On the northern edge of Denver sits a cutting-edge school district that has made
remarkable progress over the past decade in serving primarily low-income families. Charlotte Ciancio has been the superintendent of
Mapleton Public Schools since 2001, and she’s led a transformation that has made her into somewhat of an
education superhero in the state. Ciancio describes the process of dramatic change as “messy and challenging,” but it’s made a dramatic difference for kids.
I know the superintendent's day starts early. What gets you going in the morning? I don’t think I qualify as a “morning person.” In fact, I’m probably more of a night owl. I tend to work late into the evenings and typically can’t sleep until I’ve wrapped up my day’s work, done some reflecting on my results, and played a game or two of solitaire. In the mornings, I usually count my blessings and set my goals before I get out of bed. Then, I like to take a brisk walk with my husband before I head out on my daily adventure. I love my work and feel very lucky to have this incredible profession, so I don’t need much prodding to get the day underway.
You've been leading Mapleton's schools for 15 years now. Talk about how strong, stable leadership benefits schools and students. Stable leadership is a great term—especially in the context of public education. Stability embodies the notion of consistency, endurance and honesty. I have had the privilege to work with steadfast and committed volunteers that have provided solid and cohesive governance throughout my tenure. Working with 19 individual board members within 20 school board configurations, I’ve been influenced by the power of a unified vision. We were able to reorganize our school structures to assure more personalized environments for our students; we refreshed our curriculum and materials to assure that students have access to challenging and meaningful content; and we’ve updated a few of our facilities to assure access to new technologies and safe learning environments. We have more students earning diplomas, more students prepared for college and careers, and more students earning scholarships. We have more to do, but we are definitely on the right track! Superintendents are only as stable as the Board of Education they serve. Mapleton’s Board of Education—every single one—has been united in assuring that our students can achieve their dreams.
And you're a product of Mapleton schools, right? What was your education like and what role did that play in bringing you back here as superintendent? I had wonderful, loving teachers throughout my experience in Mapleton schools. I was a pretty good student and loved being involved in student council and National Junior Honor Society. My older sister went to Marycrest High School, and I decided to follow her there. I have nine siblings: six brothers and three sisters. I’m fourth from the top, so I had the privilege to watch and support the younger kids. During my last semester at the University of Northern Colorado, I moved back home, worked at a Kings Soopers [a grocery store] and finished my student teaching at Valley View Elementary School. At the time, my four youngest siblings were still in middle and high school in the district. I loved seeing the difference that a quality education was making. I wanted to be a part of something so important and life changing. I wanted to a part of Mapleton Public Schools then and in the future.
Mapleton was a leader of the school choice movement, when it transformed its high school programs in the early 2000s and created districtwide choice. Talk about that decision and how it's paid off for schools and kids. Mapleton Public Schools has a long, proud history of innovation and change. In 2001, district leaders were already studying and thinking about how small schools and schools of choice could impact the achievement results that were low and flat. Our system operates within a “full choice” model. Every family must choose the school that matches the needs of their child. We provide transportation to every student living more than one mile from his/her school of choice. Our arts and athletic programs are growing to record numbers—more students are involved in extracurricular activities than ever before. I was in the right place at the right time. I was hired by a Board of Education that was ready for change, a board that demanded positive results. I worked with district leaders who were willing to try a new approach and were courageous enough to take informed risks. It was a messy and challenging process. We were taking a once successful school district and reinventing schooling. We asked our community to trust us. And it did. We asked it to “imagine the possibilities.” And it did. We asked our teachers to re-examine their teaching styles and commit to improving their practices. And they did. We asked them to shift from focusing on what they were teaching to what kids were learning. And they did. Together, we made it happen.
I also know superintendents are always looking to learn new things and aren't so great at having down time and just relaxing. What are your summers like? The summers are actually a pretty busy time of the year. We have lots of meetings and need to make decisions that influence the work of the coming school year. With fewer people around, we have more flexibility as to when we come in and what time we go home. It’s a more relaxed environment so we wear jeans and flip-flops and dread the days when we’ll be back in suits and skirts.
Michael Vaughn was the founding Communications Director of Education Post. Prior to that, Mike worked for 18 years in the communications offices of two urban school districts. He served in a variety of communications roles for the Chicago Public Schools starting in 1996, shortly after Mayor Richard M. Daley took control of CPS, and eventually served as the district's Communications Director until ...