Sunday Profile: Schools chief Sirko reflects on long ed career
Diana Sirko, career honors
• President, Colorado Association of School Executives, 2014-15
• Winner, Colorado CASE Colbert Cushing Award for Outstanding Contributions in Education, 2005
• Honorable Mention, Colorado Teacher of the Year, 1987
• Three-time nominee, Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics Education, 1984-87
• Nominee, Governor’s Award for Excellence in Teaching, 1986
• Nominee, Colorado Principal of Year, 1994
• Nominee, Colorado Superintendent of Year, 2006
Retirement has crossed the mind of Diana Sirko on occasion during her 41 years in public education, but her love for the profession and, most importantly the students it benefits, has kept her involved on one level or another.
“I’ve never thought of a school district as an organization with different hierarchies. Rather, we’re all working together on behalf of the kids, focusing on common goals and creating a successful learning environment in the classroom,” Sirko said as she prepares to move on to yet another adventure in education after four years as superintendent of the Roaring Fork School District.
Though she is leaving the district office, Sirko plans to stay active with an organization called the Public Education and Business Coalition, which is developing a leadership program for school superintendents across the country, and will be working as a contract consultant to Colorado school districts on different issues.
She also plans to help Colorado Mountain College with some grant writing, and continues to teach education leadership programs as an adjunct faculty member for the college, as she has done since 1988. And, she will continue to teach a leadership cohort in the Roaring Fork School District.
So her departure is anything but retirement.
In fact, the last time the “R” thought occurred to her was in 2012, after she’d spent three years as a deputy commissioner with the Colorado Department of Education in Denver, preceded by seven years as the highly respected superintendent of the Aspen School District.
Upon her return to the Roaring Fork Valley that summer, she got an urgent call from the neighboring school district whose brand new superintendent, and soon-to-be Sirko’s successor, Rob Stein, had been called away due to a family emergency.
“It made a lot of sense,” said Sirko, who ended up taking the helm as superintendent of schools in Glenwood Springs, Carbondale and Basalt, while Stein eventually was able to rejoin the RFSD team as assistant superintendent and chief academic officer.
“We already lived in the district, it was our home and our own grandkids were entering school in the district,” said Sirko, who has lived in Basalt with her husband, longtime former Aspen High football coach Mike Sirko, during her 13 years in the Roaring Fork Valley.
“I always wanted to work in this district anyway,” said the Denver native, whose grandmother was born in Glenwood Springs in 1904, giving her a deep connection to the Roaring Fork Valley. “In fact, it was the first place I applied for a teaching job.”
In those days, there were typically 30 applicants for every teacher’s position, said Sirko, who earned her bachelor’s degree in biology with a minor in chemistry from the University of Northern Colorado.
She wasn’t hired in Roaring Fork, but began her career instead in 1975 as a middle school science teacher in Gunnison. She taught for 13 years in Gunnison, Montrose and Delta counties before taking her first administrative job as supervisor of staff development in the Colorado Springs School District 11.
After earning a master’s degree from CU in educational technology and earning her schools administration certification, she spent six years as an elementary school principal in Douglas County and was assistant superintendent and acting superintendent for Falcon School District in 1996-97.
Sirko also earned a doctorate in educational leadership from CU-Denver in 1999.
The transition from the classroom to the district office was difficult, as it is for most educators who make that move, Sirko said.
“It’s the day-to-day relationship with the students that you miss the most, because you feel like you’re really making a difference in their lives and giving them that confidence to succeed,” she said.
It was also around that time that she toyed with the idea of retiring.
“I remember when I hit 27 years and thinking maybe I’ll stop after 30,” she said. “But I just loved it too much.”
Sirko went on to serve as deputy superintendent of instruction in Colorado Springs before finally making her way to the Roaring Fork Valley in 2003 as superintendent of Aspen schools.
Moving from a district of 32,000 students to one of just 1,500 had its challenges, she said. And, similar to her entry into the Roaring Fork District years later, the Aspen district also had experienced some upheaval in the district office.
“I had worked in small districts before as a teacher, but not as small as Aspen,” Sirko said. “In Colorado Springs, we had a lot of different people to divide tasks. But when you’re a superintendent in a small district you have to know something about everything.”
Although her own three children were grown and away at college when she and her husband, came to the Roaring Fork Valley, and a son and his family now live here.
“We loved our years in Aspen. The community has always been very supportive, just as it has here (in the Roaring Fork District),” Sirko said. “The valley is much the same in a lot of ways, and there are a lot of just down-to-earth, genuine people.”
After Sirko decided earlier this year to step down as RFSD superintendent a year ahead of schedule, Mike got a job as head football coach at Grand Junction High School. So their continuing journey will take them out of the Roaring Fork Valley.
“My new job will require a lot of travel to and from Texas, so I also needed easier access to the airport,” Sirko said of the direct flights from Grand Junction to that state.
She certainly left her mark on Roaring Fork schools in just four years at the helm.
“I am most proud of what we have done to change literacy instruction in the elementary schools, the increased strategies that we have employed for our second-language learners … and the great gains we have seen for our students as a result of those changes,” she said.
The district has also increased the number of advanced placement courses for high school students and expanded its pre-collegiate program.
Not to mention her work to help pass the $122 million bond issue last fall that will pay for new facilities in the district and launch the district’s first-ever rental housing program.
RFSD school board member and former board president Matt Hamilton adds that Sirko brought a greater sense of harmony and trust across the school district during a particularly challenging time.
“Diana brought a tremendous wealth of experience at a time when we had a huge need for that,” Hamilton said. “With that came a real comfort for staff in knowing that a true professional was coming in, really at the 11th hour for us. It allowed us to operate as if nothing had changed.”
At the time, he noted that the teachers at Glenwood Springs Elementary School had also decided to convert to the Expeditionary Learning model, and Sirko’s leadership helped that school through its transition.
“She really brought stability and innovation at time when the school was quite challenged,” Hamilton said. “That’s why she’s such an incredible asset, not just to the Roaring Fork Valley, but throughout Colorado. I wish her enjoyment in the next stage of her career.”
Sirko said the greatest reward for her has been the positive feedback she receives from the teachers, school administrators and others she has worked with over the years.
“Working with teachers in particular, I feel like I have to do what I can to support them and the important work that is happening in the classroom,” she said. “I’ve even had teachers that I had as students come up to me and say they became teachers because they had me as a teacher.
“I’ve never once been sorry that I became an educator, which is why it’s always been hard to stop doing it,” Sirko said. “It is important to me that the staff and community know how much I have appreciated the support I have received during the past four years. It has truly been my pleasure to serve the three communities.”
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Roaring Fork School District board candidates shared their views at a Monday forum hosted by the Glenwood Springs Chamber, and will do so again Wednesday prior to the regular school board meeting.