Cheyenne Mountain School District 12 Superintendent Walt Cooper, one of the longest-serving superintendents in Colorado, announced Wednesday that he plans to retire at the end of the school year in June.
Cooper served as superintendent of Ellicott School District 22 in eastern El Paso County from 1998-2002. He became assistant superintendent for business operations at D-12 in 2002 and superintendent in 2006.
Cooper won the state’s highest honor in 2018, when he was named Colorado Superintendent of the Year by the Colorado Association of School Executives.
It’s been a fun ride and will continue to be up to the end of his tenure, Cooper said Wednesday.
“Beyond the pandemic, this year isn’t any different — there are great celebrations, triumphs and accomplishments.”
Cooper is known as being a collaborative leader.
When Elizabeth Domangue started as the new superintendent for Manitou Springs School District 14 last year, she said Cooper was always willing to lend a hand or an ear and share resources, wisdom and knowledge.
And during the pandemic, as head of the Pikes Peak Area Superintendents’ Association, Cooper “modeled courageous, consistent and logical leadership,” she said.
If Cooper had to name what he’s most proud of in leading D-12, it’s this: “The staff, the leadership team, the teachers continue to raise the bar every year. They never just settle for the status quo, which is really easy to do when you’re on top, in terms of performance.”
D-12, which has had a steady enrollment of about 5,000 students for the past 10 years, including its charter school, The Vanguard School, consistently ranks at or near the top in academic performance among the state’s 178 school districts. D-12 also has had athletic successes in multiple sports.
Cooper expects the commitment to continue, no matter who is in the leader's seat.
“We have always kept looking for ways to get better and do things to improve what we do for kids,” he said.
Cooper, 59, notified staff in an email Wednesday that when the D-12 Board of Education renewed his contract in May 2017, he told them that the four-year contract would be his last.
“At the time that seemed like forever into the future … now, it almost seems surreal that it is just a number of months away,” he told the staff.
At a work session Monday, board members discussed whether to hire a search firm to help find Cooper’s replacement, but made no decisions.
Under Cooper’s reign, the district went through tough, lean times during the Great Recession and closed an elementary school in 2008 as enrollment dropped substantially.
As enrollment rebounded, D-12 gained voter approval of a $42.5 million bond and mill levy override to tear down one-third of the 1960’s-era Cheyenne Mountain High School building, renovate what was left and build an additional 86,000 square feet to encompass a new common area and cafeteria, classrooms, labs and offices. The work was finished in 2016.
“That was so significant for our community, as a marquee high school,” Cooper said. “I knew it was going to be good. I didn’t know how good.”
Cooper said he expects the district’s board to make a decision on D-12's Indians mascot before he vacates his office.
Members at Monday's meeting reviewed a draft proposal that recommends "immediate retirement" of Native American names and imagery in the school district, including its controversial mascot.
If approved, the resolution would retire Indians as the high school's mascot and team name, and require removing nicknames, images, logos and school materials containing such names or images by Aug. 1. It would also ban the use of phrases such as "smoke signals," "pow wow," "tribe" and other "instances of Native American appropriation."
The issue of whether to replace the mascot has been raised from time to time, and again has come up against criticism amidst racial discord in the nation.
The coronavirus pandemic also has brought new challenges.
“We’re learning lessons every day in this environment,” Cooper said.
Some will remain as different and more efficient ways of engaging kids, delivering instruction and assessing student learning and teacher performance, he said.
Other adjustments that have had to be made for pandemic safety restrictions will be tossed out as soon as possible, Cooper said. Those include the every-other-day in-person model D-12 is using for middle and high school students. Half of the older students are on campus one day and at home doing remote learning the next.
“The paradigm is really good, but the manner in which we have to implement it is not a great instructional practice because it’s less efficient,” he said.
About 13% of K-12 students in his district are taking all or some classes solely online this semester, Cooper said.
Several longtime superintendents in the Pikes Peak region have retired in recent years, including Nicholas Gledich from Colorado Springs School District 11, Mark Hatchell from Academy School District 20 and Carol Hilty from the Colorado School for the Deaf and the Blind.