Someone recently asked Kristen Atwood what her hobby is. “Is education a hobby?” she responded. The newly named principal of the yet-to-be named middle school (now Denver Discovery) in the Swigert-McAuliffe building says, “When I’m running or playing with my kids, I’m thinking about education. It’s what I live and breathe.” Atwood says the new position is a dream opportunity.
Along with her husband, Tom, and children, Willem, 7 and Ella, 3, Atwood has lived in Stapleton for five years. She is currently in what is called “year zero” of a new middle school—the year in which the details of the school are created, from the name to hours to policies and curriculum. During this year, Atwood will have an office at Smiley Middle School, where she taught for many years in the course of her 17 years teaching the K-12 levels with Denver Public Schools. Most recently, she was the director of achievement at McAuliffe International School.
The new school will be housed in the space that will be vacated by McAuliffe International School when it leaves in the 2014-2015 school year for its new home on the Smiley Campus. Atwood’s new school will be one of five middle schools that will be available to families under the new shared boundaries. The other schools are McAuliffe, Bill Roberts Middle School, DSST-Stapleton and the new DSST-Northfield location.
When it opens, the new school will start with sixth grade, adding one grade per year through eighth grade in 2016-2017 with approximately 75–125 students per grade. Atwood is looking forward to the smaller size of the school saying it allows for a level of intimacy and accountability for all and allows the faculty and students to feel like they are developing a team. “I want every student to feel valued and heard and that we’re truly a community. Every student (will know) everyone on a first-name basis and inner talents (will be) acknowledged. I think a smaller school is such a strength,” says Atwood.
The new principal sees the creation of the school as a group effort that will determine the school’s name, hours, curriculum, discipline policies, potential uniform and more. That will happen with the help of the community. First, Atwood will enlist a steering committee with 7–15 people that accurately represents the Greater Park Hill/Stapleton community. Together, she says, the group will meet to “research, draft and think.”
Atwood will also hold community meetings to inform the public and get feedback. In addition, Atwood plans to go out into the community, talking to parents, attending church services and meetings. “I insist upon getting interest and input from the entire community,” she adds.
One of the primary concerns Atwood is currently hearing from the community involves parents wondering if their children will be able to ensure a spot at a specific school. She explains that it will be the same type of system currently in place, only students will have a choice of the five schools. “They can place a first choice but that doesn’t mean they’ll get it,” she explains.
Another concern is whether the new school will have an IB program like McAuliffe. Atwood says that is one of the many issues to be decided depending on the community’s interest. She does say that if the new school does not have a formal IB program, she is open to picking and choosing from a variety of programs to create something unique. Whatever plan ends up being adopted for the school, Atwood outlines a set of nonnegotiables that she feels will also resonate with the community. “It’s simply what every family wants for their child: learning that is rigorous and differentiated, a classroom environment where every child feels valued, where learning is meaningful, with teachers who are incredibly masterful and have rich content knowledge and know how to create learning connections in their classrooms.”
Atwood has a big, long-term vision for the impact her new school will have on her students. “In this highly competitive work environment…what’s going to separate our greater Park Hill/Stapleton kids from everybody else is going to be their ability to persevere. They need to know that you can’t give up. Once you give up, somebody else has won the battle and that can be in the world of art, engineering or education…but you have to persevere.” Atwood pauses and realizes that without ever having put a name on it that is what she has done in her own life. “This is yet another one of those challenges in my life and I know failure isn’t an option.” She adds, “It’s probably going to be the biggest professional challenge of my career but to me, that’s the best part about it.”
To inquire about being part of Atwood’s Steering Committee, contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.