Chris deKay, Ignacio’s new school district superintendent, is launching into the new school year with a mixture of gratitude and high expectations.
DeKay, a district employee since 1996, stepped into the superintendent role in June, at the end of a school year marked by the COVID-19 pandemic. With almost 100 days under his belt, deKay has a firm grip on the district’s priorities and challenges for the coming year.
“We try to start our meetings with a touch of gratitude, and really I’m grateful for this opportunity,” deKay said. “I feel the responsibility of doing everything in my power to ensure we are a well-performing school district.”
DeKay, who is from Ignacio and graduated from the town’s high school, was a social studies teacher in Ignacio and Farmington for 15 years. He received a master’s degree in curriculum development and served as an adjunct professor with Adams State University in Colorado.
He served as Ignacio Middle School principal from 2008 to 2020. Then he took on the role of curriculum director and assessment coordinator for the district before being hired as superintendent.
DeKay dove into the job with a focus on building relationships. He went on retreats and met with board members and school leadership. Through those conversations, they established expectations for each other, he said.
“I have a saying: ‘High expectations and good procedure combined with compassion will produce positive results,’” deKay said. “A critical element of that is that we put the students first in every decision we make. We ask ourselves this question: Is this good for the students? I want that question, and putting students first, to occur at every level of the system.”
DeKay does not plan to make “drastic changes” to the way the district operates. Instead, he wants to apply gentle pressure to improve it.
“Once I get completely wrapped around the job, we might make some significant changes,” he said.
One of the key priorities for the year is to establish a strategic plan for the district with input from community members and district stakeholders. The district created a plan three or four years ago, but the last time stakeholders could get input was almost a decade ago, deKay said.
Principals will be updating school vision statements with a focus on measuring their goals.
“If we want high academic growth, how are we measuring that? How are we ensuring that happens?” deKay said.
DeKay is also taking a critical look at systems within the district, planning to improve them with a focus on student learning. That means finding new ways to improve academic growth in core subject areas and to introduce kids to lifelong skills.
Another major goal: improving communication and building strong relationships between district leadership, staff members, parents and students.
“When we think about relationships, we think about building trust within this community at every level,” deKay said.
But as the school year starts, the district is still contending with and recovering from the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The immediate and pressing challenge is our response to the pandemic,” deKay said.
The district wants to build unity around decision-making after a divisive year marked by in-person and remote learning, cohorting, quarantines, COVID-19 testing and heated debate about public health policies.
Districts like Ignacio are observing a loss of learning. Some students are further behind on their course credits and academic growth. The district has created additional tutoring programs and counseling services to help students with their academic and social-emotional needs.
“The pandemic creates this stress on kids and staff, really addressing that in a meaningful way through a solid counseling department and programs is important,” deKay said.
Teacher retention is another challenge. Ignacio can’t always pay the same rates as other local districts. People might stay a few years, then move on, leaving Ignacio back at “ground zero,” he said.
“If you can keep a teacher here for 15 to 20 years, the quality of education goes up. Keeping good teachers is always a paramount concern for us,” deKay said. “Really creating this school system where teachers have a desire to stay, work and live here – that’s what we are ultimately trying to do.”
During the hiring process, stakeholders also mentioned other issues, such as addressing low student attendance, weak broadband internet access, low parental involvement and diversity in staffing.
DeKay’s guiding principles as he steps up to the plate?
“We all have to work hard, but I have to model that,” deKay said. “Working hard, being solutions-focused has kind of guided me in these decisions as I take them on. ... I’m coming in humbly. I don’t think I have all the answers. We have a lot of work to do, and I’m going to work hard at it.”