In this district, the streets are short and the sidewalks are long. Everyone is a friendly face. Some families have lived there for generations, and the new ones are excited about what the area has to offer. So how does one superintendent leverage this aspect of community to build the next generation of students? It all starts with effective communication.
“I had a counselor tell me that I probably should graduate and get married and the only reason I should go to college is to find a husband,” says Dr. Margaret Crespo, superintendent of Laramie County School District-1 in Wyoming. “My family are Cuban immigrants, so that was never going to be an option.”
When she took the helm in 2021, she set out to use the harsh words of her counselor and the motivation from her family to achieve one goal: to make a difference for kids. Now, she’s leading one of the most innovative districts in the country.
“I wanted to make sure that no one told kids that they couldn’t be whatever it was that they wanted to be,” she says. “Because I knew that there were families that didn’t have the systems or advocacy. I never wanted a student to have to doubt themselves.”
Located in the capital city of Cheyenne, Wyoming, Crespo says they hold a major responsibility as being the largest district in the state with one of the largest budgets, coupled with a diverse set of people with a deeply rooted connection with their home state.
“You have a group of people coming together on a regular basis with very different views, interests and priorities,” she says. “Trying to bring that under the guise of what a school looks like for each of them as they’re preparing for skills that we don’t even know how to define at this point is very interesting. You think about that old-style frontier kind of mentality of survival, which is deep perseverance and grit. It’s embedded in all that we do.”
Upon arriving at the district, she immediately noticed its uniqueness in that it has the remarkable ability to face some of life’s greatest barriers, for instance, COVID-19. Like many districts across the country, the pandemic caused some degree of change, good or bad. However, Crespo says its influence on districts across Wyoming was vastly different, and in some ways, students remained on top.
“There’s like four people per square mile,” she explains. “The impact of COVID in terms of population was not as significant in terms of closing things. We were not closed for two years—or even a year—frankly, as other districts were because we were able to keep the distance and kids masked. They were able to come to school other than that first semester.”
She believes that gave them a unique opportunity compared to other states and allowed them to keep students engaged. And that significance became evident as more students came in from schools that did not have the same opportunity to be in the classroom for two years. Crespo sought to seize that opportunity to continue fostering student success in two ways: social-emotional support and innovative opportunities with accelerated expectations.
“Adults across the community are being trained in how to help kids advocate for themselves with a common language, common vocabulary and common expectations,” she says. “And how do we create pathways that are more aligned with what our community needs? The benefit for us was that we were able to pivot very quickly to say, ‘Our community needs medical professionals. Let’s build that pathway quickly.’ We’re very tight with our chamber and very close with our local community college. We’re building capacities because as much as Cheyenne is a capital city and part of the front range, it also is slightly isolated. There are miles between us and every other town. Innovation is a necessity.”
Regarding innovation, Crespo was recently featured in a report titled, “Exploring New Frontiers For K-12 Systems Transformation.” UVA’s Partnership for Leaders in Education (PLE) details real innovation efforts and leadership throughout the report that is taking place in districts across the country to inspire and drive further transformation, and her district was one of several showcased for its successful efforts to drive organizational change.
If you were to read the report, you would quickly understand that Crespo cares deeply about communication. For her, it drives her decision-making, because how else are you supposed to meet the needs of your community? After speaking with students and other stakeholders, three prominent themes emerged that would soon become the district’s new strategic plan: student readiness, community engagement and healthy environments.
The district created pathways for post-secondary readiness by increasing participation in dual enrollment courses. However, they found that student participation in free college-level classes wasn’t meeting previous expectations. According to her students, they were not enrolling in part because the schedule interfered with their high school courses. By running targeted campaigns around enrollment, the district now anticipates more than tripling participation in free college classes since its inception.
“When I arrived we did the strategic plan in less than six months,” she says. “The priority for me was to make sure that we heard voices, and we did that in multiple ways. We did it through our website, feedback forms and through panel discussions. In 100 days I went to every single club and committee and community that would meet with me, then I did the same thing this year because we’re ever-changing. I mean, when you think about how quickly innovation happens you have to be ready.”
That feedback, she says, opened the community’s eyes and helped them realize that the level of responsiveness was there, and it was real. As their voices were heard, they saw that feedback was directly embedded in the work of the district. Most importantly, she’s also giving a voice to what is inarguably the most important group: the students.
“We needed a strategic plan that would be able to pivot in a way to meet the needs of the kids and the emerging markets,” she says. “So we gave a voice to kids. I went out to the buildings and we had meetings and we brought groups of students in to have conversations, and now that we’re doing this programming district-wide they have another access point to share their concerns and their needs because it’s their education.”
“This isn’t very popular, but we often talk about how kids frankly don’t need us anymore,” she adds. “We have to find new and innovative ways to engage with them because the contents that perhaps we were able to share in the past are no longer relevant. They just have to ask their devices. What we need to support is the processing and the navigation and the resiliency and flexibility for the change.”
And throughout that process, their strategic plan overwhelmingly revealed to them that they need to prepare their students for the future that they have yet to define, elevate the successful practices that are already in place, and ensure kids are part of the conversation. At the center of it all, she says, is effective communication.
“I came in humbled,” she says. “I didn’t live in the community originally. I wasn’t from Cheyenne. Who was I to think that I could tell them what they needed or wanted in their own community? With that approach, it helped me to be open to hearing the feedback and give them what they needed as the conduit.”
Student readiness, healthy environments and community partnerships, she says, continue to be her top three priorities for her district in 2023 and beyond. Each of these elements is intertwined with a reliance on community and conversation. Regarding innovation and community-building, they rely on many factors that are unique to each district. Crespo would tell you with a grateful heart that the work being done in her district is thanks to those who make it happen: the people.
“An incredible group of very committed adults in a system who have an incredible willingness to learn and make it happen for kids, and that includes teachers and community,” she says makes her district so special. “They want what’s better for their own children for their future.”
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