Heads of the class: Aspen’s public schools welcome three new leaders | AspenTimes.com

Heads of the class: Aspen’s public schools welcome three new leaders

Cover design: Hailey McDonald Cover photo: Rustin

ASPEN – As the Aspen public schools opened their doors to students this past week, there wasn’t much quiet about it: elementary school kids squealed in delight on the playground; middle-schoolers slammed their lockers and roamed the halls in packs; high school students hit the books and the playing fields.

“It was probably your typical back to school,” says Aspen School Board President Charla Belinski, whose kids have grown up through the ranks of the Aspen schools. “Loud, energetic, exciting …”

Surprisingly quiet, however, were the changes happening in the administrative offices.

In a school district with fewer than a dozen upper-level administrators, Aspen filled three vacancies with new or different educators: Superintendent Dr. John Maloy, Assistant Superintendent Dr. Julia Roark and Aspen High School Principal Art Abelmann.

It is a rare and unique changing of the guard, as these three hold what many would consider the district’s top jobs, with perhaps the most public interaction and community scrutiny.

“These are big jobs, important jobs,” admits Maloy, who took the reins as superintendent from Diana Sirko in June, after serving three years as assistant superintendent. “And there will be a learning curve, as we learn what is expected of us by the board, staff, students and parents. It is a change we will all have to adjust to.”

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Yet it is a change unlikely to shake up the school community, all three contend. In separate interviews, Maloy, Roark and Abelmann each said they believe the Aspen School District is on track and doing its job well.

All three see room for improvement – “tweaks,” in their own words. They acknowledge the ongoing budget crisis and fear the potential financial impact of three state measures – amendments 60 and 61 and proposition 101 – on the November ballot. But beyond that, Maloy, Roark and Abelmann seem excited by the idea of a new team at the helm.

“We all have our strengths,” says Roark, who was most recently in an administrative position with a school district outside Albuquerque, N.M. “And I think we are all experienced enough to recognize these and try to play into them, while learning from what one another brings to the table.”

Abelmann, who came to Aspen High after serving as a teacher and later an administrator in New Hampshire, agrees.

“From what I can tell so soon in the game, this is a great team,” he says. “I think we all work from the same philosophy, and we will begin to gel as we work together under that philosophy.”

The Aspen Board of Education, which is essentially the boss of this new trio of administrators, is similarly at ease with this seemingly major transition.

“I think we have the right people in place to usher us into the future,” says Belinski, acknowledging the challenges that lie ahead and commending the “already outstanding” school board, outgoing administration and school community.

“John, Julia and Art bring different things to the table,” Belinski said. “But one thing they share, which is what we look for in our leaders, is a true love and passion for what’s important – people, relationships, the kids.”

In fact, all three administrators refer to themselves as people-persons over paper-pushers, and teachers rather than bureaucrats.

“The kids are our most important asset,” explains Maloy. “If we can stay focused on that, we will succeed. It’s just a matter of navigating the seas that surround the kids.”

As such, the trio’s biggest challenge may lie in the intricacies of their personalities and leadership styles, as well as those they’ll work with and serve. But as seasoned educators, all three agree they have the tools to work through the rough patches.

To Abelmann, a simple analogy says it all:

“All the kids in Aspen ride the same school bus – K through 12,” says Abelmann, shaking his head and clearly amazed by this often-overlooked fact of life in the small Aspen School District. “All those different kids on one bus, and it works … they get along. You wouldn’t find that in many other places. Clearly, something is working right here, and it is our job to keep that up and make it even better.”

With that in mind, the Aspen Times Weekly spent some time getting to know Maloy, Roark and Abelmann – where they came from, why they chose Aspen (and Aspen chose them), how they see the coming year, and years to come.

John Maloy’s life path could easily have taken him in the exact opposite direction of where he is today, serving as superintendent of the Aspen School District in the heart of Colorado’s Rocky Mountains.

“I had this desire to be part of the bureaucracy in Washington, D.C., to be part of the political scene,” admits the soft-spoken Maloy, an Indiana native who has worked on three different political campaigns and met five United States presidents, from Jimmy Carter to Bill Clinton. “I thought that’s where I was headed in life.”

But the tables were turned.

“In a nutshell, the candidate I was working for lost and I was out of a job; the easy avenue to D.C. was gone … a few days later, I got a call about a teaching job from the school where I did my student teaching,” says Maloy, who studied education in college and always considered it his back-up plan. “I took the job, because I needed a job and had always thought about teaching. And then, as a history teacher, it all kind of came together for me.”

So out went Maloy’s dreams of D.C.; in was a dream of helping kids achieve their dreams through education. Maloy did this as a middle school teacher, a middle school principal and as one of the people behind the development of a “21st century school” in his home state.

“In Indiana at the time, there was no school choice. So we had to create it,” explains Maloy, adding that the end result of the effort was a two-school campus with a progressive educational philosophy. “The brick and mortar were the easy part of the equation; the energy it took to determine what would happen within those walls was the hard part.”

Maloy continued to face challenges in his career – before coming to Aspen, he oversaw a district of 11,000 students and 21 schools where he had to cut $4.5 million from one year’s budget – but never lost sight of why he was an educator and not a politician.

“It’s not easy to work in a place that is organizationally dysfunctional and where real changes needs to be made,” says Maloy, the father of daughter who is now in graduate school. “But when you step out from the behind the desk, when you interact with the kids and the parents, you remember that what is important and why tough decisions need to be made.”

Of course in Aspen, the challenges are different. According to Maloy, who earned both an education specialist degree and an educational doctorate from Indiana University, the Aspen district is healthy and in need of “tweaks and fine-tuning” rather than a complete overhaul. And while the budget crisis is very real, it is being faced by an educated and passionate group of teachers, parents and community members – a group that can be a challenge in and of itself.

“The Aspen school community and community at large is unique in its involvement. There are challenges in that, but they are good challenges. I enjoy these types of challenges,” says Maloy. “I am relieved not to be an administrator who just sits behind a desk and deals solely with the business and bureaucracy of education.”

In fact, in the days before Maloy took over as superintendent in June of this year, The Aspen Times asked him what he expected to find most rewarding about his new role at the schools.

Maloy, who had served three years as assistant superintendent under Diana Sirko before being hired to fill her shoes, responded: “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.”

Now, several months into the job and with all four schools – Aspen High, Aspen Middle, Aspen Elementary and the K-8 Aspen Community School -back in session, Maloy still believes the relationships he will build as superintendent are the cornerstone of the job.

“This is a district that works collaboratively,” says Maloy, who spent the first day of school roaming the halls of Aspen Elementary; two days later he joined Aspen Middle School parents on the playground for a back-to-school barbecue. “I believe we all want to put the kids first, and I think we all know that means we have to work together.”

As second-in-command of the Aspen School District, Julia Roark is both confident in her ability to do the job and surprised at the direction her career has taken.

“If anybody had ever said I would be in school administration, I would have said ‘no way,'” says Roark, a Missouri native and engaging conversationalist. “I am a teacher at heart – I was a first-grade teacher; a reading teacher. I just loved everything about it. You know it’s a sign of loving what you do when the workday just flies by.

“But I also knew – and people kept telling me – that I could have a bigger effect and make a bigger difference if I took on a bigger role.”

Today, that role is assistant superintendent of the Aspen School District, a position she started in early July when now-Superintendent John Maloy stepped up to fill the job vacated by Diana Sirko.

Assistant superintendent in Aspen is, by her own estimation, the perfect fit for Roark: It blends together the state she loves and where much of her family lives, a small school community and the chance to have an impact in a field she is passionate about.

“I think of my being here as one of those times that things just come together perfectly,” says Roark, who received her doctorate from the University of Northern Colorado and went on to teach in Littleton and help open a Douglas County school as assistant principal. “I began my career in Colorado and always knew I’d be back.”

It was also during her tenure at Colorado schools that Roark began thinking beyond the classroom, thanks in part to those principals who mentored her and the other educators she worked with.

“I got a lot of encouragement to take my career in a different direction; to go into administration,” explains Roark, a married mother of a grown daughter and teenage son. “I think – I hope – it’s because of my ability to see the big picture, to see how things fit together, to see how people can work together toward a positive end.”

These are skills she honed while in those Denver-area schools, as well as during a brief stint as an elementary school principal in a large, urban district in Forth Worth, Texas, and, most recently, with a district near Albuquerque, N.M.

“Texas was overwhelming at first, quite a shock – management, discipline, scheduling,” says Roark, who relocated from Texas for her husband’s job, spending the past years in New Mexico, with the final four in the central office as a K-12 Professional Development and Instruction Specialist. “But I realized that administrators can and do have an effect on kids.

“These roles offer a chance to work with people, to work together, and that’s all for the good of the children. I am not a large-and-in-charge person; that’s not who I am, and it’s not who you necessarily need to be to get the job done.”

In fact, as assistant superintendent of the Aspen schools, Roark is charged with a sort of quiet authority. Her duties include overseeing curriculum reviews, instructional initiatives, assessment, overall school improvement – and just being out on campus.

“Part of my deal was that I cannot be in an office all day, talking on the phone, working on the computer,” she says. “I have to interact with people, and the kids. It is my goal to know everybody on this campus.

“Part of my mission is to be an advocate for the students, parents, teachers and community. And I can’t be helpful to them unless I know them.”

In Aspen, she believes that is an attainable goal.

“I have been really impressed – and surprised in a good way – by these schools and the entire community, and the community’s support of this school district,” says Roark, who acknowledges the bar is set pretty high for her and her fellow administrators.

“I certainly want to do things right,” she says. “And I have confidence in my ability to figure things out, or work with other people to figure things out, or ask for help when I can’t figure things out.

“I truly believe this position is a perfect fit for me and, hopefully, for Aspen.”

Aspen High School’s new principal is a realist. He knows the challenges of running a school filled with teenagers and those who teach teenagers; he can see the pitfalls in being the “new guy”; he accepts the challenge of working in a school with high expectations from students, parents and the community.

Perhaps most important, Art Abelmann has a sense of humor and a natural patience about it all.

“We’re in the honeymoon period, that’s for sure,” laughs Abelmann, who filled the post of principal when longtime Aspen educator Charlie Anastas retired after the 2009-10 school year. “I’m the new guy, and I know that. Everyone’s trying to figure out who I am, what my intentions are … students, teachers, parents. I appreciate that. They need to get to know me, and I need to get to know them.”

For his part, Abelmann has no immediate plans for big changes. This decision is, in part, because he sees no need at Aspen’s only public high school.

“For me, personally, it’s not about change,” Abelmann explains, expressing his hope that as the first set of “fresh eyes” on AHS in a while, that he might be able to see things in a new light – good and bad. “To use an analogy, this is a ship that’s sailing pretty straight. It might wiggle a little here and there, and that might need tweaking, but nothing is broken.

“With this in mind, I feel I have the time to sit back a little and communicate, learn and reflect.”

It’s easy to believe the sincerity of Abelmann, who comes across as the perfect cross between coach and professor – big and burly in a plaid shirt, he looks like and has the mannerisms of a football coach, yet he comes from a privileged educational background of boarding schools, Ivy League colleges (undergrad at Dartmouth; MBA from Babson), and the like. He’s also a skier and outdoorsman with a varied past – he was a firefighter out of college, and he left education to work in the private sector for a stint.

“I always knew I wanted to be an educator,” says Abelmann, a Boston native whose father is a retired Harvard professor of medicine. “But I also grew up knowing that other experiences only serve to make you a better educator.”

The New Hampshire town of Laconia has surely benefited from those experiences over the past 20 years. In those two decades, Abelmann worked as a teacher (high school math, economics and computer science); was a principal at an alternative school (“where the next step for the kids was juvenile hall”); and served as an assistant principal of a public high school.

In fact, Abelmann long thought of himself as a “career assistant principal” – an unusual ending point for a career, he admits, but one that he was comfortable with until recently.

“I worried about being an administrator and losing that connection with the kids,” says Abelmann, the father of a college-aged daughter. “And I didn’t want to climb the ladder to just climb it. I wasn’t going to just go anywhere to advance my career – it had to be something special.”

In Aspen, he thinks he’s found what he’s looking for.

“Being a principal is a marriage,” explains Abelmann, adding that he was not seeking a job in Colorado, but when he saw the advertisement for a principal at Aspen High, “things began to click.” “I wouldn’t have changed jobs, relocated, started this new adventure unless I knew it was the right fit.”

Toward that end, Abelmann visited Aspen twice before accepting the position; school officials – including Superintendent John Maloy and AHS assistant principal Jeff Kraunz – paid a visit to Laconia.

“I was interviewing Aspen as much as they were interviewing me,” Abelmann asserts. “And I think what we both found was that it was a good match.”

Among the selling points for Abelmann were the school’s size, the community support and the district’s unique programs and opportunities. And, though he wondered about Aspen’s wealthy reputation, he was pleased to realize the community was full of “regular” kids.

“Like everyone outside of Aspen, I was enamored by the idea of the town,” he says. “But what I learned, immediately, is that Aspen is an amazingly great, and amazingly real town.

“And, to be honest, kids are kids. Sure, the kids here are generally exceptional. But they are still kids, and that’s what I’m all about.”

jmcgovern@aspentimes.com