Founding Sopris Elementary principal reflects |

Founding Sopris Elementary principal reflects

Kelley Cox Post Independent

GLENWOOD SPRINGS, Colorado – Howard Jay jokes that he “picked out the bricks” for Sopris Elementary School when Glenwood Springs graduated from a one-elementary-school-town to two schools 14 years ago.

More than that, the longtime Roaring Fork District Re-1 school administrator and founding SES principal was credited with smoothing that sometimes difficult community transition.

“There was a ‘new versus old’ way of thinking,” Jay said of initial reaction to the district’s decision to build a second elementary school to serve the rapidly growing south Glenwood area.

The new school was in addition to the long-established Glenwood Springs Elementary School in the center part of town, which at the time was bursting at the seams with more than 600 students.

“We really spent a lot of time out in the community trying to work that out, and assuring people that we were going to provide quality education at both schools,” said Jay, who will be retiring after 25 years in the district, including 14 at SES, at the end of this school year.

Jay had been principal at Carbondale Elementary School for four years when he was asked to return to Glenwood Springs to take the helm at Sopris Elementary, which officially opened in Glenwood Park in 1996.

“It was an opportunity to be part of building a new school,” Jay said.

Having started in Re-1 as the assistant principal at GSES in 1986 gave him some insight in planning for the new building.

“It was also an opportunity to take a lot of what worked in the old Glenwood building and incorporate it here,” he said.

The entry-way rotunda, for instance, had always been a welcoming feature at GSES. So that became an integral feature at the new sister school as well.

“We also wanted a building that provided a lot of natural light, and had flexible spaces with moving walls and a lot of open common space,” he said.

Jay began his career in public education teaching for three years in Utah. He had been teaching at a K-12 school of 180 students in remote Silverton, Colo., for five years when he and his wife, Mary, began looking elsewhere in Colorado.

“We came to Glenwood and felt really good about it,” he said of his interview to join the administrative team with former GSES principal Bernie Selting. “It just seemed like a good place to be in the school system and to raise our kids.”

Howard and Mary raised their three boys in Glenwood Springs. Zach is currently working on his doctorate degree in environmental science at Montana State University. Steve is a geographic information systems (GIS) specialist in Redding, Calif. The youngest, Jon, will be graduating with a master’s degree in international leadership from the University of Denver in June.

Mary has also had a career with the school district as the director of substitute teachers. She will be semi-retiring after 22 years, going to part-time to hire and train subs, while the scheduling moves to an automated system.

Having just turned 55 years old, Jay became eligible for early retirement, and it was just a question of whether to do it this year or wait another year.

“We looked at it as an opportunity to appreciate what we have and spend some more time together,” he said of he and Mary, who is a breast cancer survivor.

Jay, who had been a competitive swimmer in high school and college, also found another way to connect with local youth by coaching the Sopris Barracuda swim team for several years.

“It’s always fun to see the kids go through the school system and graduate from high school,” he said. “Then you see them years later and they say, ‘Hey, Mr. Jay!’ It’s sometimes hard to recognize all of them, but that’s when you know you had an impact.”

Former Re-1 district and school administrator Jim Phillips preceded Jay at both Glenwood Springs and Carbondale elementary schools, and was instrumental in encouraging him to take the lead at Sopris Elementary.

He said Jay’s contributions to the local school system have been many, but especially in building a new school from the ground up.

“Because of the dynamics of having a new school versus an older school, it took a lot of work on Howard’s part to make that transition a positive one for the community,” Phillips said. “Something like that can be divisive, and I credit Howard for making that a smooth transition.”

Early on, Jay also carried on some of the “fun-principal” traditions begun by Phillips, such as agreeing to set up his office on the Carbondale Elementary School roof if students read a certain number of books.

“Pies in the face, dunk tank, I’ve done them all,” Jay says. “Whatever it takes to motivate and help kids read, that’s really important. If you don’t learn to read, you’re going to be lost.”

Jay was recognized as the National Distinguished Principal from Colorado in 2001, which provided an opportunity for him to be involved in state and national education issues.

“It got me more involved in the political process of things, which was interesting,” Jay said, adding he’d like to remain involved on that level.

Although he’d like to remain active in some type of work capacity, for the most part he said he’s looking forward to having more time for recreational pursuits.

“I’ll find something, or something will find me. … Something that pays for the ski pass, but also allows me the time to ski,” he said.

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