A month after taking over the top leadership job in Aurora Public Schools, Superintendent Michael Giles says he’s working on being visible in schools and the community.
The Aurora district started classes Tuesday, and Giles has been greeting students and visiting classrooms.
Giles, who has a three-year, $285,000-per-year contract, was most recently the assistant superintendent of equity, culture, and community engagement for the neighboring Cherry Creek school district. He says he’s interested in fostering student and community engagement.
He doesn’t yet have answers to the big questions facing the district including the future of the previous administration’s Blueprint plan to deal with changing enrollment patterns. Giles said it was a thoughtful plan, but he’s evaluating if it still meets the community’s current needs.
In the first 90 days, Giles said he’s hoping to gather information to inform his longer-term plans.
The following Q&A has been lightly edited for clarity and length.
Why did you get into education?
I feel like I’ve been called to work with the youth and I was doing it as a corrections counselor but it got to the point where I felt like my work wasn’t effective in the way of prevention. It was more so working with students once they had already committed offenses and they were incarcerated and I wanted to get out on the preventative side. I felt the way I could do that was to go into educational counseling. At one time, I thought that I wanted to be a math teacher, years ago, and that didn’t end up manifesting. But I guess the education piece combined with my counseling background kind of led me back into the education world.
What made you want to take on this superintendent role?
Just living here in the city of Aurora for 25 years, I’ve been a member of this community for so long. I’ve participated in many leadership opportunities, a lot of local events and organizations and this just feels like home. I wasn’t necessarily looking to become a superintendent although I was an assistant superintendent in my previous district but when this one came up right here, in what I consider to be my home, it felt like a great fit.
Is there a particular achievement in that previous role as equity officer that you learned something from and you now think you can apply to your work here in Aurora?
I can name many but there are two that come to mind: The involvement of student voice. I ran several student issue groups and had many different opportunities to engage with students to ascertain what has their experience with school been? And what do they need to make it more meaningful? We use that to help create systems and structures for them to thrive.
The other piece is involvement of community. Bringing community voice in the space so they can also talk about what their experience with our district has been and what are the things that they need to feel that they have some agency in the learning of their children and the kids in the community.
As superintendent, how do you see your role in fostering a productive relationship between your district and the community?
I have to get out and be visible. It starts with me. I lead that effort on behalf of the district so I have to be visible. I have to be intentional about creating opportunities to engage with the community to be able to receive feedback. But also to educate the community because that goes both ways. As I model it, as the superintendent, there’s an expectation that that same kind of engagement goes through the leadership team and then also at specific sites, that our building leaders are finding creative and intentional ways to engage the community.
What do you see as the biggest challenges facing the district right now?
There’s so many. The first one that pops in my mind is safety. Always concerned about the safety of our children. To make sure not only that we have structural and other measures in place for their safety, but I want them to feel safe when they come to school. I want them to feel included in the school environment so that they feel available to actually take advantage of the academic opportunities and avail themselves to learning.
Another is mental and social emotional health. And that’s not just germane to Aurora Public Schools, but I think we’re seeing that across the nation. So how do we provide supports for our students to navigate if they are struggling with emotional concerns or mental health issues. What can be put in place to help them with that?
And then also just the teaching and learning. I won’t say it’s necessarily a concern, but it’s a huge focus of mine to show that we’re teaching at a very high level. We have high expectations and we’re providing the greatest opportunities for our students to learn.
One of the issues between the district and the previous superintendent seemed to be about teacher diversity. Do you think the district needs to take steps specifically to retain Black teachers? Would that look different than a broader push for teacher diversity?
I think that many of our districts across the nation are facing the same issue of hiring a diverse staff. I absolutely think that’s something I want to focus on here in Aurora. I think that my approach is hiring for greater diversity across the board and that includes, it’s not limited to, but it includes Black educators. But it also includes educators of many different identities, many different races and so forth.
Do you see any issues that are specific to one of those communities?
I think I need more time to assess and gather more data.
Aurora has one of the larger percentages of students learning English as a second language. What is your belief on what the district needs to be doing to ensure those students are also getting a good education?
We do need to be doing everything we can to ensure our students are having access to the greatest learning opportunities. In my short tenure, I would give myself some time to find out what is occurring right now. What supports, what structures do we have in place and those that are serving our students well, we’ll continue with, and if there’s opportunities to create other structures or supports, then we’ll look at that as well.
With regards to accountability, the Aurora district has one of the high schools that has been rated as low-performing for many years. Have you spent some time there yet, and what are your thoughts on the direction of that school?
I have not yet had an opportunity to spend time in the school yet, this being my fourth week. But what I can tell you, in talking to my chief of staff and my leadership team, I feel like there’s some really solid plans that are in place to elevate the learning and the outcomes for students at Aurora Central. And I will continue to dig into that and provide as much support as I can to make sure that that happens.
Anything else you want the community to know about you and your priorities?
There’s great talent in our school district. We have great community partnerships that I want to continue to leverage and push upon to help support and provide our students meaningful learning opportunities. I’m extremely passionate about that and engaging our community to educate our students and then also just elevating our student voice so that they have agency in what their experience looks like and how do we create meaningful opportunities for them.
Correction: This story has been updated to reflect that Giles said his priority is being visible, not to be invisible.
Yesenia Robles is a reporter for Chalkbeat Colorado covering K-12 school districts and multilingual education. Contact Yesenia at email@example.com.