Mary Coleman’s passion lies at the crossroads of health care and education.
“I really believe that when you combine health care and education, you can change the world,” Coleman said.
A 2000 Harrison High School graduate, Coleman holds a bachelor’s degree in psychology from UCCS and is currently studying public and executive leadership as a Gates Fellow at Harvard Business School. She lives in Colorado Springs with her husband and their three children.
Coleman talked with the Business Journal about the shared complexities of health care and education and her goal of helping close achievement gaps for D11 students.
Talk about your work with Centura.
I’m the director of philanthropy, which means it’s my job to raise money for initiatives to support a way that the hospital can work in this community. So we always say we advance on two spaces — one is more access to care for the underserved, and the other is on advancing the speed of innovation. It’s my job to find people who care about those aspects of the community and connect them to the great work that’s happening here in Colorado Springs, and I’m also responsible for that work in Pueblo.
How did you become involved with D11?
In 2016, I was appointed to the board of education. My most recent leadership role at that time had been as the president of the board for Leadership Pikes Peak, and I had this moment of, ‘The thing that matters the most to me is kids, and making sure that kids have access to really great education opportunities.’ …
So I was trying to decide, ‘How do you volunteer in a way that can advance the community in the space of education?’ And I just happened, at that exact time, to have an opportunity to interview for an appointment for the board of education, and I honestly thought, ‘You know, this is going to be as close as you can get to moving the needle on something that’s really important.’
So I was appointed and then I went through the firehose learning experience of trying to figure out how, specifically, you can make a change in such a big institution. … In 2017, I was elected by the community to complete the end of the two-year term, and then last week, I was re-elected to the position for a four-year term.
… I always knew that I wanted to make a difference in some really significant way. … I’m glad that it ended there for me, but I don’t think I would have ever predicted it for myself. I never envisioned myself being elected to anything, but I love being a part of it.
You graduated from Harrison High School. How did your own experience in the Colorado Springs school system shape your work with D11?
That was a huge thing for me to grow up and go [to Harrison]. It’s incredibly diverse, and there are a lot of families with a lot of really specific challenges. … So I think I see the world through that lens of diversity, and I think that’s a strength that I bring to the D11 schools. I think the strength of D11 is in its diverse student population and that’s another thing that we’ve really been forward about historically. We know that it’s a fact that downtown Colorado Springs is changing and evolving. Younger people and more diverse families are moving here — and because we haven’t really called [diversity] our strength, I think we’ve not really taken full advantage of the opportunity. I think we have a lot of opportunity to do a lot of really good things when we focus on diversity.
You said, “I really believe that when you combine health care and education, you can change the world.” Can you elaborate on that?
I believe fundamentally that if you want to change the world, and you want people to be well and productive and good citizens of society … you have to be healthy. I mean, we can’t have kids who are sick, who don’t have access to a primary care doctor, sitting in a classroom and suffering … not getting the care that they need, and expect them to do really well. I think the same is true with teachers.
… So in 2017, the school district passed our first tax increase in 17 years, and the focus was really, ‘Can we hire more counselors and behavioral health professionals and nurses to support our students’ emotional well being?’ But I think it even goes one step further. I think we have to have physical health also as a component.
So I was a champion of the opening of the health clinic at Mitchell [High School], and I think it’ll be one of the first of its kind in the nation. There are a lot of school-based health centers [but] Mitchell will be one of our first locations that serves the entire community. I think that’s really special because when families are healthy and kids are healthy, you’re more well prepared to learn. And when they can maintain that health and learning over the course of their lifetime, I think societally we’re in a better place.
Do you find your work in health care often overlaps with your education service?
I do actually, in a lot of really surprising ways. Before I took this role, I was responsible for the political strategy of the system. I think health policy and health fundraising and funding is really complex. That is one of the most difficult [American] systems to understand and track … but I found that education is incredibly similar. … The complexities of education almost mirror exactly the complexities of health care, and the funding challenges are also incredibly steep.
… What we know is, if we want to have the best health care system that serves the most vulnerable populations, we have to fund health care. We also know if we want to have the best education system that serves every single student — regardless of where they live, where they come from, or who their parents are — we have to fund education. So there’s always this tension between the two. They’re both priorities and they both should be priorities, but I think we also know there will never be enough budget to meet all of the needs. So it’s all about efficiency and how can we do the best with what we have?
… I believe we have a moral obligation as adults in education, specifically, to give it everything we have every single day. On the health care side, it’s the same thing. … I mean, think about the homeless populations. We still live in a society where people are going without, and I think it’s a real challenge on budgets to figure out how to make these pieces work.
What are some of the challenges you’re seeing now in D11?
What I’ve seen is, since the taxpayers and the community passed the [mill levy override] in 2017, there is this renewed energy for the work that we do. I think knowing that the community has enough faith in the school district to properly resource it — it’s a real motivator for everyone who works in the district. So that’s been helpful, but we do still have some pretty significant challenges.
For me, academic achievement has been something that I’ve been focusing on. The argument is, ‘Well, a test score doesn’t mark how well a child is learning or how smart the child is,’ and I totally agree with that, but I think we have to have some clear definition of what success looks like, and I think that’s something that the district has struggled with. … We know we want to be the best and we know we want to be great, but we have a really hard time defining that. So we’ve embarked recently on a strategic plan process with the community to say, ‘Academic achievement always has to be upheld for schools; we have to educate children, but what are some of the other components that mean we’re really doing our job?’ So we’re going through that process now.
Another [challenge] is really in the space of equity. When I joined the board, I immediately [was] like, ‘I have so many questions. I have so much to learn and I need all of the data.’ … and it was a significant journey to understand the data of District 11. When we finally were able to take a clear look at what’s happening, you can see we’ve still got a significant achievement gap in District 11. … Because we’ve not looked at that intentionally and historically, we don’t have a system in place at all that will support closing that achievement gap. So it’s a huge priority of mine that we start narrowing that outcome, because there’s no logical reason that that should exist. And that’s going to be really hard work that the district tackles over the next few years, but we’ve got a great superintendent [Michael Thomas] who we hired last year. I think he’s the right leader to get it done.