Douglas County Schools

Interim superintendent eyes culture change

Q&A with Erin Kane

Posted 9/25/16

Erin Kane took over as the interim superintendent of the Douglas County School District on Sept. 1.

Kane, a Colorado native with an engineering degree in applied mathematics and computer science from the University of Colorado, helped found …

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Douglas County Schools

Interim superintendent eyes culture change

Q&A with Erin Kane


Erin Kane took over as the interim superintendent of the Douglas County School District on Sept. 1.

Kane, a Colorado native with an engineering degree in applied mathematics and computer science from the University of Colorado, helped found American Academy, a charter school with campuses in Castle Pines and Parker. Executive director since 2009, she pointed to her leadership of the school's community in her bid to win the job.

In July, Superintendent Elizabeth Fagen left the district to take the same position in the Humble Independent School District near Houston. While Kane has signed on for a year-term in the interim, a search for a permament replacement is ongoing.

Colorado Community Media sat down with Kane last week for a question-and-answer session.

Tell us about your background.

I grew up here in Colorado. I went to Arapahoe High School and then I went on to the University of Colorado in Boulder. I went to the engineering college, where I got a degree in applied mathematics and computer science. I spent about 10 years in the high-tech industry. I lived through the bubble and the burst, which was a very interesting experience, as you can imagine. When our kids were born, the wheels came off at home. My husband is also a full-time engineer, so we made the decision that I would stay at home, which I did for a very brief period of time. Then, I decided to start a charter school.

How did you get involved with American Academy?

People don't start charter schools, certainly not in Douglas County, because there aren't good choices around them. It's because they want something very specific. So, that was our case. We had great neighborhood schools in Castle Pines North, which is where I've lived for 18 years, but we wanted something different for our kids that included a STEM emphasis. Both of us being engineers, we really felt the future of our country was in the ability to innovate and work in those STEM-career fields. So we started a charter school. We found a friend and another friend and after a while we hadabout 100 people. American Academy opened up in Lone tree in 2005, with about 390 kids. The rest is kind of history.

How did you end up being executive director of the school?

As for how I ended up working at the charter school, that was never my intention. I was just a volunteer that helped start it and I was hoping to just pat it on the head and send it on its way. But there came a time when we had a major transition in leadership and the board of directors asked me to step in, just for a few minutes to sort of get everything under control and hold it together, and I guess I was still there up until (the beginning of this school year).I fell in love with the staff. I fell in love with the work. I fell in love with the kids.

What made you decide to apply for the interim superintendent position?

I have been watching our school district from the sideline for a number of years. I have been perfectly content running American Academy and doing my thing in a very happy place with happy kids and happy teachers. But continuing to watch it and seeing more and more drama unfold at the school district, I felt more compelled to want to get involved. This is my community. I have lived here for 20 years. My children grew up here. I love Douglas County. I love this community. I have been part of this school district for 12 years. I was having a hard time sleeping at night and just standing by. So I guess I raised my hand and volunteered to help if I could.

Were you concerned about the divisiveness of the school board and community?

Of course I was. My family and I made a very conscious decision. We knew what I was getting into. But, I signed up for an interim basis and I'm going to do everything I can to leave the district better than I found it and restore a positive culture to Douglas County. I'm here because I love this community. Being superintendent was not something that I have ever in a million years contemplated or sought in any kind of way.

What would make this period a success?

First and foremost, culture. That's why I have been going to all of the schools. You may have seen that I have been attempting to go to all 87 schools in five weeks. I'm about halfway through that process… It was very important to me because I wanted to hear from every school leader. What they feel like their challenges are. If they were king or queen for a day, what would they do? At the end of the day, everyone up here, we only have jobs because of the schools. We are here to do what is best for our kids. So I felt like I needed to hear from every one of them before jumping in and making decisions. That's been my No. 1 priority. To hear their voices and know what I need to address.

Can you describe what you mean by culture?

The community wants to know that their voices are heard. They want to know what kind of leader I'm going to be. So it's been very important to be able to talk to them about my style, which would include things like mistakes. I believe in a culture where making mistakes is perfectly fine. We're going to be here to help you own it and support you while your owning it and help you fix it and help you learn from it. Not to tear you down. Those kind of cultural things need to come all the way from the top down and they need to hear it from me.

How does coming from the charter world shape your perspective?

It's definitely a fresh perspective… I was already running a two-campus 2,000-kid, $17 million budget operation where I was responsible for everything a superintendent is responsible for, from academics, to operations to financial. So it was very much a very mini-school district. That experience, I think, is tremendously helpful. I do have that executive experience to be able to manage all of the aspects of a school organization. No. 2 is that fresh perspective, I have been in the district for 12 years so I do have that understanding of how Douglas County works. I have relationships with people in the district.

What else do you want people to know about you?

I'm really, really excited and I'm really optimistic. I can't even tell you how optimistic I am. Going to the schools has been amazing. The principals have felt so good about having voice. The schools voices are going to be heard and inform my decisions. I just want what is best for the kids and staff in this district, and I am convinced we are going to a very good place.


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Tom Horiagon

I certainly wish Erin Kane well in her efforts this year. However, "culture" may or may not be the root cause of the problems in Douglas County School District. It really depends on what one means by the word "culture".

The central mechanism by which DCSD schools are being caused to fail is under-funding. All the "reforms" such as pay-for-performance, vouchers, and a liberal charter policy are just means to the end of keeping taxes in local support of public education absurdly and embarrassingly low in one the nation's wealthiest counties. The cause of the under-funding may indeed be cultural if by that you mean the sort of anti-tax, privatize everything, nihilist, selfish, Trump-ian philosophy that is accepted as a mainstream, albeit minority, opinion among Douglas County voters.

It should be no surprise that public education will not perform optimally if the people who fund it and operate it believe that there should be no "public sector" other than the military. That public education can run effectively and stay out of the headlines is well-documented. Douglas County School District need look no farther than its adjacent neighbor to the north, Cherry Creek School District, to see that public education can work effectively. It does not take an engineer or a rocket scientist to determine the problem in Douglas County School District. The problem is a destructive political philosophy. And now that destructive influence is being reflected in the home prices of everyone in Douglas County, whether they have school age children or not.

Until the majority of citizens in Douglas County shout down the nihilistic minority, the money will not be raised, the Board of Education governance will not change, the teachers will continue to leave, and the school district will select failure despite its abundance of resources. The silence of the voters with common sense is the culture in Douglas County that needs to change.

Friday, September 30, 2016