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Unfinished business at Summit High

Lu Snyder

SUMMIT COUNTY – As much as Schools Superintendent Wes Smith has accomplished in the past five years – financial stability for the district and a solid educational base – there are some things he feels are unfinished as he prepares to retire July 31.

“I wish that, academically, we would have had more rigor,” Smith said. “I feel responsible for that.”

Summit County knows how to play hard but struggles to pair that recreational lifestyle with working equally as hard, Smith said. Although a student can get a good education from Summit schools if he or she desires, too many capable students take the “easy way” through school because the district doesn’t demand more of them.

Research shows that students who earn lower grades in more challenging courses benefit more than those who ace the easy ones, the superintendent said. Grades are only one part of the educational picture.

“There are students who want to protect their grade point average by taking easy classes,” he said, noting that sometimes parents support this, for fear of seeing their child’s grades suffer.

This appears to be most evident at

Summit High School.

Perfecting the

high school experience

According to Smith, Summit High School was “on the verge of disaster” when he began his tenure as superintendent five years ago.

“(In 1998), I described the Summit School District as a confederate of schools, rather than a system,” he said. The high school could be considered a microcosm of the district as a whole, he added.

At the time, there was neither consistency nor accountability at the high school, he said. To rectify this problem, Smith asked Frank Mencin, then Frisco Elementary School principal, and Peggy Kastberg, then Summit Middle School vice principal, to serve as co-principals for the high school. Their dual leadership “was necessary at the time and successful,” Smith said. Last December, Kastberg moved into central administration and Mencin became sole principal of the high school.

Like the district, the high school is now positioned to move toward academic excellence, Smith said.

“I think it is time now that the academic vision of the high school needs to be created,” Smith said. “We’ve got the ingredients.”

Smith and his staff have already upped the academic requirements for high school seniors, but that is only the first step, he said. The International Baccalaureate (IB) program, which started at Summit High this year as third-year IB students moved into ninth grade, will add to the school’s academic program.

IB is an accelerated program focusing on more rigorous studies while developing students’ responsibilities as active citizens of the world. IB diploma students are expected to be bilingual by graduation. In three years, the school will offer IB diplomas to its IB students.

Still, higher academic standards are not the cure-all, Smith said. Vocational-

technical courses are just as important for students who don’t have plans for college.

While the high school has added some vocational courses over the years, Smith said he’d like to see the district create a new vocational-technical school at the Silverthorne Elementary School (once the elementary school moves to a new site in 2004) – potentially in concert with Colorado Mountain College and neighboring school systems.

As the high school increases its academic rigor and vocational programs, Smith said, the school must also create a team among its staff and keep some “lightheartedness” in the high school experience.

“I think that sense of lightheartedness, that sense of possibility S that joy of youth, should be a part of what high school is,” he said. “High school students are a value of who they are today and what they are going to become.”

Teaching adolescents

The middle school is also on Smith’s list of educational issues he’s struggled with as superintendent.

Unlike at the high school, however, Smith’s contention with the middle school is based on an intellectual disagreement with the pervasive educational philosophy for that age group, he said. Across the nation, the cognitive needs of middle school students have taken a back seat to their physical and emotional development – based on brain research that Smith says has now proven faulty.

In effect, the philosophy calls for less academic rigor – or cognitive learning – and more emphasis on personal development.

“We’re putting far too much (emphasis) on emotional development,” Smith said. “I think the middle school has to rethink what that does – and I’m talking nationally.”

He added that while his position has put him at odds with the middle school faculty, he still has the highest regard for it and the difficulty of teaching adolescents. Rather than focusing on developing a student’s self-esteem in middle school, Smith believes schools should continue to discipline and build the mind – and self-esteem will follow.

“We need to concentrate much more on how they think,” he said.

Smith believes the implementation of the IB program at Summit Middle School was one of the first steps toward helping students wire their brains by helping them learn both introspectively and as citizens of the world.

Though the IB program has brought on charges of elitism, Smith said, he expects it will have a “ripple effect” from which all students at the middle school will eventually benefit.

Smith will pass the torch to his successor, Lynn Spampinato, when he retires next week and said he won’t interfere with future school board decisions, though he will continue to support the IB program.

“It’s a great opportunity for a new leader because the district is in great shape,” Smith said. “Everyone sees the strengths of the district and everybody sees what still needs work.”


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