Aspen schools’ Diana Sirko is off to Denver
Aspen Times Weekly
Aspen, CO Colorado
ASPEN – Reflecting on her seven years as superintendent of the Aspen School District, Diana Sirko uses one word over and over and over again: community.
She doesn’t necessarily mean the school community; she means the Aspen community. And she uses the word with pride and certain sense of ownership. Sirko is, after all, a public figure in both the school community and the Aspen community.
“Aspen is a wonderful community, truly unique,” says Sirko, who will leave the Aspen School District in June to become one of two deputy commissioners of education for the state of Colorado. “I am continually amazed by how the community will step up for what it believes and what it wants.”
Her admiration for the four schools she’s overseen – Aspen Elementary School, Aspen Middle School, Aspen High School and the Aspen Community School – is perhaps best exemplified in one simple statement:
“I cannot tell you how many times I have walked down the halls and thought, “I wish my kids had been able to go to school here.” Sirko is a mother of three and admits her kids went to fine schools, but perhaps not as fine as Aspen’s.
Of course she also concedes that the community – one of the main reasons she has loved her job at the helm of Aspen’s school – has at times been her greatest challenge.
When she first proposed in 2006 that her husband, Mike Sirko, replace a popular but unsuccessful football coach, many community members smelled a conflict of interest. The controversy died down quickly, however, when Mike Sirko proved hugely successful and guided the AHS football team to a second-place league finish and a berth in the state 2A playoffs.
But the football flap wasn’t all, Diana Sirko recalls.
“Over the course of my first few years, we had some serious budget cuts to make,” she explains, admitting that more cuts are likely on the immediate and distant horizon. “It was a challenge, because the community was demanding. People wanted to know what we were doing, why we were doing it, how we were going to make sure these kids got what they deserved.
“And once we could articulate that, the community stepped up to bridge the gap – booster clubs, fundraisers, anything to get the job done.”
This, says Sirko, was perhaps the biggest surprise of all: The Aspen that she knows today is not the one she expected to find when she first arrived here.
Sirko was hired in 2003 to replace then-superintendent Tom Farrell. A lifelong educator, she had most recently been deputy superintendent of Colorado Springs School District 11, one of the largest districts in the state with 32,000 students and 66 schools.
“With all the different stuff you hear about Aspen, I wasn’t sure what to expect,” she recalls. “It’s been such a pleasant surprise, though, to learn what a wonderful, cohesive, supportive community it is.
“And it was a pleasant surprise to realize how many people’s children do go to school, how many parents have gone to school here, grandparents … it’s not that much different than any other Western Colorado town.”
But the work involved with being top dog of a town’s only school district goes far beyond family ties and community bonds.
Sirko’s tenure saw construction of the new Aspen Middle School and an addition to the elementary school. There were also improvements to the athletic complex, and bond measures for technology and transportation. She is proud, she says, of the increasing percentage of Aspen graduates who continue their education at a college or university – not to mention the fact that three-quarters of all AHS juniors and seniors are enrolled in the school’s International Baccalaureate program.
“One thing that’s true here, that isn’t true across the state of Colorado, is that people are willing to go the distance to get what they want,” she says. “People here have high expectations, but they are willing to back them up with their time and energy.
“I think every time we have listened to what people want, and we have respected what they were asking for, the results have been positive. Communication has been key for me.”
It is a trait that her successor, assistant superintendent John Maloy, admires greatly.
“Diana has always been a good listener,” he says. “She has this quality of being attentive to someone’s concerns in an active way without offering advice unless advice is what the person is seeking.
“Plus, her commitment to putting kids first is something I’ve learned a great deal from. Irrespective of the situation or outside factors influencing decisions, Diana always put the learning of children first.”
This careful balance of personality, professionalism and passion is perhaps the reason the 57-year-old Sirko was appointed to the state post, where she will head implementation of new state instructional standards over the next two years and assessment efforts.
“There are a lot of changes on the horizon for education in Colorado,” says Sirko, who will split her time between Denver and Aspen; husband Mike will continue to coach Aspen football. “My job will be to help ensure those changes are made in a way that works for everyone – students, teachers, parents, legislators. It will be a challenge, but I am ready.”
In fact, Sirko is looking forward to giving back to the education system that has given her so much over the years. Sirko is a native Coloradan and a graduate of Denver Public Schools. She received both her undergraduate and graduate degrees from Colorado’s public universities, and her career as an educator in Colorado has spanned 35 years.
“It was a difficult decision because I really love what I am doing now. But at the same time, this is a unique opportunity to have an impact on the entire state education system, and I just couldn’t pass that up,” says Sirko. “But I will certainly miss walking down the halls and really knowing the kids, the families. I will miss that connection.”
Sirko hopes, however, that her new job will be the best of both worlds.
“I always kind of feel like being on the Western Slope – with all those big school systems along the Front Range, [it feels as though] we have less of a say,” she says, noting that of 178 school districts in Colorado, more than 100 have 500 students or fewer. “Hopefully I can lend a voice to these smaller districts, to help places like Aspen be heard, because I care so much about this community.”
When Diana Sirko leaves her position as superintendent of the Aspen School District in June, John Maloy will step into her shoes.
As assistant superintendent of the ASD for the past three years, Maloy is familiar with the local schools, the school board and the Aspen community. But there will be challenges in his new role, and opportunities for change.
With this in mind, The Aspen Times asked Maloy a few questions about his new job.
AT: Have your years as assistant superintendent prepared you for this promotion? How?
JM: Yes, as well as my previous experiences in other district office positions, including my service as a superintendent in a district of 11,000 students and 21 schools.
This particular experience has allowed me the opportunity to work closely with the Board of Education so we do not need to spend a great deal of time getting to know one another. Also, having worked in the district has allowed me to observe the implementation of policy governance in action and to gain a clear understanding of the district’s overall operation and areas where improvements can be made.
AT: How will your approach to the job of superintendent differ from Diana Sirko’s? How will it be similar?
JM: Our leadership style may be different primarily because our personalities are somewhat different; however, our philosophy about student learning, professional development, best practices, etc., is very much the same.
AT: What is the greatest challenge you see for the Aspen School District in the next five years?
JM: The greatest challenge facing the district is the state’s financial picture and its direct impact on the district’s budget. The discussions at the state level regarding potential future budget deficits and reduced state support to school districts have the potential of placing school districts in a position of having to make deep cuts that will impact successful programs and outstanding teachers.
AT: What do you expect to find most rewarding about your new role at the Aspen School District?
JM: The opportunity to work more closely with students, teachers, parents, and community members. In my role as the superintendent, I will be able to be more visible in the schools and the community, which will provide me the opportunity to get to know people on a more personal level.
– Jeanne McGovern
Let’s make some skiing predictions. I made my X Games snowboarding predictions a day earlier and remain only mildly lukewarm in terms of confidence, but maybe I’ll feel better about the skiers.