The principles Michael Gaal learned on his way to achieving the rank of Air Force colonel remain seeped in his bones, and his heart now is focused on passing on the lessons of precise planning, failing forward and marching ahead to students and employees of Colorado Springs School District 11.
“Success breeds success,” he told a small group of fourth and fifth graders while visiting James Monroe Elementary School last week.
The students, who had been hand-picked by teachers to speak with the new leader, nodded their heads in apparent understanding, after discussing their math prowess, favorite numbers, the relationship between fractions and musical notes, and how they look forward to being recognized with school awards.
“If you work hard, you get rewards,” Gaal said to the kids.
The familiar phrases aren’t platitudes to Gaal, who took over as superintendent of El Paso County’s oldest school district on July 1. He’s seen how his parental-sounding advice can help people realize their dreams.
Under his leadership, expectations for students and employees are set higher, systems are providing support and failure is considered a step to improvement.
“I’m fearless in the sense that if I see something that needs to happen, I ask for it to happen,” Gaal said. “I don’t take ‘No’ for an answer when I’m talking about the needs and success of kids.”
Gaal was one of three finalists and selected by a unanimous 7-0 vote by the seven-member board as the top candidate for the job.
He replaces former Superintendent Michael Thomas, who agreed to a “mutual separation” on March 2, after a conservative majority won board seats in the November 2021 election and Thomas’ focuses clashed with redefined priorities.
With a one-year, $260,000 contract to about-face the trajectory of declining enrollment and overall dismal academic performance — D-11 ranks 158th of 178 public school districts statewide — Gaal is setting his 3,700 employees on a fast-track to make a noticeable difference.
One of the first things he did was invest in billboards, with messages about how D-11 believes in its staff.
Employees and students have developed a defeatist attitude, Gaal thinks.
“I want us to believe we can win again,” he said.
District 11 is marking its 150th anniversary, having been founded in 1872 by Mary “Queen” Palmer, the wife of Gen. William Jackson Palmer, who founded Colorado Springs in 1871.
As the district that covers downtown and the centralized business district, which is undergoing a revitalization with multifamily and commercial construction, Gaal wants to see D-11 grow alongside the city's core and develop a mentality of fortitude instead of retreat.
“When you suffer from decreasing enrollment and academic performance year after year, you start to think losing is the proposition,” Gaal said.
Annual enrollment losses, in part due to constrained development and aging demographics — and slow progress in closing achievement gaps — have contributed to deterioration of urban public schools statewide, including D-11.
The state’s largest district, Denver Public Schools, announced last week a proposal to close or consolidate 10 of its schools, citing declining enrollment and an inability to sustain the buildings that are primarily in low-income areas.
Colorado Springs D-11 closed eight schools in 2009, three in 2013 (one of which became an alternative school campus) and one in 2016. It also reopened a previously shuttered elementary school six years ago.
D-11 enrolled 23,366 students in fall 2021, according to the Colorado Department of Education. That's a cumulative loss of nearly 6,300 students since 2009.
But there’s a sign that enrollment might be stabilizing. The unofficial count for the 2022-2023 school year is that D-11 is down by about 200 students, said spokeswoman Devra Ashby, which puts enrollment at 470 students above projections.
Of the district’s 53 schools, 17 are on a priority list for improvement.
Its most troubled high school, Mitchell, started the year 16 teachers short and now is fully staffed for the first time in years.
“This is where equity happens, it’s where you put your money where your mouth is,” Gaal said. “We’ve moved from observation through a visionary phase and into action.”
That’s also what’s been happening at Monroe.
At the intersection of Chelton Road and East Platte Avenue, Monroe Elementary is the poorest school in D-11, with 90% of its 350 students qualifying for the federal government’s free lunch program, which indicates household poverty.
When Principal Carole Wilson Frye arrived five years ago, the school ranked in the bottom 5% of the state and had been flagged for substandard performance by the state education department for “as long as anybody could remember,” she said. “The wheels were rolling but not aligned toward student achievement.”
In recent years, Monroe has earned satisfactory performance ratings under the state’s accountability measurements, which include academic growth and closing achievement gaps.
Changes to help boost students’ skills include extending the school day to 6:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. and adding afterschool programs as an option for families, stepping up personal tutoring in creatively portioned hallway spaces, ensuring good nutrition, allowing time for teacher planning and positioning more adult instructors in classrooms, Frye said during a tour.
“The problems absolutely can be addressed at the school level,” she said. “We’re putting systems and structure in place at the smallest scale.”
The concept is part of Gaal’s decentralization of the district’s administration office. Restructuring includes five area superintendents overseeing clusters of schools surrounding traditional high schools and the district’s alternative campus.
Principals report to the regional superintendents and adapt what’s working elsewhere in their own schools for “differentiated, individualized and personalized” treatment, Gaal said.
“The analysis of teachers, the measurement of gaps and what’s needed” happens at the school level, not at the top, he said.
“I believe very strongly that accountability goes up the chain and accolades go down,” Gaal said. “Anything that goes wrong in the district is ultimately my responsibility.”
As when he served in the military, Gaal applies “boots on the ground” literally to his work in education, which previously included administrative positions with large urban school districts in Washington, D.C., Oakland, Calif., and Detroit.
While it wasn’t his fault that the air conditioning broke at a D-11 school last week and was blowing hot air, he said he facilitated getting the equipment fixed.
And after Gaal heard that two days before school was to open, a high school hadn’t been able to hire enough custodians to clear hallways and move chairs and desks into place, Gaal said he provided the district facilities team to help get the job done.
The decentralized model also enables children to interact with schools where they will matriculate as they get older, said Southeast Area Superintendent Sherry Kalbach.
“We’re intentionally building relationships through open houses, homecomings, so the transitions are easier and the instructional pieces (are more coordinated),” she said.
Gaal's bottom-up philosophy calls for strong relationships between all students and employees, and teaching not to the test but to each child’s missing educational pieces.
The end goal is for children to feel “respected, comfortable, loved, challenged and prepared,” he said.
Monroe students told Gaal that they like getting free meals at school and mentioned how nice their teachers and classmates are.
“It feels like home,” said Alex Ander, a fourth grader.
“The way people treat you make you feel like you’re special and like you matter,” said Alex Evans, who’s in fifth grade.
Gaal advocates for “seeing things differently,” such as tackling the workforce shortage by holding micro-recruitment fairs in different neighborhoods in the district.
About 200 new educators were hired for the August reboot, including a teacher at a new, free preschool that opened last week at Chipeta Elementary, one of eight D-11 schools that is adding a total of 256 preschool seats at no cost to families.
The district still started this fall semester 90 teachers short, or 5% of the teacher workforce, which Gaal said is better than the previous school year. And savings from salaries and benefits has been reallocated to schools that need additional money.
Gaal, an Air Force Academy graduate, said he wants children, parents and staff to “get in the orbit that feels like they’re winning.”
But he’s a realist; he doesn’t think he can fix the system in a year. He said he plans to demonstrate enough improvement though to get his contract renewed. It's scheduled to end June 30.
He’s looking for a commitment from every employee to increase academic achievement, close performance gaps, stabilize enrollment and engage students at every level.
“We need to move faster to bring on partners that can help us solve our problems,” he said.
Gaal admits he’s getting feedback from some people who say that change is hard. But he says he doesn’t think education should be about politics.
“You just can’t win if the infighting is larger than the call for action,” Gaal says. “We can’t be in an adult war with kids in the middle.”
Editor's note: This article has been updated to remove the statement that the Colorado Springs Education Association did not endorse Gaal as the favored candidate. A spokesman says the D-11 teachers' union did not endorse any of the superintendent candidates.