Jim O'Brien came to Coyote Hills Elementary school prepared with plenty of questions for administrators.
O'Brien, president of the Cherry Creek School District Board of Education, quizzed Coyote Hills Principal La Toyua Tolbert and Assistant Principal Michelle Colton on a wide range of issues affecting the school. He asked questions regarding the school's population of more than 650 students, digging down to specifics about growth numbers in recent years and diversity figures. He asked about the role of technology in the classroom and beyond, sought answers about parent feedback and wondered about feedback from Coyote Hills teachers.
But O'Brien's most important question came just before he started a tour of the school's classrooms on March 3. It was a query that got to the heart of his role as a board member and member of the Cherry Creek School District community.
"What can the school board better do to support you?" he asked Tolbert and Colton. "Our job is to make sure that you have the resources you need."
Getting feedback directly from administrators, teachers and students is a big part the five Cherry Creek School Board members' job. Each one of the board members visits six schools during an academic year; that pace allows board members to visit every school in the district once every two years. Along with events like "Feeder Breakfasts," gatherings where administrators, teachers and staff members from different high school feeders get to interact directly with members of the board, the visits offer firsthand input about the unique atmosphere in every elementary, middle and high school.
"The fun thing is to walk into a classroom and see the interaction," CCSD Board President Jim O'Brien said midway through his tour of Coyote Hills. A student stopped him in the hallway to shake his hand and let him know he'd recently lost a tooth. "It's helpful for us to get out and see what's going on … We get a sense of challenges and successes at different buildings."
"The fun thing is to walk into a classroom and see the interaction," O'Brien said midway through his tour of Coyote Hills. He had already watched the action in a busy gym class and observed students' focus during a classroom writing exercise. A student stopped him in the hallway to shake his hand and let him know he'd recently lost a tooth. "It's helpful for us to get out and see what's going on … We get a sense of challenges and successes at different buildings."
It's an approach that offers a much more immediate view than static statistics and enrollment numbers. The visits allow board members to hear from every one of the district's unique communities.
At Coyote Hills, O'Brien heard the story of a relatively new school still building a sense of identity and community. The building opened in 2006, and according to Tolbert, the school still boasts a sizable core of teachers who were on staff when the doors opened. The mixed group of first-year teachers and veteran educators who helped open a new school nearly 10 years ago have worked together to build a sense of continuity and culture.
"We have a community that's completely supportive of what's going on here," Tolbert said. "We're pushing toward building that sense of community, working together with other administrators from the Cherokee Trail feeder area."
Tolbert and Colton also spoke of the school's points of pride, aspects of daily school life that don't come through in Coyote Hills' consistently high test scores. They spoke about a 7-year-old student who voluntarily studied up on the Board of Education's policy to offer feedback about a school rule. They talked about technology teacher Matt Grobbel, an involved educator who used the school's 3-D printer to design and build a detachable brace to hold a second-grader's crutches. They spoke about the role of technology in the school's music classes, and detailed a school-wide effort to make wellness a part of the everyday routine through running clubs, yoga classes and other steps.
It all offered an individualized and in-depth view of the school for O'Brien.
"It gives us a sense of what we can do to better support teachers, principals and students," O'Brien said.
That effort didn't go unnoticed by the school's administrators. When asked formally and forthrightly about what the board could better do to provide for the Coyote Hills, both were at a loss.
"I just feel so supported by the school board, I can't even imagine asking for more," Tolbert said.