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Colorado’s superintendent of the year offers a pandemic prescription: Frequent communication, fewer tests

School superintendent Keith Owen looks out a school bus window
Superintendent Keith Owen rides the bus with students from Weikel Elementary School, located on Fort Carson, prior to the pandemic.
Christy McGee/Fountain-Fort Carson School District

Some parents in Superintendent Keith Owen’s 8,000-student Colorado school district started asking questions about coronavirus even before the pandemic hit the U.S. full force last spring.

They worked or lived on the Fort Carson army base served by the district and had heard about the new illness from friends and relatives overseas. They wondered how the Fountain-Fort Carson district was going to handle the virus.

It was Owen’s introduction to a key pandemic lesson: Inform and reassure parents “quickly and often.”

Nine months in, Owen, who was recently named Colorado’s 2021 Superintendent of the Year by the Colorado Association of School Executives, still aims for abundant communication. He also talked to Chalkbeat about why he pushed hard for in-person learning this fall and why he believes most tests should be jettisoned this year.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

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

In college, I spent time observing an elementary classroom teacher, who also happened to be a mentor to my wife when she was in high school. His style pulled me in and showed me the connection he had with his students and their families.

I started my teaching career in Pueblo School District 60 at a Title I school — a federal designation for schools with many students from low-income families. I’ll never forget my first year of teaching and my 31 second grade students. I loved teaching and couldn’t believe that I had the great responsibility of working with kids and helping them learn. College had prepared me in a basic way, but nothing replaced learning from the other staff and the support they provided.

Under your leadership, the district opened schools for in-person learning this fall. What have you learned and would you do it again?

Opening schools for in-person learning was a priority of mine, and my leadership team, from the beginning. We know that most children learn better in person because they can build a relationship with their peers and teachers. We also know, while our teachers are incredible and remote learning has improved drastically from the spring, that higher-quality instruction can be delivered in person. All that to say, I would absolutely work to plan for in-person learning again.

Being a school district that serves the military, we have many parents who are connected to friends and family members across the country and across the world. Early on, a few parents with this international perspective reached out, asking questions about how we were going to respond to this new virus they were hearing about. At that time, they specifically wanted to know if we would allow them to keep their kids home. We didn’t know much about the virus or its prevalence in the U.S. at that time, so this early parent outreach both informed us of the coming health issue and also was a reminder to communicate with parents quickly and often.

Do you think education will look different after the pandemic? If so, how?

We are seeing some changes come to fruition already: more customized and online options for students and families. Parents and community members are also seeing deep discussions around the value and obligation of testing and grades. We are witnessing these conversations around higher education also.

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.

I understood that Fountain-Fort Carson had a large military population when I came to the community, but I’m not sure I fully understood how interconnected the military was with the school district until I lived here. When I first arrived, I visited one of our elementary schools on Fort Carson and noticed several tables in the lunchroom that were separated and a large number of kids at those tables, talking with different staff members.

I asked the principal about the tables and kids there. She told me those kids had a parent currently deployed and the tables were a special place for staff to connect with the kids and talk with them about how they are doing. I was really touched by the number of kids coming to the tables to get support and connection from adults and peers. That introduction to military child support helped me focus on our approach to this unique population of families.

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

First and foremost, I have worked hard to maintain a solid partnership and open lines of communication with the garrison at Fort Carson, even as leadership there changes regularly. Five of our schools are located on the Fort Carson military installation.

We meet with the new garrison commander almost immediately after one arrives in Colorado every two years. From then on, we meet monthly. The garrison commander, or the command sergeant major under him, also attends our school board meetings, updating us monthly on the happenings on post. During the pandemic, the garrison commander has been even more frequently available as we address this issue together.

What issue in the education policy realm is having a big impact on your district right now?

State and federal testing requirements are among several issues facing our district. To ask schools to take away precious instructional time and dedicate it to testing is unreasonable, as is the expectation that the tests would be administered equitably when so many students are learning in mixed physical environments. I hope that legislators, departments of education, as well as school and district leaders take this opportunity to think outside the box on assessment, grades, and accountability.

We understand that some testing is necessary: SAT, PSAT, and some local assessments. There is no doubt our students will have large gaps in learning as a result of the pandemic. This is through no fault of our incredible teachers and it is also not the fault of our students or families. They are in an impossible situation and have done their best, but there is no way to compare this past year with the academic gains students accomplish in a normal year.

What are you reading for enjoyment?

I just started a new book from one of my favorite authors, Malcolm Gladwell, called “Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know about the People We Don’t Know.”

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

It’s pretty simple: Keep the focus where it’s supposed to be, which is on our kids. Many times the needs of adults can really blur the things we are supposed to be doing and that’s when I really try to keep our students at the forefront of decision-making.

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