Colorado Springs District 11 superintendent named one of nation's 'Leaders to Learn From'

March 3, 2014 Updated: March 3, 2014 at 5:54 pm
photo - Colorado Springs School District 11 Superintendent Nicholas Gledich. (Submitted)
Colorado Springs School District 11 Superintendent Nicholas Gledich. (Submitted) 

When the Waldo Canyon fire started on June 23, 2012, Nicholas Gledich was one of the first of 32,000 residents to be evacuated during the 18-day crisis.

But the superintendent of Colorado Springs School District 11 had other pressing worries. Five schools under his charge were potentially in the path of the flames, which destroyed nearly 350 homes.

Gledich's main thought was: "I need to be the one that's going to create a sense of calm."

That's what he did, and for his emergency management skills, Education Week magazine named Gledich one of the nation's 15 "Leaders to Learn From."

The 2014 award winners, selected from 900 nominations of school district administrators, will be spotlighted in Wednesday's edition of Education Week.

Gledich said he didn't know he had been nominated and that what the district accomplished was a team effort.

"Everyone worked collaboratively," he said. "Support, mutual understanding and compassion allow a school community to act as one."

On the first day of the fire, Gledich mobilized a district-wide team and out of a "worst-case scenario" analysis, formulated action steps to help support students and their families.

First off, the district worked with police and fire officials to enter the schools and retrieve official student records.

Gledich said he knew from working in a hurricane-impacted school district in Florida that when disaster strikes, families often need documents such as birth certificates, which schools have.

"It wasn't too difficult for us to understand that student records would be the most valuable asset in the buildings," he said.

Near midnight as the first day was ending, Gledich was finalizing a contract for the Forest Service to use Holmes Middle School for 1,500 firefighters to use as a base camp and Incident Command Post and Coronado High School to store heavy machinery and do media briefings.

The D-11 procurement, telecommunications, technology and facilities departments made sure the firefighters and emergency responders working from Holmes had the technology and space they needed. .

"Both of these sites were critical in the successful coordination of response to one of the largest disasters Colorado has ever faced. District 11 is truly a valued partner to our community, and Superintendent Nicholas Gledich was instrumental in making our partnership a successful one," said Bret Waters, division manager of the City of Colorado Springs' Office of Emergency Management.

Because Gledich knows that a school is often a hub of a community, he also taped phone calls to families of the nearly 30,000 students in the district and created online video addresses to keep a communication line open and give updates throughout the fire.

D-11 also opened a crisis counseling center with counselors from around the state responding to the call for assistance and made buses available to transport evacuees.

Thousands of D-11 students and staff were evacuated, and, when the fire was extinguished, 95 students and 16 staff had lost their homes. No schools burned, though.

When Academy School District 20 faced a similar situation a year later, during last summer's Black Forest fire, Gledich asked his staff to share their strategies with D-20 officials.

His best advice: "School districts need to be prepared. They need to take deliberate action and monitor that action. You complete the work, and you celebrate when you're done."

Gledich also will discuss the lessons learned at a forum in Washington, D.C., on April 1.

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