DENVER — Monday marked the first day for 64,000 students in Douglas County as the first day of class began for Colorado's third largest school district.
Before the new school year began, Denver7's Nicole Brady sat down with Erin Kane, the newly-appointed superintendent of the district, who was chosen by the Douglas County School Board after they fired former superintendent Corey Wise earlier this year.
During the conversation, both Brady and Kane talked about the challenges the new school year will bring as well as the hopes the superintendent has for students going forward. Note: This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Nicole Brady: This seems to be the first year since the pandemic that we're not starting the school talking about masks, talking about COVID-19 restrictions. What is the overarching theme this year?
Erin Kane: I would say the last two years have kind of really been rough for educators, but what I've seen going into this year is so much optimism. Optimism that we are now focused on kids and what we can do for kids. You asked about our priorities for the school year, and looking forward, our priorities are on literacy: Continuing to implement the science of reading, we've seen great results so far; so we're excited to be doing that – making sure that all of our kids can read, it's so important no matter where you're from, to be able to read.
We're focusing on the essential skills, which are part of the Colorado Department of Education Academic Standards, and the essential skills include things like perseverance, resilience, civic mindedness, critical thinking, collaboration, communication – all those things our kids need to be successful academically and otherwise, all those things that promote their social-emotional well-being as well.
The third thing we're focusing on are professional learning communities in our schools. So, really encouraging that environment among educators, where they work together with data, to look at how they can improve outcomes for kids – we’re just constantly thinking about growth and achievement, and what can we do for not only groups of kids, but for this child, and working together and collaborating with best practices to advance outcomes.
The final thing that we're focusing on are pathways. Making sure that our kids all have a great pathway when they leave our system, whether that's to the college of their choice, or whether it's to receive a certification in our system and be able to go straight into their career.
Those four ones are our focus. They're all around our kids. I think we're all just really excited to move on and get that done.
NB: This fall, we should get the CMAS (Colorado Measures of Academic Success) results, it'll be the first time that we maybe see the full impact of the pandemic on academics with kids having taken all the sets of tests. Is that something that will inform your decisions this year?
EK: Absolutely. Data always informs our decisions. Looking at state testing data is one of the ways that we make sure that we're constantly improving and evolving. How are we doing? Where do we need to go to make sure that our kids are growing and achieving? Just never taking our eye off of that ball – which is outcomes for our kids – and so yes, it will be very informative.
And you're right, this past spring was the first time in a long time that we've taken all of the tests and so moving our accountability forward, we'll be able to look at growth in the coming years, and all of that information helps us continue to advance outcomes for kids.
NB: This is a sad topic, but the school year ended, sadly, with the tragedy at Uvalde (Elementary School in Texas). It was the last day of school for many people here in Colorado, and it was one of the last days there. The last time I sat with you in the spring, we talked a little bit about that idea of teachers being trained to be armed in the classroom and you said that wasn't really on your agenda right now. Has anything changed since then, since Uvalde, about how you will approach school safety?
EK: My position that it isn't necessary in Douglas County for us to arm teachers remains the same because of our great relationship with law enforcement, not just the Douglas County Sheriff's Office, but also the Parker PD, Castle Rock PD, and the Lone Tree PD. Their proximity to us is phenomenal but I think that we always need to be evolving, right? We always need to be learning and evolving and making sure that we're doing everything we can (to keep schools safe).
We can't ever… you can't ever rest, right? We always have to be looking at evolving. And we are continuing to evolve, and to learn from lessons learned from Uvalde and make sure that we're applying them here as much as we can. We've implemented a lot of security upgrades to our buildings, thanks to our 2018 bond and that work has been ongoing for the last couple of years and has really made a difference.
NB: We saw a situation in Douglas County High School a few years ago when Safe2Tell may have prevented something tragic. Are teachers here, or staff members here (at Douglas County Schools) watching for red flags?
EK: Absolutely. If you think about school safety, you've got the proactive side and the reactive side, right? The reactive side is really about physical safety and security. The proactive side is very much about mental health. We've recently just hired a district wide psychological safety coordinator on to work with all of our schools to make sure that we're really watching for those red flags and providing students the support and the help that they need. Early intervention, all of those things make a difference as well, so we always need to be both proactive and reactive.
Our 2018 mill levy override helped cover a counselor in every school about four years ago, so we've had a counselor in every school throughout the last two years and are continuing to have that support for our kids, and again, for our teachers and whatever support they need.
NB: The other aspect you brought up (in the spring): Mental and emotional health of kids. It's become such a concern around the country. How do you make sure as the leader here that down to the elementary school level, kids are getting that time and that support for their emotional, social, and emotional health?
EK: We have great support for our kids. But we also are providing supports for our educators, the supports that they feel like they need to be able to support our kids; whether it's behavioral, social, emotional – whatever it might be that they need to be able to support our kids. Helping our kids be successful is the best thing we can possibly do for them.
NB: I want to ask about the teachers – they got a raise last year. But inflation is rampant, school supply costs are up; I'm shopping with my kids this week and I'm afraid of what the bill will be.
EK: I think parents can ask teachers for wish lists, work with their local Parent Teacher organizations at their schools to help the schools with their priorities.
Our teachers in Douglas County, in particular…– we are really suffering from the ability to pay them competitively with our neighboring districts, so one of the things that we're looking at doing is actually putting a mill levy override on the November ballot. It'll be up to our Board of Education, ultimately, but that will be the recommendation coming from staff so that we can pay our teachers more competitively because it’s so important. We can have all the amazing programming in the world, but we have to have the human beings who can actually execute that programming and take care of our kids and inspire our kids every day.
NB: And how about the rest of the staff? We saw every district last year struggling to get those cafeteria positions staffed, the buses staffed. How is that looking right now?
EK: It's about the same, we are also struggling. We're struggling not only with competitive pay, but also of course, with the labor shortage. That's been a big challenge for us, right? You raise bus driver pay, and now you can't find kitchen workers because they all went to drive. It’s just that balance, right? It's trying to figure out how we take care of everyone and make sure that we keep as many employees as we can. But this shortage has been a real challenge for us and for many districts on the mill levy override that I mentioned. Assuming we pass it, that would also help us pay more competitively, not just teachers, but also across the board to help us hold on to our amazing custodial staff, our parent educators, our kitchen workers, our bus drivers – all across the board, because it takes so many people to support and allow for the great work that happens in our classrooms.
NB: So this is your first full year as superintendent in Douglas County Schools. You came from a charter school and you are a school choice advocate. We know some of your surrounding districts are starting to see struggles with enrollment and kids moving around kids, kids leaving certain schools, certain neighborhoods. How do you see school choice fitting into Douglas County and charter schools fitting into Douglas County going forward, and do you continue to be an advocate for those?
EK: We have an incredible balance in Douglas County, about 75% of our kids and our families choose to attend a neighborhood school and about 25% choose to attend a charter school. All of those choices matter. All of those choices are important, and it's a really great balance. We are experiencing some declining enrollment areas; we're also experiencing areas of tremendous growth. And, unfortunately, of course, they're not in the same area, so we're really navigating how to make sure that we have neighborhood schools in our communities that are experiencing significant growth.
We haven't built a neighborhood school in the Douglas County School District since 2010, so one of the things we are also looking at for November is considering asking our taxpayers to build neighborhood schools and a few of our new neighborhoods because it really is time and there's tremendous growth.
We also need to deal with declining enrollment, we also need to look at having a three-to-five-year plan that takes in community feedback, staff feedback, to make sure that everyone understands what's going to happen in two years, three years, five years so that we're not being reactive, so we need to handle both sides of those points.
NB: Let's talk a little bit about those options, those pathways. You mentioned college costs are soaring. Students don't necessarily have to go with just one option anymore. How has Douglas County started to change that?
EK: Just like everything else, we have to continue to evolve. You're right. A lot of kids can go into a very professional career without necessarily having a four-year degree. My degree is in Computer Science. Today, to go code for a high tech company, you don't necessarily have to have a four-year degree and be really good at coding and so we really are looking at those opportunities for our kids and what we can offer in our K-12 system to make sure that they're ready for whatever comes next for them – whether that's a four-year college, whether that's a different path, a path in the trades or a path in technology, we’re making sure that they're ready to start their career when they leave our system.
NB: We may see an attempt to recall school board members, the ones that fired your predecessor and hired you. How much does that fighting and infighting between those who agree and those who don’t support the current board… how much of that weighs on you, going into this school year, and do you even give it thought as you kind of make your plans for your future here?
EK: I'm really focused on our kids and on our staff and making sure that we're moving forward, and that we're as optimistic as possible about the future for this district. The interesting thing about our board is that it’s truly a representative board.
Our district is split, our community is split, our country is split. I think we have an incredible opportunity to be able to demonstrate what it's like to come together, what it's like to have conversations where we disagree, but that doesn't mean we're bad people where we give each other the presumption of positive intent, just all of those things, I think, need to return to our society and we have a great opportunity to demonstrate that here.
Should we pursue funding for our school district through mill levy override in a bond? I think that's an incredibly unifying issue. All seven board members support and understand why we need funding, and are very, very supportive of making sure that we're paying our teachers and all of our employees more competitively.
So many, so many more issues bring us together than issues that that are divisive.
NB: Are you excited for those long board meetings that sometimes can get a little long and when people get up and talk? Are you excited to have those conversations?
EB: You know, I've been doing board meetings since late March when I started and you know, we haven't had any that are too exciting or spicy. I think our board meetings are really focused on the business of the district and making sure that we're putting our kids first and less focus on conflict. We hope to continue moving that forward. But for me, I'm just focused on our kids and our amazing staff and moving our district forward.