An offer he couldn’t refuse

Carrie Click
Post Independent Staff
Jim Noelker/Post Independent Photo

GLENWOOD SPRINGS – Jim Phillips, the principal at Glenwood Springs Elementary School, remembers being a first-year kindergarten teacher in New Castle.

It was the mid-’70s, when the school was on Main Street along the train tracks. Phillips was on playground duty.

“Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the principal of the school, and I can remember saying to a teacher standing next to me, `I never want that job!” Phillips said.

Phillips laughs uproariously about that now, as he gets ready to retire from a 27-year career in education, including teaching and coaching jobs in New Castle and Rifle – and nearly 23 of those years spent at Roaring Fork School District Re-1 as an administrator.

Phillips, 53, said he’s decided to retire since he was offered “too good of an opportunity” at the end of this school year.

“I couldn’t pass it up,” he said of his retirement package, which gives him all the benefits of a 30-year district administrator.

And though Phillips is looking forward to all the spontaneity retirement affords – like going to Cape Cod to see the fall colors this October with his wife, Cheryl, attending Bruce Springsteen and Santana concerts, and visiting his four daughters and six grandchildren – he has plenty of good memories of a career spent in education.

Sitting in his office, not behind his desk, but alongside it, Phillips said it was a special teacher named Mrs. Catalini who made a difference in his life.

“I was a high school senior in San Antonio,” Phillips said. “Mrs. Catalini had black-rimmed glasses and a bouffant hairdo. She was my English teacher, and she cared about me as a person. I wondered why it took 13 years of education for me to find that one special teacher.”

Phillips said Mrs. Catalini has always inspired him to ask prospective teachers a question during hiring interviews.

“In interviews, I ask teachers if they believe that teaching is the most important profession in the world, and why,” he said. “No matter what, and no matter who you are, you had a teacher – be it a classroom teacher, a parent, or a grandparent, that made a difference in your life. That was Mrs. Catalini to me.”

Phillips said that after he completed stints as a helicopter pilot in the Army, a postman, and a construction worker, an Army buddy suggested he pursue a degree in education. He did just that at the University of Northern Colorado at Greeley. There he met another education major: Steve Pintuck, now a third-grade teacher at Glenwood Springs Elementary who’s also retiring at the end of this year.

Pintuck can’t say enough good things about his fellow educator and longtime friend.

“Jim’s immensely dedicated, he loves children, he’s extremely fair, and he’s open and honest,” Pintuck said. “I’m a bit prejudiced, but I’ve known Jim since college. Oh, and he’s a diehard Springsteen aficionado. We haven’t missed a Colorado Springsteen concert since 1978.”

The kids at Glenwood Springs Elementary seem to like their principal as well.

“Sometimes I go into his office, and just talk to him,” said David Arballo of Phillips’ open-door policy.

“He’s fair and he never yells,” said fifth-grader Garrett Brown. “He helps you solve problems that you can’t figure out. Plus he gives out Great Grizzlies.”

Great Grizzlies are green slips of paper that teachers pass out to students who are caught doing something right, from showing kindness to taking responsibility for a problem. Phillips has a treat box in his office where students can redeem their Great Grizzlies for candy, or, if they accumulate enough green sheets, they can get a Champion Grizzly medal to wear around their neck. There are drawings for ice cream and other prizes weekly, too.

“I have 20,” said Garrett of his positive reinforcement “tickets.”

“I have 40,” said his sister Jenna Brown, a first-grader at the school. “Mr. Phillips is really, really nice.”

Sometimes, Phillips has to reprimand students, too. At Glenwood Springs Elementary, there’s no assistant principal to handle that chore, so Phillips works with kids who have been disruptive, too.

“Out of more than 500 students in this school, I’m only working with one repeat offender,” Phillips said.

Phillips also has some pretty unconventional but highly successful ways of motivating students, especially to become good readers. Through the years, and at different schools, Phillips has offered reading challenges to his students. When he was a principal in Carbondale, for instance, he agreed that if the students at Carbondale Elementary read a certain number of books, he’d move his office up on the roof of the school for a day. They did, and he did.

“That was a really popular day for getting sent to the principal’s office,” he said with a smile.

Another time, Phillips said he and another administrator, Tim Brown, promised the kids they’d run to school – from Glenwood Springs to Carbondale – if the kids read enough books. And recently, Phillips has told Glenwood Springs Elementary students that if they meet their reading challenge, he’d run through the school’s sprinklers.

Phillips’ students have met the reading challenge every time, and he’s lived up to his end of the deal, too.

To honor Phillips’ dedication to education, Wendy Caldwell, P.E. teacher at Glenwood Springs Elementary, said the school’s staff decided to write a letter to First Lady Laura Bush, a former librarian who’s known for her interest in literacy and education. Bush’s letter to Phillips was a surprise to him, and his staff presented it to him on Thursday night.

“We thought what better way to honor Jim’s devotion than by him receiving a letter from the White House,” said Caldwell. In Bush’s letter, she commended Phillips on his career in education, adding that she had heard from his staff that he made his school feel “safe and secure, like a home with a large family.”

It’s clear teachers and staff, as well as students, will miss interacting with this educator.

Susan Saathoff and Jamie Darien, both special-education teachers who’ve worked with Philips for years, said Phillips always puts students first.

“He practices what he preaches,” said Darien. “He puts kids’ needs first.

“He supports both his staff and his students,” said Saathoff. “We’ll miss him.”

Cindy Estrada, who’s worked as Phillips’ secretary since the early ’90s, said she’s spent “a lot of years working with Jim. He’s the best.”

Although Phillips said that teaching is his greatest love, he’s spent more time in administrative roles than as a teacher. He wanted to stay in education but was concerned about supporting his family, and found he was having a hard time doing that on a teacher’s salary. So he earned his master’s degree in education administration from Western State College.

He served as assistant superintendent and superintendent of the Roaring Fork School District Re-1 for four years. But he was always drawn back to working in school buildings.

“There are no kids at the district office,” Phillips said. “You go to work every day, and you focus on the larger picture. On that level, you’re impacting thousands of kids and hundreds of teachers, and in that sense, you’re benefiting the big picture. The closer you get to kids, the closer you get to what education is really all about.”

Contact Carrie Click: 945-8515, ext. 518

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