Sunday profile: Meet the new — yet not so new — superintendent of Roaring Fork schools
A new practice to start the twice monthly Roaring Fork School District Board of Education meetings involves an inspirational reading of some sort to get the board members, staff and attendees in the right frame of mind for the evening’s tasks.
Rob Stein, the new superintendent of schools in Glenwood Springs, Carbondale and Basalt, took that opportunity earlier this month to share an excerpt from Tracy Kidder’s book, “Mountains Beyond Mountains,” about a group of doctors’ efforts to control tuberculosis in Haiti.
After one of the patients failed to show up for an appointment, it was the job of the doctors who were in charge of his care to go out to his village and find him to make sure he was still taking his medications.
Oftentimes, Kidder writes, such international health efforts fail because patients becomes noncompliant. Yet, Dr. Paul Farmer, whose journeys the book is based upon, turns the tables, saying the onus is on the attending physician, not the patient, to “fix it” in the interest of maintaining an “outcome-oriented view” of their mission.
The same can be said for educators and their responsibility to students to be successful learners, Stein says.
“I want to know empirically that what we are doing in our schools involves the best practices for our kids to succeed,” Stein said in a recent interview during a break from preparations for the new RFSD school year, which begins for students on Wednesday.
Stein took the helm as district superintendent in July after serving for the past two years as chief academic officer and assistant superintendent under longtime Colorado and Roaring Fork Valley educator Diana Sirko, who stepped down to take a new job in education consulting.
It’s been a bit of a journey in recent years for Stein, who was selected by the RFSD school board in 2012 to lead the district, but had to step down abruptly due to a family emergency when his wife, Mariah Dickson, was involved in a serious bicycle accident. She has since recovered and, a teacher and former school administrator herself, now works for an organization called Teach for America.
Stein eventually returned to RFSD the following year, when Sirko hired him for the academic officer position and put him in charge of guiding the district’s strategic planning efforts.
“It was a helpful transition, and I was fortunate to be able to take the lead in that process,” Stein said of the district’s focus on a student-centered mission and sharing of responsibilities between the district and individual schools.
“It’s not one person directing at the top that helps us achieve our goals, it’s a team of people working together,” he said.
Stein grew up in Denver where he attended Manual High School in the mid-1970s during the era of court-ordered busing to try to integrate the inner-city schools around the country.
“I remember the stark contrasts between the schools I had been going to and my new school,” he recalled. “It was pretty obvious to me as a kid how society treated minorities.”
With that in mind, after high school he decided to go into education himself, attending college in Vermont and teaching there for a year before going abroad to teach for a year in South America.
His first foray in the Roaring Fork Valley came when he heard about a teaching job at Colorado Rocky Mountain School, a private outdoors-oriented college preparatory school in Carbondale. He taught history and English there for five years in the late-1980s, and also coached the cross country ski team.
“That was a lot of fun, because I got to teach kids and coach a sport that I love, all in one job,” Stein said.
In was also while in the valley that first time that he married Mariah, whom he had met at a summer camp when he was still in college.
They soon left the valley for teaching jobs in Boston and eventually back in Denver where Stein moved into administrative positions as principal at the Rocky Mountain School of Expeditionary Learning followed by a long stint as head of Graland Country Day School from 2001-07.
In 2007, Stein learned of plans to reopen his old alma mater, Manual High, after it had been shut down due to multiple years of poor and declining academic performance.
“I had a draw to get back involved in public education, and to focus on what we could do about these low-income, low-performing, failing schools. This was a real turn-around opportunity,” he said of his decision to apply for the principal’s job at the revamped school.
Manual restarted small, with just 150 freshman students and adding a new class each of the next four years, but still targeting a minority population made up of 60 percent second-language Latino students and 40 percent African American students.
“Twenty years after they decided busing was no longer warranted, Manual had reverted to a 98 percent minority school,” Stein said.
“I personally thought busing was successful,” he said, adding he was also ready to try a new approach.
The results were remarkable, as Manual became the poster child for turn-around schools. Math and English proficiency scores improved each year for the first group of students, and ACT scores went up an average of 4 points by the time they were juniors and seniors.
Of that initial group, about 100 students graduated with their class. Many of those who didn’t had either moved away after the recession hit, or had gone to other schools. Stein noted that 93 percent of the students in that graduating class were admitted into college.
“We were successful by any number of objective measures,” Stein said. “But the main thing we did was that we created a culture of academic learning as well as a culture of belonging.”
Though Manual has continued on a roller coaster ride of ups and downs since Stein left in 2010, his time there served as an example of how individual schools left to employ their own innovations are often the most successful schools.
A working theory
Stein admitted that his experience at Manual left him questioning whether school districts can make a difference in student academic success. But it was one of his draws into school district-level administration when the RFSD position became open in 2012.
“I have a hypothesis that superintendents can make a difference in student performance with the right approach,” he said.
“The best decisions are made closest to the issue,” Stein said. “I believe the best relationships with our schools are established by agreements, not fiats.”
Stein said he has two “guiding values” in approaching his work as an educator. One comes from Don Quixote, the idealist with his head in the clouds wanting to contribute to making the world a better place. The other comes from Quixote’s faithful servant, Sancho Panza, the practical one who always kept his feet on the ground and wanted to follow the evidence.
That helps explain his and newly appointed RFSD Chief Academic Officer Rick Holt’s intense focus on data to help guide the district’s schools, “to get to our ideals,” in Stein’s words.
They and other district leaders have been busy over the last few days visiting each school individually to help prepare for the new school year. Stein said he and Holt also plan formal visits to each school twice a month during the school year.
Stein said it’s an extension of the district’s adoption of the “crew” approach in its schools, where groups of students have a dedicated time to work with a teacher advisor not only on academic goal-setting but on character skills and social-emotional learning.
“We’ve asked the school board to think of their role in that way also,” Stein said. “We have made a huge commitment to crew, and we are all on this team working together for the common purpose that is in our strategic plan.”
The start of the new school year also is an opportunity to begin anew where necessary but continue to build on those already established goals and ideals, he said.
“One thing we would like to do this year is look for more support and community engagement in our schools,” Stein added. “We plan to do a lot of parent outreach, and will work to develop community partnerships. That’s one of the goals we established that we did not meet last year, and we need to increase and enhance and formalize that.”
Stein said the Roaring Fork School District offers a little bit of all he has experienced so far in his career.
“We do have some of those same challenges of an urban setting, but with the benefits of living in the mountains of rural Colorado,” he said.
He notes that the district also is embarking on a two-year initiative to make sure teacher compensation in the Roaring Fork School District is competitive, so that they can continue to live and work in that same beautiful setting.
“That is certainly a big part of keeping teachers happy, and if we hear that people aren’t satisfied working for us then we need to address that,” Stein said.
Stein and Dickson live in Carbondale and have two children, Eliza, 21, who is a junior at Colorado College in Colorado Springs, and Max, who is a senior this year at CRMS.
In his free time, Stein said he enjoys biking and running in the summer, and cross country skiing in the winter.
“Living 6 miles from Spring Gulch (Nordic area) is a huge benefit,” he said. “I use that time for solitude and reflection. And I also spend a lot of time reading.”
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