Philip Qualman named new superintendent of Eagle County Schools
Qualman says he plans to focus on what works as new schools superintendent
EAGLE — Phil Qualman says he has been collecting lessons since he landed in Eagle County, and wants to apply them as he leads local schools.
In a rare Saturday evening vote, the seven-member board promoted assistant superintendent Qualman to lead Eagle County schools.
“I have relationships with principals in this district, with teachers in this district. I know them, they know me and the work ethic I bring to this job,” said during a battery of interviews and public meetings.
Qualman started in Eagle County as many do, in the recreation industry. He was a camp counselor and raft guide in the 1990s. He landed his first education job in the Vail Valley in 1991 as a Battle Mountain High School social studies teacher. He served as Battle Mountain principal for “six amazing years.”
“I love this community. I’m committed to this district. I’ve given my professional heart to the organization and I want it to be as good as it can be,” Qualman said.
He said he has been collecting lessons from former BMHS principal Brian Hestor, by former superintendent Jason Glass, interim superintend Maggie Lopez and former superintendent Carlos Ramirez.
“I feel like I’ve been collecting lessons from all my mentors, some good and some bad,” Qualman said.
He brought some lessons from the river as a raft guide, particularly “trust, challenge, support.”
“If I couldn’t teach them how to paddle, we would all die. Once we established that trust and they l knew I cared about them, then I could charge them with my expectations,” Qualman said. “They’re not going to do it if they don’t trust you.”
Once you’re a teacher, a leader of even a raft guide, you have a responsibility to provide feedback, he said. That can be harsh, but necessary. As a mentor teacher he learned it can be challenging to be a leader of our peers, he said.
“I was able to do that because it rooted it in respectful relationships,” Qualman said. “Kids will only learn if they feel safe, if they trust their teachers, and if they’re loved. Then we can push them academically.”
Cutting edge and bleeding edge
The district has tried some innovative things in the last decade and a half, he said.
“What I haven’t seen is a pause to determine if those things are working, he said.
Teachers should feel supported and not overwhelmed, he said. There’s cutting edge and there’s bleeding edge. We’re often on the bleeding edge. We need to dial that back a little bit,” he said.
The district’s strategic plan includes 43 tactics. He called it “a great plan” and said he’s not sure any of those 43 tactics are unnecessary, but none of them clearly mention which tactic should be the focus of teachers, or principals or administrators.
The district surveyed teachers who say they love parts of the strategic plan, other parts … not so much.
“That might be worth addressing,” Qualman said. “Why not say, ‘Teachers, here’s what you own … here’s the piece that matters to you.’”
“He’s one of us”
Qualman was tabbed over Karen Quanbeck, who currently supervises more than 90 elementary schools for Jefferson County Public Schools, and Shawn Woodward, the superintendent of Lake Pend Oreille School District in Ponderay, Idaho.
District insiders say the vast majority of the public’s opinion that was voiced to them supported Qualman, who has been with the district for 15 years as a teacher, assistant principal, principal and the last three years as an assistant superintendent.
“He is one of us, the special breed that live and breathe the fun but also not always easy life of our valley,” Sarah Ratzlaff said in an email. “He knows already how our daily life here is and I bet he’ll do a very good job at it — without leaving us after a couple of months or years.”