Hats had become a battleground in the Harrison school district in Colorado Springs. Teachers tried to enforce the no-hat policy, but students pushed back.
Eventually, the dress code debate surfaced in one of the meetings Superintendent Wendy Birhanzel holds throughout the year with student advisory groups at every district middle and high school. Students told her they don’t find hats distracting in class and see the accessories as a form of personal expression — something the district normally supports, they said.
Birhanzel subsequently shared the students’ concerns with various staff groups and everyone agreed: The hat ban needed to go. Such mutually agreeable outcomes are one of the things Birhanzel loves about the student feedback sessions.
“These meetings are not only one of my favorite parts of the job, they remind me of the power of voice,” she said.
Birhanzel, who was named the 2023 Colorado Superintendent of the Year by the Colorado Association of School Executives, also talked to Chalkbeat about the district’s efforts to reduce out-of-school suspensions, a silver lining that came out of COVID, and her frustration with state education funding.
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
What was your first education job and what sparked your interest in the field?
I started my tenure in education as a first grade teacher in South Central Los Angeles. During this time, inequities in education became very apparent. I taught in an overcrowded school that looked more like a prison than an elementary school. We had barbed wire around our playground, which was strictly concrete and no grass. I also saw classes staffed with multiple substitutes and ongoing turnover of staff. This is when I realized my purpose was to ensure all students regardless of background are provided a high quality education to allow them to be whatever they desire.
What is an effort you’ve spearheaded in your district that you’re particularly proud of?
One effort that I am proud to have been a part of is our Dakota Promise Scholarship. I do not believe that any family’s financial situation should be a barrier to them achieving their goals including college or certificate programs. However, for many of our students that has been the case. They can get accepted to amazing programs but can’t attend due to financial barriers. Working closely with Dr. Lance Bolton, president of Pikes Peak State College and an amazing donor, we developed a program to help.
Graduates from any of our district high schools can attend two years at Pikes Peak State College at no cost, with tuition, fees, books, and academic support covered. Students can earn an associate degree, credits to transfer to a 4-year school, or an industry certificate. In addition, they are provided coaches who help them persist through school and find jobs aligned to their field. Since the program launched in 2020, 225 students have received the scholarships.
Under your leadership, discipline referrals have dropped 47% and out-of-school suspensions have dropped 38% in three years. What changes led to this?
The simple answer is mindset. However, to make it happen takes a lot of conversation and support. When students struggle with math or reading, we don’t send them home and think they will come back proficient. Students who exhibit challenging behaviors are no different.
Data has shown us that suspending students doesn’t change behavior, but working through the behavior does. As a district, we have changed our perspective on suspensions. We are looking at alternatives that hold students accountable in a different way and actually change future behavior.
We continue to train staff on the power of relationships. We know relationships matter for students, and teachers work on relationships from day one. We also have restorative practices in all schools. Many of these conversations with students are led by their peers as they determine the impact of their behavior and what they need to do to right the wrong.
We have added Student Success Centers in our high school counseling offices where students can de-escalate after certain code-of-conduct infractions. This is also a supportive place to connect with a caring adult and develop skills to engage in learning.
Tell us about an interaction with a student (or group of students) who made a particular impression on you.
I meet with student advisory groups at every middle and high school multiple times a year. I am so amazed each time I meet with our students by their insightful and honest feedback.
I met with a middle school group about school and district rules – they don’t like the no cell phone rule. We discussed how it can take away from learning and they agreed but said there should be times they can use phones such as lunch or breaks. I asked the group to propose a new policy and present it to their school administrators. Their phone policy started this week, with students rolling it out and having a chance to prove they can handle it.
Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.
COVID was especially hard for our low-income families, who were struggling with basic needs. During this time, we set up a food bank at one of our high schools and delivered groceries to our families, providing supplies such as diapers, body wash, and food.
Learning and school were the least of their needs at this time as they were losing jobs, housing, and any sense of normalcy. As a district we stepped in with community partners to help them through this crisis. It reminded me and our staff that students can learn when their basic needs are met. The positive from this experience is that our families and community trust our school district, and we have built stronger relationships by showing up when times are tough.
What issue in the education policy realm is having a big impact on your district right now? How are you addressing it?
Unfortunately, Colorado has one of the lowest funded education systems in the nation. On top of that, the state has not fully funded education since 2009. That means our current students have never attended a fully funded school. This sends a sad message about priorities to our students and staff.
In a district like ours — where more than half of students qualify for free or discounted school meals — we cannot ask our families to fundraise, to write a check, or to host a gala in order to make up the difference. To counter this lack of funding, we strategically seek grants to add programming that our students need. In addition, our community passed a $180 million bond in 2018 that allowed us to rebuild a school, add on to two schools, and renovate every other school.
What are you reading for enjoyment?
“The Happiness Advantage: The Seven Principles of Positive Psychology That Fuel Success and Performance at Work” by Shawn Achor
What’s the best advice about educational leadership that you ever received?
Remember your why. It can be easy to get caught up in the stress of day-to-day tasks, the political pressures, and the criticism. However, you need to stay focused on your why to help ensure every day is meaningful regardless of outside distractors. This is why being in classrooms or with students is my favorite part of the job.
Ann Schimke is a senior reporter at Chalkbeat, covering early childhood issues and early literacy. Contact Ann at firstname.lastname@example.org.