Q&A with Scott Siegfried, Cherry Creek School District superintendent

Official talks about new facility, mental health, reaching diverse kids

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At the helm of one of the largest school districts in the state is Scott Siegfried, a superintendent who is pushing to “meet students where they are,” he says.

That reflects in his approach to career-technical education — not assuming every student needs college — but also in his effort to amplify the voices of students from diverse backgrounds and make sure they feel heard.

And after a challenging semester in which three high school students died by suicide in the district and another died in a shooting, Siegfried points to the addition of more mental health staff and a belief in being honest in conversations about loss.

On an optimistic horizon for the Cherry Creek School District, a new campus for career-technical learning will open this fall for a broad range of students' passions. That's the district's Innovation Campus.

“It's for the kid who wants to be a mechanic, to the kid who wants to go to MIT,” Siegfried said.

Here's what the superintendent had to say about the new campus, mental health, diverse perspectives and more.

Did the 2016 bond deliver as promised?

Final renovation projects will be completed this summer toward early fall. I believe we exceeded expectations in every way. We built two new schools, Infinity Middle and Altitude Elementary.

The Cherry Creek Innovation Campus is the hallmark of that bond. $100 million of it was innovation focused: How do kids need to learn different to prepare for their future?

It's great for everyone from IB (International Baccalaureate) kids going to Colorado School of Mines, to the kid who's going to make 60 grand out of high school on an automotive certificate. It's got theonly Federal Aviation Administration-approved high school program in Colorado.

What are your thoughts on paths after high school?

My goal is not that my kid goes to college. My goal is that my kid has a joyful life and career and contributes to society. That could be a two-year program, could be military, could be a certificate, could be an apprenticeship … Not this broad United States standard of “everyone has to go to college.” We're hurting our society when we do that. A lot of kids change degrees many times.

I'm thinking more of career preparedness and success as a goal. If you want to be an underwater welder, we can get you there, and you don't have to go to college, and you can still make $100,000 a year.

We are opening an online high school for first time in the Cherry Creek School District in August … A student could be a Grandview student full time and take some classes online. We also now have an Options K-12 site for students whose parents choose to primarily home school them, but they come to us one to two days a week for things that are hard to do on your own, like orchestra and others.

We've diversified and gone away from “everybody has to go to college.” We have to meet students where they are. I'm proud of that shift we have made in the past few years.

With the high student populations at Cherry Creek's high schools, how can the district make sure kids don't feel invisible?

Something we did this year, which has been an extraordinary experience for us, is that we got 15 to 20 diverse high schoolers who talked about their lived experience, and they were able to provide feedback from mental health to racial and gender issues, to community pressures, to home pressures.

We culminated in a list of common threads across the district … We're using that to put together actionable initiatives. As adults, we can't just say, “OK, thanks.” Ryan Silva, Cherry Creek High's principal, he's moving forward with announcing advisories, where kids will meet on a weekly basis in a small group setting and develop specific curriculum where teachers can interact with students in a deeper way (on mental health issues and other topics relevant to the high school experience). Kids say teachers have trouble answering questions about race, LGBTQ identities, mental health — it's not their training.

When a student loses their life, how does the district decide what to say to the community?

When you look at social media, kids are so connected. Cherry Creek, Arapahoe High School, St. Mary's Academy, Valor Christian High School — those kids are so connected, it almost doesn't matter what colors they put on because through parties, activities and so on, they live the same life. So when they had tragedies, our kids are devastated. When we had it, they were devastated.

I believe wholeheartedly that we have to be honest and transparent with kids and parents because what I know for a fact is, whether it's (Cherokee Trail student) Lloyd Chavez or (students who died by suicide), kids already know the truth. It's already out on social media. So if we as adults come in and half-talk it and only say “there was a death,” that actually adds to the problem.

You can have a real conversation with students who might be on the edge themselves, or who don't have those kinds of thoughts but who are curious. I think you have to be honest and transparent in classrooms, in letters, and that's not always easy.

Abbe Smith, district spokesperson: Those communications also include resources for families. Many times, we have additional hours where those mental health supports are available.

What is the district doing to support students' mental health?

Siegfried: We have a deep, longstanding commitment to mental health. We can evidence that by the number of employees in place. We have a full-time nurse in every building — we're the only district in Colorado that can say that. And that's in addition to counselors.

It has been a difficult year, and we did have suicides, but I did add, with board support, two new directors of mental health in the spring. One is focused on clinical services, and one is focused on community partnerships. And we have six coordinators of mental health, so every high-school feeder area will have one. If there's a kid with a high suicide risk assessment, staff can get to know them, get to know their family and get to know them over time. And if we have some continuity in working with those families and kids, that'll be beneficial.

Smith: The coordinators also focus broadly on the mental health needs of all students.

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