PSD staff grill superintendent finalists on mental health, inclusion efforts

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Equity and diversity initiatives, mental health, and union and employee relationships were dominating topics at Thursday night’s virtual staff forum for Poudre School District’s three superintendent finalists.

The finalists — Jonathan Cooper, Brian Kingsley and Heather Sanchez — each fielded between 15 and 20 questions on these topics and more from about 50 district staff members. Each candidate was on screen for about an hour, fielding questions and introducing themselves.

The Coloradoan has summarized each candidate’s answers on the questions, grouped by similar topics.

Meet the finalists:Poudre School District names 3 superintendent finalists. Here’s what we know about them.

Mental health resources for teachers, students 

When asked about mental health resources for teachers, Sanchez, executive director of schools for the Bellevue School District in Bellevue, Washington, focused heavily on social-emotional learning, both in regard to effects of the pandemic on students and the long-term impact it will have on their social and emotional health. 

“When we think about the adults and the students in our buildings, we have to make sure that as we return to some semblance of normalcy that we are … being very thoughtful about our consistent approach to social-emotional learning, that we’re making adjustments if they’re necessary,” she said. 

The other two finalists focused more on the mental health of students, but both said it was very important and deserved adequate funding. 

Cooper, superintendent of Mason City Schools in Warren County, Ohio, said he had a history of increasing mental health resources at his current district and discussed all he did — from hiring a mental wellness coordinator to implementing a peer support system. The work around mental health and wellness of students, he said, is never complete and would be prioritized because it’s “so important” and worth the work. 

Kingsley, chief academic officer of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools in Charlotte, North Carolina, said school districts have been handed an “incredible opportunity” through the federal stimulus dollars to deal with mental health. “We have to prioritize funding for our most vulnerable populations,” he said, noting that making sure those who need mental health resources have them is a form of equity.

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Ensuring equal voice for all employees, union bargaining

All candidates got a number of questions about how they would interact with employee unions, and specifically build relationships and value classified employees. Both Cooper and Sanchez said they work regularly with unions and would look forward to continuing the work.

Cooper said he believes collective bargaining can be effective with trust, good collaboration and listening among both parties. 

Sanchez expressed similar feelings on bargaining, saying she’d found success working with associations to keep feedback loops open and allow for addressing bargaining  issues proactively rather than retroactively.

Kingsley comes from North Carolina, a right-to-work state, but said that wouldn’t stop him from working regularly with unions. 

“I understand that it’s really about fairness, it’s about understanding that people have to be able to see themselves in their roles and be able to thrive in a community and feel like they’re being treated fairly, that they’re being listened to,” Kingsley said. “It’s important that we’re working in partnership together. It’s the only way that we’re actually going to help all students succeed.”

Two candidates also received questions about the role of teachers in district decision-making. 

Sanchez said not only is teacher voice “critical” because they serve as the ear-to-the-ground in classrooms, but research shows they have the biggest impact on students. She said administrative work should be centered around “the student experience and the teacher-to-student interaction.”

Cooper echoed Sanchez, saying “I couldn’t imagine making decisions without the teacher voice in my head.” He credited the “teacher voice” in his current district with much of the work he was able to do keeping students in school this year, saying the buildings could not have been open without their perspective in the conversation. 

Though not explicitly asked about it, Kingsley independently brought up that the teacher voice needed to be represented at the table. 

All candidates emphasized the importance of bringing the voices of classified staff to the table, something that a number of people asking questions felt had not happened in the past. 

“If they all didn’t show up to work on Monday, the district would shut down immediately,” Kingsley said. “You are mission critical to the work that we do.”

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Equity, diversity and inclusion efforts

Cooper, when asked about equity, diversity and inclusion efforts, preferred to use the term “inclusive excellence,” which he said is not simply celebrating diversity but “understanding injustice, equity and true inclusion. 

“This work must be at the heart and center of what we do,” he said, noting that the work will never be complete. “It’s not just something you do as a side.” 

Sanchez was clear that while PSD has a strong foundation, its equity work leaves something to be desired. 

“The next step is going to be to really, really dig deeper and lean into the conversation of equity and inclusion,” she said, adding the conversation needed to address how to “effectively achieve this in a way that is systemic across our district.”

Sanchez was also one of two candidates asked about police in schools. 

Though she said she believes the majority of first responders and law enforcement officers go into the field for good reason, she said disparate outcomes are a reality. The conversation, she said, should be framed through system refinements, not that officers have to be in schools or out of schools.

“They have a place in our community,” Sanchez said. 

Kingsley, the other candidate asked about police in schools, said it needs to be a community-based decision. 

“It’s not just a superintendent’s decision in isolation, or that of our board in isolation,” he said.

“I think they do bring a lot of value to the table. But making sure that we’re also taking care of how people feel both on the surface and below the surface, is really, really important.” 

Related to the topic, all candidates were asked to address their own privilege and how it has impacted their lives. 

Sanchez, who said she identifies as a cis-gender white woman, said she has white privilege but that doesn’t mean she hasn’t faced challenges, just that “the color of my skin is generally not one of them,” she said. 

She said her understanding of privilege is that it means she has “an obligation as an ally, and as an anti-racist leader, to acknowledge that and to lean into the conversations … so that we can all have a better collective understanding of the role and the presence of privilege.”

Kingsley and Cooper both said they identify as white men and recognize the privilege that comes with that. 

“Recognizing it, appreciating it and making sure that you recognize that others do not have that privilege” has been a large part of Cooper’s journey, he said.

But realizing his privilege has also given him “great empathy” to understand perspectives of others and “understand how do I build a sense of belonging for others that don’t have that same privilege.”

Kingsley said that as a white man in a position of power, “privilege shows up in sometimes really significant ways and in other opportunities, it’s hidden.” In his career, he said his privilege has allowed him to “check in and check out a situation without people questioning me” and to be silent or loud when needed. 

“Having a structural lens around how, not just privilege, but oppression play in our work is something that I continue to prioritize in my life,” Kingsley said. 

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Building relationships: ‘We’ vs. ‘us and them’ and site-based management

While all candidates were asked some version of this question, there were four questions on this topic addressed to Kingsley, which he said showed “this runs potentially deep in the hearts and the mindsets of the people that are participating tonight.”

Kingsley said he would hope to combat this early on by getting “boots on the ground” at most schools within the first few months and building relationships and trust. 

He said he would build a team that would build a “mentality of togetherness, of inclusiveness” and reflected on how he felt he changed the culture when he arrived in North Carolina by providing support to teachers on the ground and helping them in an administrative role. 

“The role that we’re in, the business of developing human beings, not widgets, and my greatest hope and my opportunity is to create those moments with you to make sure that we have an opportunity to connect with each other in a way that is significant,” he said, emphasizing the importance of trust and having shared learning experiences regardless of title.

On the topic of site-based management, Kingsley was clear that “autonomy needs to be bounded by the goals of our district.” He recognized that education is not the job of a “robot” and that educators have “millions and millions of discretionary spaces” each day, but that “there needs to be a direct correlation between the goals of our districts, the value of our budget, honoring taxpayer dollars, and the resources and what we’re asking schools to do.”

Sanchez said she hopes to avoid an “us vs. them” mindset because the kids are ultimately those who suffer at the hands of disagreeing adults. Sanchez said this mindset can be related to site-based management and is sometimes “an unintentional byproduct” when there’s “a high degree of autonomy,” and it needs to be quickly addressed. 

“You want to have a school district, not a district of schools,” she said, adding that schools need to be able to find a “sweet spot of some individuality” because it does allow for specific schools to address the unique needs of a community.

To Sanchez, “a blend somewhere in between” site-based and district-managed schools is ideal. 

Cooper also said site-based has its benefits — like catering to the specific needs of its community and culture — but that schools can “start to lose some alignment if you’re not clear on what things are important for the entire school district.” 

“When you’re not clear about the goal, you don’t have a shared vision of where we’re heading, that’s when you can have some challenges with site-based because you have people pulling all kinds of directions,” he said. 

Successes and opportunities in PSD

All candidates were asked about the successes and opportunity areas they’ve seen in the district through their research. 

Sanchez began by calling upon her few years in Colorado to recall the district’s size — “large enough to have a lot of resources and a lot of support” but “not so large that it’s cumbersome” — as a success. 

She said the district’s reputation was also something to be proud of, along with “really strong” leadership, educator and classified employee bases “that are very committed to the work of meeting the needs of the community.”

Sanchez focused on equity and diversity growth, saying, “Poudre, like many places, has some persistent and rugged achievement and access gaps particularly for students of color who have been historically underserved.” 

Cooper highlighted the district’s innovation and school choice program, along with its “tradition of excellence.” The main opportunity he saw was turning it from a regionally recognized program to a nationally recognized program. 

“I see the potential of this becoming a nationally recognized place where you want to move and, not just you, but the businesses want to move, so that you have industry that’s wanting to be there, because they’re so attracted to what’s happening in the schools and the partnerships that they have,” he said, adding it wasn’t far off. 

Kingsley was specific naming successes, calling out the district’s Futures Lab and mentorship programs, along with the “spirit of togetherness” he feels is in the community.

He said there’s room for opportunity in how the district goes about meeting its ends, and he is confident he could help align funding to resources and programs that the community wants.

Leadership styles 

Sanchez said she approaches leadership from a coaching and partnership angle; to her, a good leader works for others. 

“Leadership is all about empowering others to be able to elevate their voices and to be able to effectively lead,” she said, adding that she is comfortable meeting other leaders where they are and helping them work to be an effective leader for the community.

Cooper shared similar thoughts, saying “as a leader in general, it’s not about you, it’s about others. Always.” 

“The reason that I desire to be a superintendent, in general, is to represent other voices. That is the main heart and soul and why I want to be a part of it,” Cooper said.

Kingsley identified as an “empathetic” and “servant leader” who works to lead with a vision. 

“My leadership style is to lead with empathy from the classroom to the boardroom,” he said. He also said he would urge people in the district to hold him accountable to being a strong leader and keeping promises he makes. 

The search continues: What’s next?

PSD parents, students and Fort Collins community members will have their turn to question the candidates from 5:30 to 8:30 p.m. Friday. For a link to the event, visit the PSD superintendent search page at psdschools.org/PSDSuperintendentSearch

The board of education is allowing attendees of the forums to leave feedback and ask questions of the candidates. The feedback links can be found at the PSD superintendent search page and must be submitted by 9:59 p.m. April 10 to be considered. 

On April 6, the board of education will conduct its public interviews of each finalist at 6 p.m. This event will be in person for the board and candidates but is not open to the in-person public. A link to stream the interview will be shared before Tuesday. 

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Molly Bohannon covers education for the Coloradoan. Follow her on Twitter @molboha or contact her at mbohannon@coloradoan.com. Support her work and that of other Coloradoan journalists by purchasing a digital subscription today.