Too old-school in style? Award-winning Colorado Springs D-11 principal removed, assigned new duties

November 5, 2013 Updated: November 5, 2013 at 3:57 pm
photo - Lincoln Elementary's principal Shirley Stevens will soon be honored by the state with an award. She gives some of the children at Lincoln the personal touch by walking giving them some special hot sauce on Monday, March 18, 2013. (Jerilee Bennett, The Gazette)
Lincoln Elementary's principal Shirley Stevens will soon be honored by the state with an award. She gives some of the children at Lincoln the personal touch by walking giving them some special hot sauce on Monday, March 18, 2013. (Jerilee Bennett, The Gazette) 

Colorado's 2013 elementary school Principal of the Year was removed from her job at Penrose Elementary School just days after being honored in Washington, D.C.

Instead of reporting to work at Penrose on Oct. 28, where she's been the principal since school started Aug. 19, Shirley Stevens got a new title - principal on special assignment - and started working in Colorado Springs School District 11's educational data and support services office.

"I don't look at it as a bad thing," Stevens said Monday. "I was assigned there by the superintendent, and my job at Penrose was to get them up and running for the year. I did that and left at the quarter. Now, the staff is having the opportunity to select their principal to fit their needs, which makes a lot of sense."

The change was unexpected, however, and came abruptly and without explanation, according to parents. In fact, the D-11 board of education has not yet approved the reassignment.

Superintendent Nicholas Gledich made the decision to move Stevens, said board president Jan Tanner.

"The board does not initiate (personnel changes) but has to approve them," she said.

The board will vote on Gledich's recommendation at its next regular meeting, Nov. 13, she said.

D-11 officials have been tight-lipped. Spokeswoman Devra Ashby said she could not provide information about the situation because it is a personnel issue.

Stevens said her new role is to provide Gledich and administrators with "a principal's eye on the new assessments coming from the state." She said that will be her job for at least the remainder of this academic year. A letter sent to Penrose Elementary parents asked for their patience until a new principal is found, perhaps by the start of the second semester. Mary Crimmins, a retired D-11 principal who previously headed Stratton Elementary and did data analysis for the district, is interim principal.

Parent complaints are one possible reason for the change in leadership.

Penny Ellis, mother of a kindergartner who also has had two other children attend Penrose, said Stevens did not fit the environment of the school.

"She was horrible. She didn't greet the kids. She wasn't a friendly person," Ellis said. "This is an elementary school, and the kids are used to a softer person, and she was not that kind of person."

Stevens changed many rules, Ellis said.

"At the beginning of the school year, she did a 'boot camp' - so students could adjust to her new rules and style," she said. "It was too harsh - I didn't think my kindergartner should be reprimanded for excessive use of paper towels. Her styles were definitely very old."

Parents fought hard to keep their previous principal. Many spoke at an April school board meeting in favor of Kristen Cortez, who had been principal at Penrose for six years and was slated to be demoted to teacher before she left the district after school ended in May. Under Cortez, students' performance on standardized assessments varied from the lowest ranking under the state's school ratings chart to the highest level of performance last year.

Stevens was one of 27 professionals Gledich and the board reassigned to new positions for this school year, as part of D-11's reorganization to consolidate underused school buildings and save money. Nine principals, 14 assistant principals and four other employees were switched around to "build district capacity through strengthening school leadership," according to a statement the district released. The plan was to "help school staff grow professionally," as well as "leverage strengths" and "support leadership and sustainability."

Ellis said she and other parents complained about Stevens numerous times to the superintendent and school board members.

"I don't know how she received that award," Ellis said. "I have never complained about a principal or any teacher before. This year, I was one situation away from pulling my son out of this school."

Those impressions of Stevens, who has been a school principal for 17 years and an educator for 47 years, are quite different from the praise and accolades she received while heading Lincoln Elementary School. Stevens led the charge in turning around Lincoln, which D-11 closed in May as part of restructuring. The school jumped from the lowest state rating of "turnaround" status when Stevens arrived in 2010 to "distinguished performance," last school year, with the third highest math scores in the state in some grades.

"It was a huge success story," Stevens said. "That's when I got nominated for the national distinguished team."

A little more than a week ago, the National Association of Elementary School Principals recognized Stevens as a member of its 2013 Class of National Distinguished Principals. The honor goes to principals across the nation whose "contributions inspire children to reach farther and higher, to build a brighter future and a better world."

To represent Colorado at the national level, Stevens was selected in April by the Colorado Association of School Executives as the state's top elementary school principal.

Stevens was known for a "no-excuses work ethic," according to an announcement D-11 sent out in April, congratulating her as Colorado's elementary school Principal of the Year.

"She has positively impacted student achievement, helped increase the effectiveness of her staff and created a strong and positive school climate," the statement said.

Jessica Guerra, a fifth-grade teacher at Lincoln Elementary last year, described Stevens as "a visionary."

"She created a culture that all kids can learn, no matter their ZIP code," she told The Gazette in March, when Stevens was named a finalist for the state award.

When asked about the complaints of Penrose parents, Stevens said, "I think they're entitled to their opinions."

Stevens said she understands why some people are surprised by the change in command at Penrose.

But, "It wasn't surprising to me," she said. "Any company moves their employees around to get the best out of them."

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