EAGLE COUNTY - Sandra Smyser is in a crowd of parents and pupils, greeting people, remembering names. She feels a gentle tug at her right elbow.
A father tells her how his children are flourishing in their school and how happy he is.
"That's what makes me happy," Smyser said.
Smyser is Eagle County's superintendent of schools and is this year's Colorado Superintendent of the Year, chosen by the Colorado Association of School Executives.
Colorado has 178 school districts and they all have a superintendent, so this honor doesn't come around more than about once in a lifetime.
"It's once a year and an honor I carry with me forever," Smyser said.
Smyser will travel to a national conference in February where nationwide winner will be announced.
It's a simple enough process. Someone nominates you. You fill out an application packet, send it in and then get back to work and it doesn't cross your mind for a long time.
Eventually, the association selects some finalists and asks everyone to come to Denver for an interview. Smyser's panel fired questions from all over the room; she had a perfect fielding percentage.
That was Monday and it didn't take long to decide - the association made the announcement Wednesday.
She was never a state champion, she said. She is now.
Smyser has been in education for more years than some of her teachers are old. This is her 15th year as a superintendent. She was a teacher and administrator for at least 10 years before that.
She started as a bilingual special education teacher.
"That's what I really loved when I started. I was always fascinated by the difference in the way different students learned, how something that worked for one didn't work for another," she said. "That has always been my focus, how can we meet the needs of different kids."
That's at the core of the school district's new curriculum, she said.
High achieving students are still performing at top levels, and the lower achieving students are scoring better than ever on standardized tests, according to the school district's data.
The difference between the two is called the achievement gap, and it's shrinking in Eagle County.
"I've enjoyed every job I've had," she said.
That's not to say she hasn't had bad days, and wondered if her father the engineer had the right idea, but she has never regretted that choice, she said.
"I don't know if it's a calling or a passion. I was one of those kids who always knew wanted to do, even in high school," Smyser said.
She grew up in Maryland, outside Washington, D.C.
She attended high school before special education was the law of the land, and signed up to help the special education kids. When she a kid was making pocket change as a babysitter, she'd seek out families with special needs kids.
When she finished her class work, and she was usually first, the teacher would ask her to help some of the kids who were struggling.
She left Maryland for Indiana State University because it was one of the only special education programs at that time. She finished at the University of Maryland, earned her Masters in Spanish and education at University of South Carolina, and her Ph.D. in special education from the University of California Riverside.
"Even as I've gone from one job to the next, I've always enjoyed teaching," she said.
Sometimes she misses the classroom, but she loves her job, she said.
Smyser is back in another crowd. This time it's a teacher tugging at her elbow, telling her how much he loves working and living here, and that he feels he's a better teacher working in Eagle County schools.
"That makes me happy, too," Smyser said.
Staff Writer Randy Wyrick can be reached at 970-748-2935 or firstname.lastname@example.org.