School chief enters a brave new world

Daniel Snowberger plans to achieve more with less

Snowberger leads a meeting about school technology Thursday in the Durango School District 9-R Administration Building. Enlarge photo

JERRY McBRIDE/Durango Herald

Snowberger leads a meeting about school technology Thursday in the Durango School District 9-R Administration Building.

In the Durango School District 9-R building on a recent morning, six educators listened as Daniel Snowberger, the district’s new superintendent, introduced his old friend, Paul Fleming – former director of assessment for the Ludlow school district in Fort Collins.

“Paul’s developed an amazing system for student assessment that is fair, objective and really keeps the data in one place,” Snowberger said.

Fleming started to hand out materials.

“I didn’t realize there would be so many people. You’ll have to fight over them,” Fleming said.

“Come, Paul. We’re educators. We’ll share them,” Snowberger said.

If typically self-effacing, Snowberger’s remark was also a master-class in comic timing.

Once the chuckles subsided, Fleming began describing the Web-based program he had designed by which teachers can test students on subjects from science to grammar to calculus.

As its revolutionary potential became more evident, the educators began peppering him with questions.

The ensuing two-hour conversation – during which Snowberger attentively presided – was beyond wonky: unrelentingly dense and technical.

It was also remarkable for the group’s passionate command of the tiny but vital details that determine the quality of a district’s public education.

According to former colleagues, it is exactly the sort of conversation to expect from Daniel Snowberger.

Excepting his magnificent mustache – worn in the painter’s brush style he’s sported for more than 20 years – Snowberger is physically nondescript and naturally mild-mannered. His low voice routinely succumbs to monotone.

He says he closely resembles the computer scientist he nearly became.

“But then I taught at an elementary school for a year in Florida. I loved computers, but teaching was considerably more interesting,” he said.

Dr. Jeff Siskind, former president of the Seminole Education Association, met Snowberger more than 15 years ago. “Even that early in his career, it was so clear that he had tremendous personal skills. Him being superintendent there is no surprise,” he said.

In a telephone interview, former principal Sherrill Casey said she hired Snowberger as assistant principal in Seminole County, Florida, close to 20 years ago.

“We were a Title I school – significant population that was low socio-economic. He was young when we hired him, but just mature beyond his years,” she said. “Parents and the PTA and the staff loved him, kids took to him immediately.”

Snowberger secured his first principal gig quickly. He says it was the most challenging time of his professional life.

“It was a culture of excuses. Teachers were consistently failing to teach kids, but it was the kids’ fault,” he said. “We’ve come a long way since then, in part because state legislatures have realized the importance of teacher accountability.”

Snowberger has since turned around underperforming schools across the country.

His last job was being Harrison School District’s assistant superintendent. Nearly 80 percent of its 11,000 students qualified for free or reduced-price lunches. Through the course of four years, it suffered $12 million in budget cuts.

“‘There’s not enough money’ – I’ve heard that for years. But my attitude is, become more efficient. So at Harrison, we instituted the most rigorous pay-for-performance plan in the nation.” Harrison also adopted the Web-based testing program that Paul Fleming was demonstrating to Durango educators on Thursday morning.

Vocation, vocation, vocation

For even the noblest souls, education can prove a deeply discouraging vocation. Snowberger’s desire for reform however appears undimmed. He’s a staunch supporter of charter schools.

“I’ve set up five myself. I’ve also learned that my children fundamentally thrive on different learning styles,” he said.

He has five children with his wife, Olga, his first love, a fellow educator.

He hopes to modify the current school calendar, which is geared to the needs of 19th-century farms, and to change grading policies so that children who successfully retake a class they failed get the higher grade, not an average of the two. “They mastered the knowledge. Why should the system be punitive?” he asked.

Big plans

Snowberger is taking helm at a point of tumult for the district. Losses in state funding aside, it is years away from complying with Senate Bill 191, which will require extensive new assessments of teachers and students – an onerous transition that school board chairman Jeff Schell anticipates Snowberger will master.

“People are always nervous when evaluation systems change. Interim Superintendent Bill Esterbrook did a phenomenal job of setting the tone for the new evaluation system. But we really think that’s where Dan’s outstanding implementation skills come in,” Schell said.

Snowberger has big plans for Durango. He intends to make the district’s finances more transparent, and is bent on ensuring that all students make a minimum of one year’s academic growth every year. He has promised to reach out to Durango’s charter schools, and increase teachers’ pay while implementing more rigorous systems of teacher assessment.

“Above all, I want to engage the community in defining what a quality 21st-century education for our children looks like in Durango,” he said.

A provocative objective to set. Perhaps abject wonkiness and a passionate command of detail will be factors in the answer.

Former colleagues of Snowberger say he’s the type who pays attention to the details. Enlarge photo

JERRY McBRIDE/Durango Herald

Former colleagues of Snowberger say he’s the type who pays attention to the details.

Snowberger has learned to deal with scarcity. His last job was with the Harrison School District, where he served as assistant superintendent. The district sustained $12 million in budget cuts during a four-year period. Enlarge photo

JERRY McBRIDE/Durango Herald

Snowberger has learned to deal with scarcity. His last job was with the Harrison School District, where he served as assistant superintendent. The district sustained $12 million in budget cuts during a four-year period.