Susan Birdsey says she loves to learn.
That's perfect for her, since she's the woman in charge of the 4,758 students being taught in 10 schools in Garfield School District Re-2.
"Every few years, I seem to have the drive to go back and learn something new," Birdsey said last week in her office in Rifle.
That drive recently resulted in Birdsey adding "Dr." to her official title as superintendent. She earned her doctorate of education in administrator leadership from Walden University, an online program out of Minnesota.
Birdsey said she used her experiences in the Re-2 district when she wrote her dissertation on positive student/teacher relationships at a middle school level.
Birdsey served as principal at Rifle Middle School for three years, before she was named assistant superintendent in 2008. She was promoted to superintendent when Dr. Gary Pack resigned three years ago and recently received a one-year extension to her three-year contract from the Re-2 school board, after her annual evaluation.
"I always wanted to be a superintendent," Birdsey said. "I don't think it hurts" to have a doctorate degree in her position, and hopes to use what she learned to address student achievement in the district.
"Reform" is the buzzword for the last several years when it comes to public education, at both the state and national levels, Birdsey noted.
"These are really large changes coming down the road, and I want to make sure we get through that to the point of being a high-achieving, high-status district when it comes to reform measures," Birdsey said.
A compilation of data shows the district is headed in the right direction, she added.
"We've been very focused, we have a unified improvement plan and we're starting to see the fruits of that in the data," Birdsey said. "Our reading scores have improved and now we're looking at how we can get our math scores up, too. Then we'll look at writing."
Math scores have been relatively flat for the last three years, Birdsey said, so the district will address that area first.
"We've got to make changes for our kids," she stated.
Four-day calendar has worked well
This school year saw the district adopt a four-day school week, due to budget cuts over the last few years. Students go to school a while longer Monday through Thursday, then get Fridays off so their time in the classroom is roughly equal to a five-day week.
Birdsey said the first quarter of the school year went well under the new schedule.
"Our attendance rate has remained high, and we've decreased our substitute teaching budget by 30 percent," she added. "Our entire goal in going to the four-day calendar was to maintain high quality education while we had to cut our budget, and we're managing to do that."
Birdsey said she has heard positive feedback from parents in the district, pleased at being able to spend more time with their children. A number of "fifth day" programs were also offered throughout the community to help occupy children and maintain their learning on their days off from school, Birdsey noted.
Birdsey said it's likely the district will continue with the four-day calendar for at least the next few years, barring any unlikely budget windfall.
"I think it's also given our staff a sense of urgency, to make sure they're focusing even more on bell-to-bell instruction," Birdsey added.
Staff still works on most Fridays, she noted, with professional development, training and other teaching skills academies.
The new calendar did not lead to any reductions in teaching or staffing levels, and class sizes have remained constant, Birdsey said.
Big changes coming
District administrators have also been focused on what Birdsey calls "the big three:" Colorado Academic Standards in the 2013-14 school year, educator effectiveness guidelines through Senate Bill 191 and student assessments that will greatly expand with the 2014-15 school year.
"The timing with that is challenging for us and every other district," she said. "The whole assessment piece is a huge change and will be very different than the ones we currently use."
One thing the new assessments will focus on is how well students learn computer skills, Birdsey said.
"We all need to make sure we're still teaching content, not just computer ability," she added. "I think kids will have to think more deeply and gauge not only what they know they can do, but to apply it, too."
Despite all the changes coming down the road, Birdsey said it's still an exciting time to be in public education.
"We're focused on getting everything exactly right for our kids," she said. "They're going to be taught the full 21st century skills that are already vital, as well as the basics. Change is hard for a lot of people and it can be scary, so it's important we're thoughtful on how we move forward."
"I love a challenge, too," Birdsey summed up. "We're not talking about your mother's classroom any more."