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New leadership at Roaring Fork High, Crystal River Elementary

By Debbie Bruell / Sopris Sun Correspondent

Brett Stringer, RFHS principal

When Brett Stringer, the new Roaring Fork High School principal, was a high schooler himself, he jumped at the opportunity to take a creative approach to his education. His history teacher offered students the option of writing papers or creating videos, and Stringer and his brother began shooting movies of themselves rolling down the street inside of a “time machine” (made out of a trash barrel) which would depart in a trail a flames (á la the movie Back to the Future) as it left their Colorado Springs neighborhood to transport them to another time and place, such as the landing of the Mayflower.  

Stringer went on to study film at the University of Denver, where he created videos of his friends snowboarding. After graduating college he moved to Los Angeles to pursue film-making, but quickly realized that the cutthroat competition and flashy culture weren’t for him.  

After returning to Colorado, he was drawn to the field of education through friends. He first considered teaching creative writing at the college level, but decided that teaching younger students felt like a better fit.

Previous positions

Stringer has worked in schools with very diverse populations his entire career. He began as an English as a Second Language teacher at South High School in Denver — a magnet school specifically designed to provide extensive support for English language learning. Over 35 languages were spoken at the school, with Spanish being the most common. Many of the families were refugees who had just recently arrived in the country.

In an interview with The Sopris Sun, Stringer noted that he sees diversity as a strength for any school. “Kids gain so much from hearing each other’s stories,” he said.

Stringer taught at South for seven years before moving into a teacher coach position, which he held for two years at that school. He then began working as a teacher-coach at Martin Luther King, Jr. Early College, a 6th through 12th grade school in Denver with a heavy focus on college preparedness and concurrent enrollment, providing kids with college credit during their high school years.

In 2005 MLK Early College was ranked as one of the worst schools in the country. By the time Stringer began working there in 2011, the school had undergone a radical transformation, with a graduation rate of 100 percent and a college acceptance rate of 100 percent. According to Stringer, the key to turning around MLK had been the teachers and the strong relationships they developed with their students.

MLK was designated as an innovation school, which meant they had some flexibility in terms of complying with state and district mandates. For example, Stringer and a colleague designed a reading intervention program, rather than using the commercially-produced program purchased by other schools in the district. Stringer said the program was “wildly successful and has been taken to two other schools.”

After one year at MLK, the school district asked Stringer to take the position of assistant principal at Merrill Middle School. When he first began at Merrill in 2011, it was ranked as the worst middle school in Denver. By 2015, it was ranked as the top traditional middle school (i.e., not a charter school or innovation school) in Denver — a ranking it has continued to hold for the past three years.

In 2016, Stringer left Merrill to be the principal of North Middle School in Aurora, a school with 850 students, 85 percent Hispanic and about 80 percent from low income families. North is ranked as a “low performance school.”

Stringer told The Sun that he was not looking to leave his post at North, but he and his wife Mandy had dreamed of moving their family out to the mountains, and when he learned of the open positions in the Roaring Fork Schools, the opportunity felt too good to pass up. Stringer explained that Carbondale seemed like the perfect fit for them: a small mountain town with a diverse population and a community with “the same vision” that has guided his work as an educator: the idea of “supporting one another regardless of background.”

One of Stringer’s goals this summer has been “figuring out the story” of RFHS. He’s met individually with RFHS teachers to have informal conversations about the school: what they love about it, what they want to continue, and what they’d like to make better.  He’s also looking at school surveys, achievement scores, and attendance data.

“I really don’t want to make any assumptions coming into this,” Stringer told The Sun.

Moving to Carbondale

Moving to the Western Slope was a bit like a trip in a time machine for Stringer and Mandy. As a child, Stringer spent his summers in Avon and most winter weekends skiing in Vail.

Mandy’s family has roots in Glenwood Springs from generations ago. In fact, as the Stringers were signing the lease for their new Carbondale home, the landlord mentioned the name of the man who originally built their house in the 1940s or 50s — and he appears to be one of Mandy’s relatives. He originally built the home in Glenwood Springs, later decided to move his family to Marble, and loaded the house onto the train.

The house made it as far as Carbondale, but couldn’t quite make the turn toward Marble. The family relocated to where their house landed in Carbondale instead, and the Stringer family is now living in this (somewhat remodeled) house beside the Rio Grande Trail, where the railroad tracks used to run.

Mandy will be teaching ceramics and graphic design at Aspen High School this year. The Stringers have two children: Sully, who will be a 6th grader at Carbondale Middle School, and Lucy, who will be a 3rd grader at Crystal River Elementary School.

Liz Meador, CRES vice principal

After many stops along her journey through the field of education, Liz Meador has found her way back to the schools of the Roaring Fork Valley to start this fall as assistant principal of Crystal River Elementary School.

Meador first came to the valley in 1985 to teach kindergarten at Aspen Community School. After three years of teaching there, she spent the next 12 years working in school leadership. She was principal of Aspen Community School and Yampah High School;  assistant principal at Horizons K-8 School, a public charter school in Boulder; and director of the Watershed School, a private middle and high school in Boulder.

Meador lived in the valley from 1985-2001, except for three years during which she lived in Boulder, from 1992-1995, pursuing her PhD in education at the University of Colorado, Boulder.

From 1997-2000 she directed the Roaring Fork Teacher Education Project — a project started by George Stranahan and funded by the University of Colorado to address the teacher-shortage in the area by bringing in student-teachers.

After completing her PhD in 2000, Meador began working as a professor of education on the West Coast. She worked at four different colleges over the next 13 years: California State University, Monterey Bay; Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Oregon; California Polytechnic State University in San Louis Obispo; and University of California, Santa Cruz. Most recently, for the past three years, she held the position of director of the teacher education program at UC Santa Cruz.

During her summers she has taught as adjunct faculty at CU Boulder, CU Denver and Boise State University, travelling back and forth between the central coast of California, Boulder and the Roaring Fork Valley.

“I enjoy working with the whole spectrum of teachers,” Meador said, from college students who are in the beginning stages of pursuing their teaching degree to those who have taught for many years. She’s looking forward to working once again with veteran teachers, as well as “the bonus” of working directly with small children again.

Multiculturalism and equity

Meador’s area of expertise at the college level has been multicultural education and equity issues in schools, especially regarding emergent bilingual students. She explained that, in recent years, historically-white, rural schools have experienced a huge influx of refugee and immigrant families, yet teachers tend to be white and middle class. According to Meador, these teachers often don’t understand how to work with the cultural and language diversity of their students.

“We try to teach teachers strategies to engage students who have strong language background in their native language, but are learning another language,” Meador explained in an interview with The Sopris Sun. “How can teachers make sure that all kids have access to the curriculum?”

Meador told The Sun that most of the students and teachers she has taught have been eager to learn the skills and knowledge they need to reach their students with limited English ability.  “It’s been inspiring to talk with teachers who are so open and willing to embrace all the kids in their classrooms, “ Meador said.

Growing up in California and having lived there on and off for the past 15 years, Meador explained, she has experienced first-hand the value of bilingualism.  Most of her students at UC Santa Cruz have been bilingual, including many students from Latin America and Asia, as well as other parts of the world.

Meador’s first teaching job was on Douglas Island in Juneau, Alaska, where she taught first grade. The majority of her students were from low income families whose primary language was their Native American language.

When Meador first lived in the Roaring Fork Valley in the 1980s, “there was very little diversity,” she told The Sun. “I love being back and seeing how the culture has changed here. It’s a very multicultural community now in every positive sense of the word.”

Meador said she’s looking forward to bringing her experiences from California, where “diversity is normalized,” to her work here in the valley. She believes that much of the success in terms of the extent to which diversity has been embraced in California can be attributed to the schools.

Meador said that CRES also feels like a good fit for her because of their commitment to project-based learning. As director of Boulder’s Watershed School for grades 6-12, she learned to appreciate how “motivating and engaging” this approach to education can be. As she explained, “Students would go out into the community and interview experts about where our water comes from…They would do huge projects that would explain their learning around some essential questions.”

One reason this approach is so effective for students, she said, is that it “activates their whole brain — emotional and cognitive… They’re learning something they’re really interested in.”

Project-based learning can be harder to do at the elementary level since the younger students are not as sophisticated, she noted, “but it’s certainly just as powerful.”

California roots

Meador grew up in La Jolla, Calif. Her parents now live in San Diego. She’s a self-proclaimed “surf-chick at heart.” Although she’s given up surf boarding, she loves body surfing and stand up paddle boarding, and clearly has close emotional ties to the ocean. All of the colleges where she worked in California were located on the Monterey Bay which, she told The Sun, “I happen to think is one of the most beautiful places in the whole world.”

When she lived in Santa Cruz, her house sat right on the bay. From her backyard she saw blue whales and gray whales — sometimes just 30 feet from the shoreline.

A home-owner in Glenwood now, she plans to do plenty of biking and hiking, and to get out on the rivers on her stand up paddle board and perhaps a duckie.

Referring to the many different positions she’s held since she first moved to the valley in 1985, Meador said, “I follow my heart…as a result I’ve had a non-traditional journey.” She explained that there have been various pulls taking her from one position to another. Meador’s two adult daughters and her first grandchild live in Glenwood. It’s her 18-month-old grandson, August, she said, who pulled her back to valley once again.


Next week: Big changes at Carbondale Community School.