unified effort and goal and mission to establish Mitchell as a premier school and return it to excellence, and hopefully achieve a higher level of success than it did in the past,” he said.
Smith said his plan to improve Mitchell High School will focus on key areas of improvement.
“I have five pillars that I’m going to be focusing on,” he said. “The first one is culture shift. We have to change the culture of the building. We’re going to focus on quality instruction, we’re going to focus on talent development, we’re going to increase leadership capacity and then we’re really going to focus on community involvement. Those are my five pillars of turnaround.”
The consequences, should Mitchell fail to improve, could involve having the school taken over by an outside management company.
“A management partner is one of the options available under the Colorado Department of Education accountability clock,” said Devra Ashby, D11’s chief communications officer, via email in March. “Ultimately, CDE could dictate what could happen at Mitchell if the district doesn’t take action now, which we are doing because students deserve this plan now.”
While that is a possibility, Thomas assured the audience that wasn’t the outcome D11 was looking for.
“There is no plan to close Mitchell,” he said. “There is no plan to charter Mitchell. This is the anchor of this community. Part of our academic master plan for the dual-language immersion program is dependent upon Mitchell. We have no intentions other than keeping Mitchell a strong, community school right here.”