Community profile: Glenwood Springs Middle School’s Sandy DeCrow prepares to retire after 31 years with Roaring Fork Schools
There are a couple of words that often get uttered whenever people mention one of the many members of the Roaring Fork Valley’s extended Nieslanik family — “good stock.”
It’s a term of endearment that applies not only to the high school sports fields and courts where several student-athletes from the extensive ranching family have wowed fans over the past several decades, but to the sidelines, classrooms, hallways and front offices of those same schools.
Among them is Sandy Nieslanik DeCrow, longtime Glenwood Springs Middle School assistant principal and former principal, who also coached and taught for 17 years at her alma mater, Glenwood Springs High School.
DeCrow plans to retire following this school year, after 31 years with the Roaring Fork Schools.
“It’s kind of an anomaly, I guess, to be able to work in the same district where you went to school and be there for so long. But it’s been great,” DeCrow said during a quick break from her busy day at GSMS recently.
“Obviously, we live in a great area so I think a lot of (former students) want to come back because they learned so much from their coaches and teachers here that they want to give back,” she said. “And in my case, that’s what I went to college for.”
College for DeCrow was at Western State College (now Western Colorado University), where she earned her teaching degree in 1991 and did her student teaching and coaching at Gunnison High School.
No sooner had she returned home from college than she became the assistant coach for the new boys soccer team, working with longtime Demons soccer coach Steve White, and also substitute teaching in different schools in the district.
“It was a fun year, and I learned a lot just working with kids in some different settings,” DeCrow said.
That next summer, her former principal at GSHS, Mike Wells, called her up and asked if she wanted an open position teaching health and physical education. She also took on the head coaching job for the girls volleyball team, which she would go on to coach for 10 years. One of those years saw the Demons finish fifth at state.
A few years later she would become the school’s first girls soccer coach, and she also coached girls basketball for a stint.
DeCrow is the daughter of longtime Spring Valley cattle ranchers Jim and Sharon Nieslanik. She is married to Brian DeCrow, who works for Holy Cross Energy. They have two grown daughters, Dani, 21, and Jordan, 24, who is following in her mom’s footsteps, now working as the assistant athletic director and assistant girls basketball coach at GSHS.
“Through coaching, I think you learn how to build relationships with kids — that’s so big in what we do,” DeCrow said. “We know kids are going to make mistakes, and if it’s all punitive you don’t have that relationship with them and they’re not going to learn from it.”
That was one thing she said carried over from her experiences teaching and coaching at GSHS to becoming an administrator at the middle school.
DeCrow was hired to be the assistant principal by former GSMS Principal Brad Ray in 2008, but she was soon elevated to the principal’s position when Ray took a job as assistant superintendent in the District Office.
She spent six years at the helm, then returned to the assistant principal position because she said she missed having that closer interaction with the students. She also served as the school’s athletic director until recently when she handed that duty off to P.E. teacher Blake Risner.
“Never ever is a day the same in my job, and nothing surprises me or shocks me with the kids,” said DeCrow, who spends a good part of her day interacting with students in the hallways, the lunchroom, on the playground and ushering them to their school buses at the end of the school day.
“Middle school students are still moldable, and I think it’s easier at that age to get the truth out of them,” she said. “A lot of it is just helping them get through that really tough phase in life, because middle school is tough. If they know there’s someone here who cares about them, but can still be firm and keep them safe, I think that helps a lot.”
The rewards from all those years of effort come in unexpected places, like the aisles of the grocery store where DeCrow said she recently encountered a former student who apologized for being “knucklehead” in middle school, or on the golf course where a former student saw her and introduced her as “my favorite teacher.”
”I had one student come up to me a couple years ago and say, ‘I want you to come to my high school graduation because, without you, I would have never made it through middle school,” she said. “It’s pretty neat watching these kids grow up and figure out what they love to do.”
GSMS Principal Joel Hathaway has worked with DeCrow for seven years, and said she’s been as much a mentor to him as a coworker.
“I have learned so much from her about the power of relationships and how to really get to know people, and especially the kids,” Hathaway said. “And that the more that you know somebody’s story and what they’re about, the easier it is to help them and to solve problems together. She’s a master at that.”
DeCrow admitted she won’t miss the daily grind of the job once the final bell rings on this school year, but that she will miss the people she has worked alongside for all those years.
She said she’s also looking forward to more time hiking, reading, traveling and on the golf course.
Senior Reporter/Managing Editor John Stroud can be reached at 970-384-9160 or email@example.com.
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