Florida Mesa principal replaced

Superintendent cites lack of academic progress

At Tuesday’s meeting of the Durango School District 9-R school board, Superintendent Daniel Snowberger informed members that as of this morning, Lauri Kloepfer, the district’s executive director of curriculum and instruction, will replace Cindy Smart as the acting principal of Florida Mesa Elementary School.

Kloepfer has previously served the district as principal of Sunnyside Elementary School and has extensive experience with improving schools’ achievement.

Snowberger said the decision to replace Smart, whom he characterized as beloved by her students and extremely skilled, was based on discouraging trends in Florida Mesa’s long-term academic performance.

Snowberger said staff members at Florida Mesa were committed to bettering the school’s academic performance. He said he had determined that teachers needed a principal whom they knew would be committed to leading the school through what would be multiyear process of improvement.

Smart already had announced her plan to retire at the end of the year.

At the meeting, Snowberger said, “when schools decline, it’s a perfect storm. It’s no one person’s fault. But we need to have structures in place, and that can’t be done by someone who’ll be in place for six months and leave. Time is of the essence. For two weeks, I had been hoping that the school would come up with a cohesive plan for academic improvement, and it didn’t come together.”

Citing Smart’s talents, Snowberger said he hoped Smart would take another position within the district.

Snowberger told board members that his Tuesday meeting with Florida Mesa’s staff had been “extremely positive.” He said, “teachers made comments like, ‘Thank you for making this difficult decision, helping us turn this corner, and become the school we want to be.’”

Snowberger said while Florida Mesa outperforms the state average, two weeks ago, its rating had again fallen from an “improvement” school to “a priority improvement school” according to Colorado Academic Standards – a rating reserved for the lowest 15 percent of schools in the state based on the growth of all students, one it had also earned two years ago.

The district’s public information officer Julie Popp said according to state standards, schools should fall between the 40th and 50th percentile in terms of their students’ academic growth in any given academic year. This year, Florida Mesa was in the 41st percentile in reading, the 40th in writing and 37th in math. Popp said placing Kloepfer in charge would ensure that Florida Mesa’s ranking didn’t slip to “turnaround school,” the lowest ranking in the state.

Snowberger informed Florida Mesa’s staff of his decision Tuesday afternoon, and sent out a letter explaining the leadership changes to parents this morning. The letter is available online. Snowberger will host a public meeting to discuss the changes with parents Thursday evening.

The decision to replace Smart with Kloepfer is by far the boldest in Snowberger’s brief tenure as superintendent. In informal conversations with Durangoans who are deeply vested in 9-R, both parents and teachers have consistently praised Snowberger, who became superintendent in June, citing, often without prompting, his dogged commitment to improving the district’s academic performance, his intellectual and ethical seriousness, and his record of following through on promises.

In off-the-record conversations Tuesday night, two educators said they feared that reflexive parental outcry at Smart’s removal would obscure Snowberger’s accomplishments.

In a conversation with this reporter and one of The Durango Herald’s editors, Snowberger strongly criticized the Herald for reporting the leadership changes at Florida Mesa before the district was able to communicate the rationale for making those changes directly to parents.

He requested that the Herald hold the story until Thursday, hoping to blunt the potential of parents’ and students’ alarm with data about the school’s long-term performance. He characterized the story’s publication today as “irresponsible” and a sign that the Herald was more interested in landing a scoop than in allowing the community to reach a fully informed evaluation of the changes at Florida Mesa.

At the Tuesday board meeting, Snowberger also introduced an initiative that would increase the number of assistant principals at three of Durango’s biggest elementary schools – Riverview, Park and Needham – which all have more than 400 students.

New assistant principals would free up principals to lead their schools in academic instruction and actually be in classrooms – something they can’t do now because the administrative and managerial demands on their time are so onerous.

During the course of the last five weeks, Snowberger said he and Assistant Superintendent Victor Figueroa, had visited Park Elementary more than seven times. On every occasion, its principal, Kathleen Lau, was unable to meet with them.

“Last time, she had a kindergartner who’d run out of the building, then a special-needs student broke down, then a parent demanded a meeting. She couldn’t even spare us one hour,” he said.

Snowberger said as things stood, principals are, “set up for failure and burnout. We’ve got principals running from sunup to sundown, like hamsters on a wheel.” The plan would cost about $230,000.

Because of savings the previous year, Snowberger said the district’s funds are in better shape than had been expected.

Board members did not vote on the plan to add three new assistant principals, but after extensive discussion, gave the initiative a unanimous thumbs up.

School board member Joe Colgan said that if the addition of three new assistant principals helped raise the schools’ academic performance, it would prove a very wise use of money.

cmcallister@durangoherald.co

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