Five questions with Yampah Mountain Principal Leigh McGown

The Post Independent begins a series of question-and-answer profiles with our area school principals. This week, we caught up with Leigh McGown, principal at Yampah Mountain High School, an alternative high school located in Glenwood Springs that serves students in four school districts from Parachute to Aspen.

You’re coming up on 22 years at YMHS, and 12 years as YMHS principal. In your time with the school, how has your approach changed to educating frequently-overlooked, troubled and at-risk teenagers in the region?

Like in any organization, working with teens at an alternative school, I think the key to success is in relationships. The school experience should be more than a means to an end — the experience itself matters. School should be engaging, give students a sense of belonging and empowerment — adolescent brain development is cued up for these experiences, so learning happens best in an environment that supports them. All of that can be done with high expectations for accountability, but that might also mean that there will be obstacles and failures along the route to success.

What are some unexpected challenges that you’ve encountered as YMHS principal?

“Our school is based on taking responsibility, whether it’s embracing gifts or acknowledging a wrong-doing … Surprisingly, and often an unexpected challenge, is that adults will often get in the way of that process by trying to rescue young people from responsibility.”— Leigh McGown, YMHS principal

Our school is based on taking responsibility, whether it’s embracing gifts or acknowledging a wrong-doing. Students understanding that they have control over their actions and reactions and then acknowledging that they then also have “chosen” a result or outcome (good or bad) is imperative to that process.

Surprisingly, and often an unexpected challenge, is that adults will often get in the way of that process by trying to rescue young people from responsibility. I think that is a great detriment to youth finding their own success and empowerment.

You earned a doctor of education degree several years ago. What led you to seek further professional development, and have those courses of study helped you in your role as principal?

I finished my doctoral studies in Educational Leadership and Policy at the University of Northern Colorado in 2015. Completing a dissertation itself can be humbling, and is a great reminder at whatever level of educational goals you are seeking, there will be challenges and obstacles.

I think one of the best outcomes of higher education is the connections that are made with others. Connections to other leaders in our community — whether regional, state or national is a great asset to a principal. The larger your ‘village’ the more variety of support for students and staff that becomes accessible.

What have been some of your most rewarding moments at YMHS?

Developing the teen parent program into one of the best known, comprehensive programs in the country and watching the teen parents enrolled at Yampah navigate their way to graduation and a commitment to being the best parent possible, has been one of my proudest accomplishments.

One of the most rewarding moments is when one of “our babies” from the nursery returns to Yampah as a high school student, almost always because their alumni parent has enrolled them at YMHS as a school of choice. I get to spend time with them as young adults and then hand them their own diploma, it doesn’t get much more rewarding than that — the impact of two generations through our school.

This year, Carlos Cortez-Smith will be a graduate of YMHS Class of 2019 and mom, Katherine, was also a graduation of Yampah TPP [Teen Parent Program].

What is one thing you wish freshmen knew or understood before starting high school?

I wish every freshman knew and believed in how much they have to offer the world. There are so many students starting high school who are experiencing anxiety, depression and feeling dis-empowered. If we adults could make sure we hear their stories, and these freshman trusted us and we in them, perhaps we could avoid some of the pain that our youth are experiencing from bullying, addictions and self-harm.

Each of these freshmen deserves a place to be each day where they feel they belong, are safe and that they can trust.

Each Thursday we will run a Q&A with the principal of a local school.

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