Westminster leader named Colorado’s 2020 superintendent of the year

Pam Swanson, the longtime leader of the Westminster school district, has been named Colorado’s Superintendent of the Year for 2020 by the Colorado Association of School Executives.

Swanson has worked in the Westminster district since 1995 and served as superintendent since 2012.

Westminster Public Schools, a suburban district north of Denver, enrolls more than 9,200 students, of which about 84% are students of color, including about 75% Hispanic students.

In her time as leader of the district, Swanson has overseen the rollout of the district’s unique competency-based model. Instead of placing students in a grade level based on their age, this approach has students move from one level to the next throughout the year based on when they show they’ve learned the required content.

The district has attracted national attention for the model and has recently partnered with researchers to refine how it works and to take lessons learned to other schools and districts. Officials in Westminster believe the district is the largest in the country to move entirely to such a model.

The Westminster district got off a state watchlist for low-performing schools in 2018. District leaders have attributed recent academic improvements to the model, which was first introduced in the district about 10 years ago.

The association of school executives also cited the competency-based model and academic improvement in awarding Swanson the recognition.

“What’s especially unique and impressive about Pam is the unwavering commitment she demonstrated in transforming an entire district education system,” said Brenda Krage, president of the Colorado Association of Superintendents and Senior School Administrators, one of seven CASE departments. “WPS is now a national model for successful systemic change and the largest district in the country to be entirely competency-based.”

In 2018, the district’s model was also at issue when the district had to sign a settlement agreement after an investigation in which the U.S. Department of Justice claimed the district was in violation of non-discrimination laws for how it served English language learners. About 35% of the district’s students are identified as English learners, according to state numbers, although part of the federal complaint questioned whether the district was identifying all students who needed language instruction.

The district disputed the findings.

Similarly, the district has been at odds with the state over how to measure academic performance. Swanson and other district leaders have been vocal advocates for their model, which they say benefits disadvantaged students.

In a district statement, Swanson again made those points.

“I believe this recognition validates our competency-based system and our willingness to take on the status quo in public education,” she said. The competency-based system “is about equity in education and working to ensure that all students reach their full potential regardless of their background and circumstances.”