Taking Struggling Schools to New Heights
- Expertise: School Turnaround
- Position: Superintendent
- District: Lake County School District, Leadville, Colo.
If you’re looking for good partners to help your struggling schools get better, go find them. But always maintain control over the big decisions.
That’s one of the major lessons over the past few years for Wendy Wyman, the superintendent of Colorado’s Lake County district. And the district’s results from that time frame have caught the attention of not just her community, but state leaders and others.
Although Lake County can claim the superlative of being the district at the highest elevation in the country—Leadville, the county seat, is 10,151 feet above sea level—that lofty status comes with several challenges.
The district is in a beautiful, but remote area where recruiting educators isn’t easy—Leadville is an old mining town with a population of about 2,600. The district’s location near several prime ski resorts means it has a significant population of low-income, immigrant families who work in hotels, restaurants, and other service jobs.
Thirty-five percent of students are English-learners. And 7 out of 10 students are eligible for free and reduced-price lunch. Three times since 2012, Colorado had placed the district on its “accountability clock,” a statutory timeline that places evolving requirements on struggling schools.
So the district’s recent gains under Wyman, who took over in 2012 after working the previous half-dozen years as a principal in Lake County and another district, are hard to miss.
The district improved enough last year that Colorado took it off the accountability clock. In addition, the state gave two of the district’s three schools the highest possible rating in 2018.
A closer look at recent data reveals that the district’s English/language arts growth score was 16 points above the median in Colorado, and its growth in math was 11 points above the median.
The improvement has been a slow and steady “mountain climb,” Wyman stressed.
Lessons from the Leader
- Invite and Include Community: Work with your community to develop a vision of their hopes and dreams for students.
- Practice a Growth Mindset: Always be learning and engaged in continuous improvement. Use feedback cycles to support school leaders in collaborating with teachers on instructional practices. Use tools to ensure that you are focused on and monitoring progress on school and district goals.
- Collaborate and Innovate: Good ideas come from many places. See teachers, students, community members and external partners as stakeholders and leaders. Say yes to good ideas and figure out resources and logistics as you go.
“They wanted their kids engaged in rich learning experiences,” Wyman said of the school community. “They want our students not only to come out of schools with high academic skills, but also kids to come out of schools … where they had a really strong sense of being a strong community member.”
A Broad View
Wyman, 52, brought a wide range of experience to Lake County that helped her appreciate the district’s educational and cultural terrain.
She worked in the Colorado Department of Education on Title I issues, then went to work in the Jefferson County district, the second-largest school system in the state. There, she worked as an assistant principal and a principal.
Wyman also brought a hefty research background. While working at the University of Colorado at Denver, she conducted evaluations for the National Center for Culturally Responsive Educational Systems, a federally funded program to help students from culturally and linguistically diverse background, among other duties.
She’s also been an assistant professor at Colorado State University, where she coordinated partnerships between the university and two junior high schools and oversaw teacher candidates.
“Those experiences just helped me have a broad view of what’s going on across the country in those areas,” Wyman said.
The combination of Wyman’s deep education knowledge and diverse experience would prove especially useful after she landed the superintendent’s job and began the work to line up partners to help her turn things around in Lake County.
One of Wyman’s early partners was Mary Seawell of the Gates Family Foundation. Seawell first encountered Wyman when she was visiting Leadville on behalf of the foundation—which is a different group from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation—to talk about helping pay for new playgrounds at schools. At the time, in 2012, Wyman was trying to persuade Lake County voters to pass their first bond issue for schools in many years.
Seawell was impressed by Wyman’s resourcefulness and willingness to shuttle among individual businesses, leaders, and parents to explain why the bond issue was crucial. “I’ve worked with superintendents of large urban school districts. Some of the characteristics that I think have made them successful I think are also true of Wendy,” Seawell said.
Lake County voters approved the $11 million bond issue, which paid for renovations and an addition on the district’s lone high school.
Separately, at the start of her tenure as superintendent, Wyman used a Colorado education department grant to partner with a for-profit outside group that focused on leadership coaching and social-emotional learning. But several months in, Wyman decided that the partnership wasn’t serving the district, especially as she and her team were weighing school improvement models.
So Wyman cut the cord.
“It became clear that their style was not a great match for our style,” Wyman recalled. “It became clear that our teachers were not feeling it.”
Seawell and the Gates Foundation proved to be the more durable and helpful partner. The impression Wyman made on Seawell led the Gates Family Foundation to provide a four-year, $600,000 grant to help the district overhaul its classroom learning model.
In spring 2013, Lake County began investigating the possibilities offered by the EL Education learning model. The model, which focuses on “invigorating instruction” and a “real-world curriculum” that emphasizes applying what students learn in real-world situations, is well-suited to schools in the area, where many students and their parents spend time on outdoor activities; the mountains can make a good hike or hunting trip hard to resist.
In one lesson, for example, 3rd graders learning about the U.S. Army’s 10th Mountain Division met with members of a light infantry unit and skied down a mountain with them. The lesson focused on history and social studies, yet students also exercised their reading and writing skills.
But Wyman didn’t simply impose the new model on her teachers. She let elementary teachers explore the EL Education system throughout the 2013-14 school year and got their feedback. And ultimately, teachers in grades K-6 led and made the key decisions about how to change the curricula.
Every single teacher ultimately voted to adopt the model in 2014, Wyman said.
[The school community] wanted their kids engaged in rich learning experiences.
Subsequently, the teachers at the intermediate and high schools agreed to essentially honor key elements of the model in their grades.
To ultimately make their decision, Wyman, staff, and teachers fanned out across schools in Colorado and built relationships with national education groups.
With the Gates Family Foundation’s help, Lake County worked with the Odyssey School of Denver, a charter school, so teachers could learn more about EL Education and see it in action over the course of a year. In addition, staff visited the Denver Center for International Studies at Ford school to learn about how to better manage and learn from student data.
That process grew out of Lake County’s work with the Relay Graduate School of Education and was arranged through the Colorado education department’s turnaround network. That state-supported network also led the district to borrow hiring practices from University Prep, another
Denver charter school.
“You make a cohort of folks that you can ask questions of and rely on,” Wyman said. “It’s nice to be in that work together. It’s like a fellowship.”
Wyman’s leadership stood out for two reasons to Nicole Monet, a turnaround support manager at the Colorado department. She worked alongside her principals and staff at trainings. And she has an unwavering focus on what her district needs.
“She is just the ultimate gatekeeper for her district,” Monet said. “If [an initiative] doesn’t align with her district’s initiatives, she’ll just say no. Or she’ll push back to see if it can be reworked.”
Roxie Aldaz, the head of the Lake County teachers’ association and a former school board member who’s taught in the district for 25 years, praised Wyman for preparing teachers for the shift to EL Education but also for seeking their input.
“Instead of saying, ‘OK, we’re going to make all the teachers like this,’ she really took the time to survey the teachers to make sure they were on board before it was adopted,” Aldaz said.
Wyman also made sure no students would be left out of the real-world learning due to income or family background. She secured a $3 million county grant to provide both staff and equipment for the district’s many outdoor learning experiences, including for students who can’t or don’t ski.
One art class, for example, uses snowshoes to get students beyond the school boundaries, while others take fly-fishing rods to learn a new skill and focus on the ability to enjoy solitude.
“Our goal is that when we have those experiences, all kids participate,” she said. “Sometimes that involves helping parents understand that they’re safe experiences, and making sure parents feel like it’s a good use of time and a valuable experience for their children.”
But Wyman also wanted schools themselves to be welcoming and helpful environments. She opened a health clinic at the high school where students, staff, and their families can get medical care, while students can also receive dental care and mental health services.
All those changes are not just about the students; they are also about acknowledging the importance of educators, parents, and the community at large, Wyman stressed.
“We want to do that in an environment that really helps kids discover their best selves,” Wyman said. “We really think about the whole child.”