EAGLE — When Sandra Smyser took the local school district’s reins five years ago, Eagle County’s schools were “under watch,” for sinking test scores and one of Colorado’s widest achievement gaps.
Smyser is headed to Fort Collins to head the Poudre school district, and she’s leaving local schools better than she found them.
Eagle Valley High School was ranked by U.S. and World Report as among the top 10 percent in the state and nation, and she’s Colorado’s Superintendent of the Year. Because education results can be measured, and are in Eagle County, the district caught the attention of Bill and Melinda Gates.
She’s Colorado’s reigning Superintendent of the Year, and all that’s great, she says, but it’s not what makes her work so hard.
She was in yet another meeting in yet another school when a father stopped her for a quick word — a good word this time. His children are flourishing in their school, he said, and he’s over-the-moon happy with their progress.
“That’s what makes me happy,” Smyser said.
She started her career as a bilingual special education teacher.
“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.
Recognizing those differences and acting on that information drives the school district’s work with curriculum and narrowing the achievement gap. The data says it’s working; high achieving students are still performing well, while lower achieving students continue to improve.
Early in her Eagle County tenure, Smyser said if the school district could improve its curriculum and measure learning through assessment, the district would improve. Turns out she was right. The testing measures students, not just teachers, and has become one of the standards by which statewide testing system was designed.
Smyser represented Eagle County and other superintendents as state lawmakers hammered out Senate Bill 191, Colorado’s Educator Effectiveness bill. Under this bill, the state defines teacher and principal evaluation systems, and mandates districts adapt to the system in three years.
Eagle County is now one of 13 integration districts Colorado, to pilot those new educational reforms, and the move to the Common Core Standards-based curriculum adopted by 47 states.
Smyser led the district in adopting and implementing new curriculum, and uniform performance comparisons involving more than 100 teachers.
The district was not inventing or defining the content of what is taught, Smyser said, but organizing the content across grade levels and across the school calendar.
Likewise, assessment is not just testing, she said. It’s a demonstration of mastery of the subject through homework, quizzes, testing, class participation and projects.
Eagle County voters gave the green light to spend $128 million to build and renovate schools; most of that construction was done on Smyser’s watch. When interest rates dropped, the school district refinanced the bonds and saved taxpayers $9 million.
Buildings are fine, but the students in them need to be ready to learn. Sometimes that means feeding them.
Poverty is the primary discriminator between high and low achieving students, Smyser said. The district is ensuring that poor children have breakfast and all children have healthier food became a district priority through its Fresh Approach program. Last year the staff spent 600 hours training in scratch-based cooking. Lunches now include scratch-made food and salad bars. Foundations provide breakfast for schools with the highest need.
Smyser grew up in Maryland, outside Washington, D.C., attended college at Indiana State, earned her master’s in Spanish and education at University of South Carolina and her Ph.D. in special education from the University of California Riverside. Among other places, she landed jobs in Southern California, Routt County and Eagle County.
“Even as I’ve gone from one job to the next, I’ve always enjoyed teaching,” she said.
Staff Writer Randy Wyrick can be reached at 970-748-2935, and firstname.lastname@example.org