Roadmap for success

Mason Mullins, a rising fifth grader at Vera G. Scott Elementary School, reacts to Mayor John Suthers Thursday, Aug. 8, during a kickoff to the Colorado Springs School District 11 school year at the Broadmoor World Arena. Mullins had the audience of about 4,000, including Suthers and D11 Superintendent Michael Thomas, laughing as he spoke about the importance of great teachers. [Southeast Express photo/Regan Foster]

District 11 charges into new year with community-wide celebration

Colorado Springs School District 11 (D11) is heading into the 2019-20 school year with a new look, new mission and new attitude.

Classes officially begin this week, but on Thursday, 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 D11 students, staff, faculty, administrators, families, 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.

And Superintendent Michael Thomas told the assembled crowd that the message is more than superficial.

“It is OK to take risks in D11,” he said. “It is OK to step out of your comfort zone in D11 if that is what it takes” to ensure student success.

“You see who we can become in the future. … We [will] not just study history, we can make history.” — Mason Mullins, Vera G. Evans rising fifth grader

‘All means all’

At about 27,000 students, the district is the 10th largest in the state, according to the non-partisan research organization That group mines data from across the country to compile livability reports related to U.S. colleges, schools, neighborhood and companies. And with 3,440 employees, D11 is the 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, socio-economically and culturally diverse, Thomas said. And as studies and statistics have consistently proven – and as D11 has experienced – it is easy to predict, based on those factors, which schools will hit academic performance standards and which will miss the mark.

Members of the Mitchell High School Air Force JROTC honor guard prepare to present the colors to open the kick-off event.

Earlier this year, the District Board of Education gave its blessing to improvement plans for the Galileo School of Math and Science, Jack Swigert Aerospace Academy and Mitchell High School. Swigert and Mitchell are both based in Southeast and, about three out of four of each’s students qualify for free or reduced lunch.

The Colorado Department of Education ranks schools’ performance on four levels: performance, improvement, priority improvement and turnaround. Schools that receive a priority improvement or turnaround rating are put on so-called “performance watch.” As of January, both Southeast schools was on priority improvement status.

But that doesn’t preclude students from deserving every possible opportunity to succeed, Thomas said.

“If we truly mean to serve all kids, all means all,” he said to a roar of approval from the crowd. “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.”

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 A winding road

Thomas was tapped for the helm 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 for not just 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 comprising D11 residents, parents, students, staff and administration. All told, more than 1,500 people chimed in on the vision.

The draft plan was introduced to the board of education in March and finalized in June. Now, it’s a matter of embracing its call from the ground up.

“All of us here today touch thousands of young people’s lives,” Thomas said, adding each attendee had, “a moral and ethical obligation” to care for those youths.

Michael Thomas
(Courtesy Photo/D11)

“No matter who you are in D11, everything you do will be feeding up to our strategic plan,” he continued.

“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.”  – Superintendent Michael Thomas

Looking ahead

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 pretty 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, said. “Strong schools create strong communities, and strong communities make great cities.

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

For rising fifth grader Mason Mullins, the plan is nice … but his concern is more about what takes place in the classroom. The demonstrative boy in the perfectly fitted suit is a student at Vera G. Scott Elementary School on the city’s north side, and he told 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 told the room full of educators. “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.”

(From left) Mason Mullins, Colorado Gov. Jared Pollis, two-time Paralympic bronze medalist Dartanyon Crockett, D11 Board of Education president Jim Mason and Superintendent Michael Thomas listen as Mayor John Suthers speaks about the importance of education to strong communities.



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