Optimism reverberated from the microphone, as speakers including the governor and mayor sounded a rallying cry to 4,000 listeners Thursday at The Broadmoor World Arena.

“It’s hard to see things differently, but that’s what it’s going to take for us to have positive outcomes every day for our students,” said Michael Thomas, superintendent of Colorado Springs School District 11.

“Welcome to our new normal,” he said, unveiling a districtwide strategic plan and branding campaign during a first-ever communitywide kickoff for the coming school year.

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Superintendent Michael Thomas waits to speak during the the Colorado Springs School District 11’s first-ever back-to-school kickoff for teachers, administrators and staff at the Broadmoor World Arena in Colorado Springs. (The Gazette, Christian Murdock)

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“It’s more than just a shelf document,” Thomas said. “It’s something we’ll become, not something we’ll do.”

How that might look is only starting to be determined, as D-11 classes resume Wednesday for the fall semester.

Creating equity for every student in every classroom is a key focus, with goals ranging from closing the achievement gap between white pupils — about half of the district’s 26,400 students — and those of color, to ensuring that all students have transportation to attend specialty programs they want.

Thomas encouraged teachers, other staff, parents and community members in attendance to take risks that lead to improvements.

“It’s OK to step outside of your comfort zone in D-11— if it’s part of the success of our students,” he said.

Corporate sponsors contributed $21,000 to pay for the event and buy T-shirts, said D-11 spokeswoman Devra Ashby. Paralympic medalist Dartanyon Crockette donated his speaking fees, too.

The new direction comes as D-11, the state’s 10th largest public school district and Colorado Springs’ oldest, has faced challenges in recent years. Enrollment has been declining steadily for more than a decade, with last school year posting the largest drop of 1,008 students, which led to layoffs and program cuts for this school year. And several D-11 schools rated poorly under the state academic performance system last year.

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Colorado Springs School District 11 board member Julie Ott, left, district employee Matt Maricela, and secretary for the school board Maricela Hildalgo dance to the music of the D11 Staff Garage Band Thursday, Aug. 8, 2019, before the start of the school districts first-ever back-to-school kickoff for D11 teachers, administrators and staff at the Broadmoor World Arena in Colorado Springs. Mayor John Suthers, Gov. Jared Polis and Superintendent Michael Thomas were among the speakers at the event. (The Gazette, Christian Murdock)

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Thomas mentioned academic progress from spring testing, including the highest elementary math scores ever, and areas needing work, such as the “predictable outcomes” by ZIP code, race, gender, English language learners and special-needs students.

“Every data point has a face, every data point has a name, every data point has a story,” he said. “We are talking about real kids. We must have a plan; we cannot leave student success to chance.”

Erika Weeks, the mom of a D-11 first-grader, said the plan is exciting.

“I don’t think they have a very good reputation, and this is helping me feel proud of D-11. This is something I don’t see other districts doing, and I’m looking forward to seeing what comes of it.”

Mitchell High School student Rebecca Horyczun said she’s noticed changes since Thomas took over as superintendent in July 2018.

“We’re getting so many opportunities that we didn’t have, like making going to college easier and getting access to career pathways.”

“There are more clubs and more ways to be involved in the community. It’s awesome.”

Jim Porter, athletic director at Coronado High, said he likes the consistent messaging being introduced and the new mission: “We dare to empower the whole student to profoundly impact the world.

“I think it’s great we’re moving toward the future with the whole-child approach.”

D-11’s history is intertwined with the development of the city, Mayor John Suthers told the crowd. Queen Palmer, the wife of Colorado Springs founder Gen. William Jackson Palmer, started D-11.

“D-11 is not only in the heart of Colorado Springs, but it’s our oldest school district in the city, and in many ways, it is the heart of Colorado Springs,” Suthers said.

“As you embark on your new journey, the new strategic plan, know your city leaders are behind you and that we support the work you do to help educate the future leaders of Olympic City USA.”

Gov. Jared Polis, who launched three successful businesses by the time he was 30 and served six years on the Colorado State Board of Education, thanked educators for “transforming the lives of kids” and “preparing them academically and socially for success.”

He touted the fulfillment of last year’s campaign promise to fund full-day kindergarten for all students, which freed up $5.7 million and opened 160 preschool slots for D-11.

Polis also mentioned other education legislation the General Assembly passed this year, including increasing opportunities for students to enroll in college courses while still in high school and not fall behind in transitioning to high school.

Scott Elementary School fifth-grader Mason Mullins also got everyone on their feet, as he delivered a wise and thoughtful address.

“We all need your help to become our best. We love you guys; we spend more time with you than our parents,” Mason said. “You see who we can become in the future.

“D-11 staff, you should know we cannot just study history. We have to make history.”

Contact the writer: 719-476-1656.

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