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District 11 Superintendent Michael Thomas speaks during the 2019 Palmer High School graduation in May at The Broadmoor World Arena in Colorado Springs.

Michael Thomas isn’t naive.

The Colorado Springs School District 11 superintendent knew the job wouldn’t be easy when he accepted it last spring.

D-11, the region’s oldest and largest public school district, is struggling with declining enrollment from stiff competition, few new homes, aging residents and falling birth rates. It’s an imperfect storm.

“We’re 95% built out,” Thomas said. “We don’t have land for new housing to attract the amount of population moving in. That’s going north and east.”

On top of that, “I will never win the battle for parent choice,” he said. “I will not even fight that battle.”

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But what he is taking on, under the direction of a new strategic plan he spearheaded and the district’s Board of Education approved last week, is a push to inform parents that D-11’s traditional public schools remain a sound 21st-century choice for their children’s education.

“We have to be a viable option for everyone, and we want to be given an opportunity to provide support to every student,” Thomas said.

“So at the end of the day, if you feel home school or a charter school will get you what your kids need because we can’t provide it, so be it. I want our kids and families to be successful.

“But I want us to be given a chance.”

The strategic plan, subtitled A New and Different D-11, is the result of months of community sessions with about 1,500 participants voicing their views at community sessions and online. Thomas believes the response shows people are interested and care about the district.

“I don’t want to have an administrative team develop a plan and give it to the community,” Thomas said, “but have the community say, ‘This is what we value, this is what is important to us. Please build your work plan and priorities around that.’”

The resulting document contains five sections: Core values, mission, mission impacts, vision and strategies.

The operative words under the action of strategies are collaborative culture, alignment and equitable practices.

“We don’t work in isolation; we have to embody this as a spirit of collaboration,” Thomas said.

“We have to ensure we’re not working against one another, and equity is at the core of everything we do. Equity is not equality. We need to give individuals and schools resources they need to be successful.”

Equity looks like offering a gifted magnet program but not providing transportation for students to get there, he said.

“That’s the inequitable practices we’re beginning to uncover.”

In his first year as superintendent, Thomas said he’s spent a lot of time being visible in the community and making inroads to D-11, as an urban public school district covering downtown and the core of the city, be part of the urban renewal effort happening in the region.

“Strong schools equate to strong communities, and D-11 is part of a larger ecosystem called Colorado Springs,” he said.

“It’s my responsibility to align the K-12 pipeline to the ecosystem of Colorado Springs, much like the chamber does for business and the hospitals do for health care.”

Thomas views the new strategic plan as a “lighthouse that shines the path all departments and school improvement plans will go to meet outcomes.”

Will it translate to the big concern on many minds: attracting more students to stop the bleeding of enrollment? D-11 posted a net loss of 1,008 last school year, the largest ever.

Yes, Thomas says. But it won’t happen overnight.

“It’ll take some time,” he said. “It will take a year for us to transition to become this plan and embody it.”

That will start with professional development with the board and leadership teams to “create a culture that’s ready to receive a new strategic plan.”

Some things will be immediately apparent, Thomas said.

For example, to respond to a new state-authorized charter school opening in The Citadel mall in the fall, which is in D-11 boundaries, two elementary schools, Monroe and Twain, will provide before- and after-school enrichment and be open 6 a.m. to 6 p.m.

Other changes will not be seen until next year.

The plan follows some of the tips K12 Insight, a Herndon, Va.-based company that helps schools with improvements, offers for the nationwide problem of declining enrollment facing not only schools but entire states.

Listening to parents, students and staff is the first recommendation, followed by conducting exit interviews with families who leave the school to find out what could be better. Other ideas include offering more choices than the competition, building a brand and paying attention to it, and providing excellent customer service to parents and students so they want to stay.

Thomas said he’s focusing on sustainable, not reactionary, change.

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“I’m trying to till the soil, to make it fertile for us to plant deep roots that make it last for years to come.”

As for the nearly 100 employees who were laid off this month and other budget reductions for the fiscal year that starts July 1, Thomas said, “I’ve inherited unfortunately a situation where we didn’t adjust for declining enrollment last spring, and as we project into this fall. For the past 10 years, declining enrollment has been D-11’s story.

“I’m of the mindset we have to be good stewards of our public resources, and I will not operate as we had the number of students as 10 years ago.

“It will take strategic investments to re-create better options for our families to make sure they want to be part of D-11 moving forward.”

Contact the writer: 719-476-1656.

Contact the writer: 719-476-1656.

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