Schools chief Sirko reflects on long education career
Diana Sirko, career honors
• President, Colorado Association of School Executives, 2014-15
• Winner, Colorado CASE Colbert Cushing Award for Outstanding Contributions in Education, 2005
• Honorable Mention, Colorado Teacher of the Year, 1987
• Three-time nominee, Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics Education, 1984-87
• Nominee, Governor’s Award for Excellence in Teaching, 1986
• Nominee, Colorado Principal of Year, 1994
• Nominee, Colorado Superintendent of Year, 2006
Retirement has crossed the mind of Diana Sirko on occasion during her 41 years in public education, but her love for the profession and, most importantly, the students it benefits has kept her involved on one level or another.
“I’ve never thought of a school district as an organization with different hierarchies. Rather, we’re all working together on behalf of the kids, focusing on common goals and creating a successful learning environment in the classroom,” Sirko said as she prepared to move on to yet another adventure in education after four years as superintendent of the Roaring Fork School District.
Though she is leaving the district office, Sirko plans to stay active with the Public Education and Business Coalition, which is developing a leadership program for school superintendents across the country, and will work as a contract consultant to Colorado school districts on different issues.
She also plans to help Colorado Mountain College with some grant writing, and she continues to teach education leadership programs as an adjunct faculty member for the college, as she has done since 1988. And she will continue to teach a leadership cohort in the Roaring Fork School District.
So her departure is anything but retirement.
In fact, the last time the “R” thought occurred to her was in 2012, after she’d spent three years as a deputy commissioner with the Colorado Department of Education in Denver, preceded by seven years as the highly respected superintendent of the Aspen School District.
Upon her return to the Roaring Fork Valley that summer, she got an urgent call from the neighboring school district, whose new superintendent, and soon to be Sirko’s successor, Rob Stein, had been called away due to a family emergency.
“It made a lot of sense,” said Sirko, who ended up taking the helm as superintendent of schools in Glenwood Springs, Carbondale and Basalt, while Stein eventually was able to rejoin the Roaring Fork School District team as assistant superintendent and chief academic officer.
“We already lived in the district, it was our home, and our own grandkids were entering school in the district,” said Sirko, who has lived in Basalt with her husband, longtime former Aspen High School football coach Mike Sirko, during her 13 years in the Roaring Fork Valley.
“I always wanted to work in this district anyway,” said the Denver native, whose grandmother was born in Glenwood Springs in 1904, giving her a deep connection to the Roaring Fork Valley. “In fact, it was the first place I applied for a teaching job.”
In those days, there were typically 30 applicants for every teacher’s position, said Sirko, who earned her bachelor’s degree in biology with a minor in chemistry from the University of Northern Colorado.
She wasn’t hired in the Roaring Fork Valley but began her career instead in 1975 as a middle school science teacher in Gunnison. She taught for 13 years in Gunnison, Montrose and Delta counties before taking her first administrative job as supervisor of staff development in the Colorado Springs School District 11.
After earning a master’s degree from the University of Colorado in educational technology and earning her schools administration certification, she spent six years as an elementary school principal in Douglas County and was assistant superintendent and acting superintendent for Falcon School District in 1996-97.
Sirko also earned a doctorate in educational leadership from CU-Denver in 1999.
The transition from the classroom to the district office was difficult, as it is for most educators who make that move, Sirko said.
“It’s the day-to-day relationship with the students that you miss the most, because you feel like you’re really making a difference in their lives and giving them that confidence to succeed,” she said.
It was also around that time that she toyed with the idea of retiring.
“I remember when I hit 27 years and thinking maybe I’ll stop after 30,” she said. “But I just loved it too much.”
Sirko went on to serve as deputy superintendent of instruction in Colorado Springs before finally making her way to the Roaring Fork Valley in 2003 as superintendent of Aspen schools.
Moving from a district of 32,000 students to one of just 1,500 had its challenges, she said. And, similar to her entry into the Roaring Fork School District years later, the Aspen district also had experienced some upheaval in the district office.
“I had worked in small districts before as a teacher but not as small as Aspen,” Sirko said. “In Colorado Springs, we had a lot of different people to divide tasks. But when you’re a superintendent in a small district, you have to know something about everything.”
Although her own three children were grown and away at college when she and Mike came to the Roaring Fork Valley, a son and his family now live here.
“We loved our years in Aspen. The community has always been very supportive, just as it has here (in the Roaring Fork district),” Sirko said. “The valley is much the same in a lot of ways, and there are a lot of just down-to-earth, genuine people.”
After Sirko decided earlier this year to step down as Roaring Fork School District superintendent a year ahead of schedule, Mike got a job as head football coach at Grand Junction High School.
“My new job will require a lot of travel to and from Texas, so I also needed easier access to the airport,” Sirko said of the direct flights from Grand Junction to that state.
She certainly left her mark on Roaring Fork schools in just four years at the helm.
“I am most proud of what we have done to change literacy instruction in the elementary schools, the increased strategies that we have employed for our second-language learners … and the great gains we have seen for our students as a result of those changes,” she said.
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