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This Colorado superintendent ran into critics at a fast food restaurant. Here’s how he handled it.

Aurora Public Schools Superintendent, Rico Munn, left, talks with a student about World Cup soccer at North Middle School in 2014.
Aurora Public Schools Superintendent, Rico Munn, left, talks with a student about World Cup soccer at North Middle School in 2014.
Andy Cross / The Denver Post

Here, in a Q&A series we call “How I Lead,” we feature school and district leaders who have been recognized for their work. You can see other pieces in the series here.

Rico Munn was in line for a quick breakfast when he became a secret shopper of sorts. Not for the fast food restaurant he was patronizing, but for the 40,000-student suburban school district he’s led since 2013: Aurora Public Schools.

After overhearing a mother-daughter pair next to him, he asked about their experience at a district school. In the space of a few minutes, the two delivered a biting critique. It was an eye-opening moment for Munn, one that pushed him to ask families deeper questions about their experiences in district schools — and prompted changes at the school the girl in line attended.

Munn, who was recently named Colorado’s 2019 Superintendent of the Year by the Colorado Association of School Executives, talked about what he wishes he could tell the mother and daughter now, why he’s proud of the district’s digital badge effort, and how the war between education policy camps harms kids.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

What was your first education job and what sparked your interest in the field?

My first job was as the assistant speech and debate coach at Fremont High School in Fremont, Nebraska. I later did my student teaching at the same school. Whether it was in high school, Sunday school, or teaching trial tactics at my law school alma mater, I have always loved the connections and relationships that are created in a teaching and learning environment. My former students are corporate executives, reporters, parents, and even one member of Congress. I treasure my relationships with them.

Fill in the blank. My day at work isn’t complete unless _________________.

I check our data dashboard. Why? We need to know where we are every single day. In order to drive success in Aurora Public Schools, we must focus on data-driven decision-making. The dashboard is part of our district’s data management system. It contains everything from student grades and attendance to state assessment scores and language demographics. The purpose is to track the progress of students as they move through the district and ensure the supports we’ve put in place are working.

Tell us about an interaction with a student (or group of students) who made a particular impression on you since you arrived in the district.

In my first 90 days with the district I visited all of our schools. On a visit to one of our early childhood development centers, a young lady with Down Syndrome stepped in front of me as I was walking down the hallway. She was wearing a pink frilly tutu and cowboy boots. She slowly looked me up and down, and then suddenly gave me a big hug around the knees. She almost knocked me over and then skipped away. I will never forget that expression of unconditional trust. It made my new responsibilities feel very large and very small at the same time.

What is an effort you’ve spearheaded in your district that you’re particularly proud of?

Digital badging. Aurora Public Schools has become an international leader in microcredentialing. Our strategic plan is premised on the vision that every student gets to determine and shape their own success story. Our digital badge platform and program allows us to recognize the unique ways our students learn, partner with outside entities to match their learning to real world needs, and then to award students for their acquisition of skills. Thousands of our kids are working to acquire meaningful credentials in addition to their high school diploma.

How have you shaped the way Aurora Public Schools handles school discipline, and why?

I have supported the expansion of restorative justice practices across the district. We have worked to understand that student behavior is another skill that we must support and develop. Restorative justice involves bringing together the people most impacted by a conflict, deciding together what harm has been done, and developing a solution to repair that harm. Implementing this system across the district has led to a significant decrease in discipline rates. Since 2013, our expulsion rates have fallen by 70 percent and suspensions by 28 percent.

What is the hardest part of your job?

Student expulsions. No one who does this work has an interest in telling a child they cannot come to school.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective.

One day, I was standing in line to get breakfast at a fast food place. There was a young lady and her mother standing beside me and they were discussing whether they would be late for a certain class. I asked them what school they went to and about their experience. I got a very candid, and not positive, review of the family’s experience in one of my schools. The interaction helped me to shift my perspective and ask deeper questions about the work we were doing in that school and across the district. I wish I knew their names because I would love to show them how their brief, but brutally honest interaction informed some significant and positive changes.

What issue in the education policy realm is having a big impact on your district right now? How are you addressing it?

The ongoing war and the nasty rhetoric between education policy camps. It is destructive to our kids and our communities. There seems to be an inability to recognize that we can disagree on how best to serve children and that disagreement does not make one side or the other evil. In Aurora Public Schools, we are trying to address the issue by staying focused on APS. We keep asking the questions: “What do our kids need?” “What works for our community?” and “What makes sense for Aurora Public Schools?” If we can maintain that tight focus, we can keep out some of the noise.

What are you reading for enjoyment?

Batman comics

What’s the best advice about educational leadership that you ever received?

Focus on my job. There are several thousand employees in the district and each of us must fulfill our individual responsibility to ensure the success of our students. I have asked every employee to develop a unified job description for their unique role in the district. Here’s mine:

“My job is to accelerate learning for every APS student every day. I do my job by advocating relentlessly for and supporting the people, practices and policies that drive student success. My community needs me to do my job.”

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