As George Washington High School embarks on a new effort aimed at bridging academic and cultural gaps in the school, students and staff now know who will lead the school when current interim principal Jose Martinez retires at the end of next school year: Scott Lessard, currently an assistant principal at the school.
Lessard will be the school’s third principal in four years. Former principal Micheal Johnson left the school last summer for a central office job after a proposal to dramatically open up the school’s International Baccalaureate program caused an uproar among many IB parents. He was replaced by principal Martinez. Initially slated to stay for one year, Martinez announced in January that he will stay at the school until the end of the 2015-16 school year.
Lessard came to George Washington last summer after 13 years at Denver’s Thomas Jefferson High School. Next school year, Lessard will be a “succession principal,” which means he will be working with Martinez to prepare for the 2016-17 school year for a full school year before he officially becomes principal.
Chalkbeat spoke with Lessard about his vision for George Washington, retaining teachers, and how the school is working to improve academics for all students at the school.
Why were you interested in being George Washington’s principal?
From the day I got to GW, I realized what a special place it was and how many assets it had. As you know, it’s gone through some turmoil that I thought that shouldn’t be repeated. I think I have a clear vision for success and I want to make sure we have the consistency here to make those things happen.
What is that vision?
GW has an International Baccalaureate program second to none in the state of Colorado. So part of my vision is to make sure that it maintains its status and its academic excellence so students around the city have that kind of environment to come to to study. At the same time, we have to spend a lot of time and energy making sure students who aren’t in IB — which is two thirds of students — have an academically rigorous and engaging program so they can graduate college-ready.
What are you doing to close opportunity gaps at the school?
Specifically thinking about IB, we have broadened the pipeline for entrance. There’s no more screening at freshman year. If we’re talking about the school at large, we did a lot of work to identify the different challenges that our entire population has regarding academic success and identifying things we can do.
One is streamlining curricula to make sure students in 9th and 11th are getting coursework they need so they can take college level-classes senior year without fear of not succeeding.
At a presentation describing plans for the school next year, students talked about a cultural divide in the school. How are you going to address this?
There was a big division between IB and non-IB students. We have dedicated a ton of resources going into next year to make sure we can run a full-fledged, integrated advisory for ninth graders. Students will work on a service learning project, and kids will be grouped together to build relationships over the whole year.
There will also be a group of upperclassmen called the PIT group, or Patriots In Training, who will be leading those ninth graders.
There are more high schools on the way in the area: For instance, DSST has announced plans to expand. How are you thinking about recruiting and retaining students?
You have to have a great product, and word of mouth is everything. While I do engage with our community at large in different areas — I just met with the president of our local Homeowner’s Association to give them a sense of what’s going on at GW — the key to success and growing enrollment is making sure we have a great product. That great product is students graduating college ready and scores reflecting that.
The other part is, we want to make sure students are safe. That means kids are doing what they’re supposed to be doing.
Leadership transitions often come along with significant staff turnover. Can you talk about how you’re approaching teacher retention?
Last year we had to replace 17 teachers, and many of those were teachers who decided to leave GW and go to a different school in the community. That means they thought it was better to go somewhere else than to stay here. This year we have only one doing that, and they live closer to the school they’re going to. That says volumes to the optimism of staff in the ability of this community of educators to provide an outstanding education.
How are you working with the community and parents?
Both Jose and I know it’s critical to keep people who’ve demonstrated such passion for GW engaged in the work we’re doing. Last spring was tumultuous but I think it brought out the best of what GW can be because there’s a lot of people wanting to make things better.
Is there a possibility that GW would eventually offer credits for individual B courses instead of having only an all-in diploma program?
While I never say never, we do not have any thought of offering IB coursework to non-diploma program kids. We are a diploma program. It’s been critical for our success over last 30 years that that be part of goal for every kid who’s participating. I think to dilute it by doing certificates within the program would compromise the IB program’s long-term success.
We also have a great Advanced Placement program, and a lot of really smart kids who don’t necessarily want the IB Diploma. They’re very happy in AP program. There’s a different kind of structure than the certificate would have, but the academic rigor should be the same.<
How does the introduction of an IB program at Northfield affect George Washington?
We might lose kids to Northfield IB. That’s the nature of the game – when you build more schools, enrollment will change. But I’m not overly concerned that Northfield will draw out the heart and soul of our IB. I think that Northfield will offer its program. For kids in grades 5 or 6, there will be an opportunity to watch both grow and develop before they make a decision. I think ultimately we can offer something that a lot of people are very interested in.