Aspen school board approves a ‘pulse check’ on district climate and culture |

Aspen school board approves a ‘pulse check’ on district climate and culture

Universal, quantitative survey and 15 qualitative interviews will measure staff sentiment

A sign hangs over the Aspen High School gymnasium on Monday, Aug. 23, 2021. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)

In the spring of 2019, a survey about the climate and culture at Aspen School District revealed a mixed bag of responses.

Staff reported that they felt mostly supported by their direct supervisors and encouraged to pursue career development, but more than 55% either disagreed or strongly disagreed that the district’s senior leadership could “be relied upon to do the right thing even when it’s challenging or difficult.”

So has anything changed in the actual climate and culture of the district? The Board of Education and the rest of the community could have an answer before the end of this year, according to a proposal for a “pulse check” from consulting firm Wilson Foxen that the board approved at an Oct. 25 meeting.

“I think it’s going to be very interesting given the light-years of distance (the district) has traveled,” board member Dwayne Romero said during the meeting.

In the two years since the district administered the first survey, there have been substantial changes in leadership across the board, with new hires for superintendent, chief financial officer, human resources director, elementary school principal and middle school principal as well as promotions from within the district for the assistant superintendent and high school principal.

The proposal has two parts, with a target to report the results back to the board at the last regular board meeting of 2021 on Dec. 14.

Part one: Wilson Foxen will open up a universal, quantitative survey for all staff in the district. The questions will be as close to the 2019 survey questions as possible — WIlson Foxen also oversaw the climate and culture study two years ago — so the district can get an apples-to-apples comparison between sentiments then and sentiments now. The goal is at least 70% participation among staff; the 2019 survey garnered 69.9% participation.

Part two: Consultant Liz Wilson will conduct individual hourlong interviews with 15 pre-identified representatives from several different campus crews, including teacher leadership teams, the Aspen Education Association teacher’s union, the District Accountability Committee and building leadership teams, as well as a few other groups.

Questions for the interviews will be provided in advance and groups will be encouraged to discuss topics ahead of time to identify what feedback they would like to provide through their representatives.

Limiting the interview portion to just 15 members could also seem antithetical to the idea of inclusivity that the board hopes to promote, observed board member Susan Marolt, who worked closely with Wilson Foxen in the development process. That’s another place the survey comes in handy, because it gives everyone the opportunity to have some voice.

Wilson will determine a process to select the representatives that is “as objective as possible,” according to the proposal, but the document doesn’t detail exactly what her process will look like.

By incorporating both interviews and a survey, the district will be able to get qualitative feedback and anecdotal information in a cost-effective way alongside the quantitative data the survey provides. The total project will cost $14,500.

The board expressed some concern at the meeting about the small sample size for the interview process. It will be “difficult,” Marolt said, to promote inclusion while limiting the interview pool to just 15 voices.

This process is a baseline for moving forward, not a finish line for the past two years, Superintendent David Baugh noted. There’s not only potential but a desire for more independent, third-party assessments like this one in the future to consider staff and community input that will help guide district leadership.

And it’s important data to have not only as a measurement of leadership performance but as a way to gauge how the district is serving its students, Baugh said, because “research has proven (that if you) affect the culture in schools, it changes the climate the kids experience.”

That’s a premise board member Katy Frisch can get behind. She hopes that as the district moves forward, the data will tie into a new model that incorporates the board’s goals and priorities, the district’s strategic plan and the superintendent’s goals, too. (The board’s goals for the 2021-22 school year were approved at the Oct. 25 meeting; discussions about a five-pronged strategic plan draft are ongoing.)

“You don’t create a culture for the sake of creating a culture, you create a culture in order to try to achieve your mission and your vision,” Frisch said.

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