Outgoing Summit School District board members Chris Alleman and Kate Hudnut reflect on their tenure
District leaders feeling optimistic about schools after tumultuous years marked by COVID, superintendent searches and learning challenges
Following the election of two new Summit School District board members, and the reelection of two incumbents, current board members Chris Alleman and Kate Hudnut will be passing the torch and stepping down come Nov. 30.
Alleman, who won election to the board in 2019, said he believes he is leaving the district in a better place from when he began. Over the past four years, Alleman’s time in district leadership was defined by a multitude of challenges including superintendent turnover and the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I do think that we had some rough roads the past four years, but I think we have come out stronger. I think the district is in a position to continue its strong progression forward,” he said.
Alleman said he is most proud of the work he and the board did to help families and staff maneuver the pandemic — a time when students and teachers were having to make a radical shift to online learning amid high community need, from food insecurity to mental health issues.
“I think we all went into a kind of triage mode to just keep the students engaged and progressing academically, and we know that there were major academic slides coming out of COVID, not just for us, but every district in the state or even the country,” Alleman said.
The pandemic marked a paradigm shift for the district that further cemented its focus on social and emotional learning. Much of that work is embodied in the district’s equity policy, which board members passed unanimously in 2021 as a way to affirm their commitment to addressing systemic injustices in education and the need to recognize diverse identities.
Alleman said that while most of the community has been supportive of the policy — evident by the recent election in which all four school board candidates who championed equity prevailed — it has sparked backlash from others.
Some parents, in district meetings and during campaign season, took issue with LGBTQ+ representation and references to systemic racism in schools, labeling it a distraction from academics and an infringement on parental rights.
Equity “has become a dirty word to many people, and some don’t believe that equity has anything to do with academic achievement,” Alleman said, “and I would just vehemently say that is incorrect.”
Hudnut, who was first elected in 2017 and reelected in 2021, said schools across the country are learning to adapt to an educational model that extends beyond reading, writing and math. It’s a philosophy often referred to as “whole child,” which seeks to create safe and welcoming learning environments for students — part of which comes from representation.
“To say that a child in kindergarten shouldn’t see a picture book with mom and mom or dad … you’re shutting that child out of society,” said Hudnut, who stepped down as board president this summer after being appointed in 2020. “For us to stand strong around so many of our marginalized communities, it was important work.”
Acknowledging achievement gaps
Academic challenges remain as test scores for state exams continue to reveal learning disparities between students, particularly for English language learners. Test score data released this fall show that 8.7% of Hispanic students in third through eighth grade met or exceeded expectations in math compared to 41% of white students. For language arts, 22.6% of Hispanic students met or exceeded expectations compared to 63.2% of white students.
Test scores have led, in part, to an overall decline in the district’s accreditation rating, which is issued by the state education department on a 100-point scale. Over the past decade, this score has fallen for the district, going from 81.5 points in 2014 to 55.9 currently.
Officials said they are beginning to see some promising trends in test scores. Most notably growth rates, which represent the change in achievement on state assessments from one year to the next, increased this past school year.
“When I first joined the board, we barely looked at our test scores between our language learners and English language proficient folks. We weren’t talking about it publicly,” Hudnut said, adding that she and her colleagues pushed for more discussions.
“I’m proud of the fact that we’re now having those conversations,” Hudnut continued. “We’re not just trying to push one set of kids to get all As while hiding that another group is getting Ds and Fs.”
Closing achievement gaps will require working with students and families outside the classroom, which is why the district has sought to improve its dual-language communication. That includes hosting family dinners at various schools and establishing an advisory committee for Hispanic parents.
The state of tumult caused by years of ever-changing superintendents and the impact it had on the district’s stability also cannot be understated, Hudnut said.
In January 2020, then-Superintendent Kerry Buhler announced her retirement, kicking off a search process that overlapped with the pandemic. The district saw no internal candidates put themselves forward for the position, and the five national candidates were unable to visit Summit County because of travel restrictions, Hudnut said.
Interviews were conducted over Zoom, and a decision was ultimately made in May of that year when board members selected Marion Smith Jr. as the next superintendent. Smith Jr. lasted roughly a year before board members voted to not renew Smith Jr.’s contract and kicked off yet another search while an interim superintendent, Roy Crawford, served.
Current Superintendent Tony Byrd was hired in March 2022 and, after completing the 2022-23 school year, is now the longest-serving district head since Buhler’s retirement in 2020.
“Stable leadership is vital to any organization,” Hudnut said, adding she feels the district is on a strong path to move forward under Byrd.
Outside of achievement gaps, the district is contending with an ever-increasing cost of living that is threatening recruitment and retention. While board members voted last school year to increase pay for employees across the board — resulting in an average 12% pay bump for teachers and a $5 increase in hourly pay for bus drivers — it won’t be the end of their effort to try and make Summit more affordable.
Board members are now eyeing a plan to provide housing to teachers and staff, possibly by building it themselves. And they are continuing to advocate at the state level for school funding reform.
During a district visit this month, Colorado House Speaker Julie McCluskie told board members there is a bipartisan path to “fully funding” public education with state legislation next year. By paying back the more than a decade of debt owed to schools, the state could make the biggest investment in K-12 funding since 2009. Even with that, it shouldn’t mark the end of discussions around school financing, outgoing district leaders said.
Funding at a 2009 level will still fail to match the current cost of living, said Hudnut, while Alleman added, “Colorado will continue to need to work to find fixes to education funding.”
Yet both board members expressed optimism for the future — one that has been forever changed by an unprecedented past few years.
“School districts no longer, and I think for the better, can only think about academics,” Alleman said.
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