Summit schools positioned for excellence
EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the first of a three-part series.
SUMMIT COUNTY – Five years ago, the Summit School District was in the doldrums. Schools Superintendent Wes Smith was hired to turn the district around.
When Smith was hired in 1998, the school district had suffered a financial cut of about $2.7 million, and it was facing about $4.5 million in lawsuits. The district was forced to trim school days and programs, reduce teacher pay and increase class sizes.
There was a feeling of helplessness and distrust in the district and community, Smith said.
“That was where we started,” he said.
Smith retires at the end of July. He told the Summit Daily News the successes of his tenure came only after smoothing out difficult financial and legal hurdles – with lots of help from voters who approved higher property taxes.
He now believes the school system is poised to move from being a good system to an excellent one.
It looked like things were going the other way five years ago.
One of the reasons the school board chose Smith for superintendent was his track record for financial success as a superintendent in Oregon, said School Board President Bill Pelham. The board hired Smith to help the district recover from the cutbacks and “lead us forward educationally.”
“I think any of us thought it would take three to five years minimum,” Pelham said. “I think he did an incredible and outstanding job of doing so in three.”
In the past five years, Smith has restored the district’s financial stability, expanded and added school programs such as International Baccalaureate and vocational courses, restored school days to the calendar, increased teachers’ pay and reduced class sizes.
“We’ve certainly demonstrated the district doesn’t have to be a victim,” Smith said. “One of the things that we really feel good about is (that) everything we’ve put on the ballot, we’ve done.”
Among his accomplishments in his five years, Smith is most proud is the English Language Learner (ELL) program. For years, the program was known as English as a Second Language (ESL).
“Five years ago, this county was having a very serious problem with the diversity that was coming to it,” he said. “The school district, in concert with Colorado Mountain College, led the way in dealing with diversity in the county. I think Summit County in these five years has adjusted and adjusted very well.”
Today, the district’s ELL program is “exemplary” and serves both local young people and adults, Smith said.
In the bigger picture, Smith said, the school district is now positioned to move from being good academically to excellent – on par with Cherry Creek and Boulder schools.
“We have not reached our potential yet,” he said.
Test scores aren’t the only measure of an excellent school district, he said. An excellent school district would set high expectations for students academically but also provide for their character development – teaching them values such as respect and responsibility. It would recognize the needs of all students – from the college-bound student to ELL students to the one who dreams of becoming an auto mechanic – and stimulate an “intense curiosity” that overflows from class into life, Smith said.
“If I had to put it in a one-line definition, I would say (an excellent district) prepares all students to face the challenges of the world today, in whatever course of education, business or work they wish to pursue,” Pelham said.
There are some challenges facing the district in its pursuit of excellence, including increasing the academic rigor at the high school and adding enough programs to meet the wide array of student needs, Smith said.
Still, he has made possible what was once impossible. Smith has advanced the district to a place where excellence is attainable, thanks to votes in which taxpayers agreed to up the ante.
“I think he’s brought this district to the best financial stability of any school district in Colorado,” Pelham said. “He’s positioned us to increase our education prowess, go forward with new programs and turn this into an excellent school district.”
The board has hired Lynn Spampinato, former regional director of Victory Schools in Philadelphia, to succeed Smith. Spampinato joined the district Monday and will work with Smith for the next two weeks, preparing for the transition.
Lu Snyder can be reached at (970) 668-3998, ext. 203, or
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