Michael Thomas is the new superintendent for Colorado Springs School District 11.
The job has brought him all the way from Minnesota to the Front Range, but the road is longer than that. It stretches back 27 years — and it starts with a boy named Reggie.
When they met, Thomas was a pre-veterinary medicine major working for a YWCA after-school program and Reggie was a 10-year-old who loved foosball.
“Reggie would always want to play foosball with me,” Thomas recalls. “We played foosball every single day I was there, and he was great at it. I wasn’t so great at it, but it was fun. And one day he made a comment, he says, ‘Man, I wish I had a dad like you.’ It just pierced my heart, made me think: ‘I’m using this kid as a paycheck and he’s using me as a father? What’s wrong with this picture?’
“At that point, I knew, I could feel — my call is to work with the Reggies and the Reginas of the world so that I can be that role model and really broaden my shoulders for them to stand on and do well in life.”
Thomas changed his major to social work, and that was his first step on the road to a life in education.
“I started off as a social worker … because I wanted to work with Reggie, but I also wanted to work with Reggie’s family and the community that supported his family, and social work was the field that took that systemic perspective to supporting a holistic approach to learning and healing and those kind of things,” Thomas said. “Then I found myself doing a school-based mental health program in St. Paul public schools and I fell in love with the structure of public education — and I haven’t left.”
Thomas most recently served as chief of schools for Minneapolis Public Schools, and is in the homestretch with his doctoral work at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota. He’s taking the reins of the city’s oldest and largest school district just months after voters passed a long-awaited mill levy override that will give D-11 a critical funding boost.
Thomas talked with the Business Journal about student-centered education and taking a global perspective.
You were an elementary and junior high principal, and coordinator of equity and integration efforts for Osseo School District — what have you taken from those experiences?
Being a principal was the best job I’ve ever had in education. … Being a principal allowed me to effect change on a very macro level. When I was a junior high principal, I had about 1,300 students in my school and I was very close to where that change and the magic happened … yet at the same time I was high enough in the structure where I could help influence district policy and practice. … Principals really sit at the sweetest spot in the organization … they truly are bringing community and system-level leadership together on behalf of what’s best for kids. That is a skill that I take with me to this day. … Then my work at the district level in Osseo as an equity and integration coordinator — it was really leading a lot of racial integration efforts in the state of Minnesota. We are a very segregated state and at the time I was hired in ’99 we’d just revised our state law around desegregation. It’s embarrassing to say that we were still grappling with desegregation in 2018 as we had been in the ’60s with busing, but it’s still a very real issue in many states. So I take pride in being an equity leader and really looking at what is needed — and what you need and what I need might differ, so it’s not about equality, it is about equity, and giving students and families what they need to reach their full potential. And that’s at the core of who I am as a leader.
What drew you to the position of superintendent for D-11?
When I met Reggie, he inspired me to grow in education. And as I worked with kids in education, I realized that my sphere of influence was so small when I started off as a school-based social worker doing mental health programming. And when they would leave my program they would go into the larger macro structure. So I thought, ‘How can I affect the macro structure so that at the micro level and in the classroom and for this kid, they experience what they need to be successful in life?’ And that drove me to say, ‘One day, when I get older, I want to be a superintendent.’ Because I will be able to affect policy, finance, academics, parental engagements, partnerships — everything at that macro level to be about that one kid. So that’s what has always drawn me to becoming a superintendent one day, but I never chased it. … When I looked at D-11, I could see there were a lot of great elements within the district that aligned to my core values as a leader, and the direction that they wanted to go in, and I thought, ‘You know what, we might be able to dance together.’
What are some of those core values?
I need to be in a place that’s going to be student-centered first, and to know that yes, there’s the business aspect of education and the politics and all of that stuff, but at the end of the day, everything we do should be about students. I’m finding that to be the case here with D-11. I also have a core value of strong community engagement. We can’t do this work alone; we know that we need to have strong partnerships with our community, including our parents, who are our students’ first and foremost teacher. … Lastly, I want to know that structurally the district is in a position for growth. And recently we passed a mill levy for the first time in 17 years … and it is the breath of fresh air that this district needed to really be inspired to grow in ways that they haven’t been able to in so many years. … We have so many dedicated folks who are impassioned about what’s best for kids, but unfortunately, financially it’s been a challenge. We now have a financial opportunity to do some wonderful things that we’ve been dreaming about for the past 17 years. And to come in as part of that, you couldn’t ask to be in a better place at a better time.
Tell us about a challenge that you’ve had in your career and how you handled it.
I’ve had a lot. … One thing I vividly remember is going through significant financial challenges in a previous district that warranted changes of school boundaries, closures of schools. … and I was a public advocate to close half of my school down and make it a pre-K-through-3 campus instead of a K-through-6 campus. I had a high immigrant/refugee population, probably almost 70 percent [English Language Learners], primarily from Mexico and Liberia. I knew that if I was going to address the achievement gap — and I hate that word — I needed to address the background knowledge gap, and get them well before they even started school, and culturally, pre-K or [Early Childhood Family Education] wasn’t part of the Latino or Liberian community. My intermediate teachers, my 4-5-6 teachers, were not happy with me. But I said, ‘I’m not here for me. When we all go on to what’s next for us, this community is still going to be needing an educational model that’s helpful for them.’ We closed half my school down and, as part of our integration efforts, moved the 4-5-6 to the other side of the district … the less diverse side, so all these kids and families of color now are integrated into a school — which is supposed to be that way. Then we expanded that school into a pre-K-through-3 and had a lot of early childhood family education, multiple pre-K partners. Then I also lost my job through that process because we had to close another elementary school in order for this to work. It was challenging for me because it was hard work to take the kind of heat and the negative criticism, but I’ll tell you when I look back now, that community is thriving. I just wanted to tell my staff, ‘Look, I’m living proof — we will come and go; this community’s here forever. So let’s do what’s best for this community.’ And they’re thriving. That makes me happy, and it makes it worth going through the challenges that we had to go through to give the community what they needed.
What can we learn from other countries about education?
Our kids are growing up in a world that is clearly global, even here in America, and our kids are going to have to compete globally — far more than you and I ever had to do. Public education really needs to take a global perspective to bringing in learning experiences that go beyond the four walls of a classroom. In the age of technology and instant accessibility to answers and research, we need to adapt our instructional style to that learning style, because they’re not waiting to hear it from their teacher. They’re not waiting to hear it from their mom and dad. I’ve got two high school girls at home — I wish they would only rely upon me! But I know they’re not. So … how can we, as a professional organization, be globally responsive to a learner that is new to us? Flipped classrooms or project-based learning or even the architectural design of how we build community in classrooms — those are all elements of a global perspective that we need to be more responsive to. … I think we have an opportunity in this country to be more globally responsive and not think that we’re the biggest kid on the block. And that’s a humbling request, but it is, I think, a very honest and truthful observation of where we’re at. [I] Love our country, love what we’re doing, don’t get me wrong — I just believe our kids are going into a world and a space that we truly have to be responsive to. We’re preparing them for jobs that don’t even exist yet. It’s exciting and daunting at the same time.