August 14, 2015

New Aspen High principal enters challenging environment

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Tharyn Mulberry, the new principal at Aspen High School.

Courtesy photo

Tharyn Mulberry, the new principal at Aspen High School.

ASPEN – The new principal at Aspen High School knows he is walking into a troubled situation as he takes over the reins from departed Principal Kim Martin, who left unexpectedly at the end of the 2014-15 school year and whose tenure at the school was marked by a measure of unhappiness among some teachers.

But Tharyn Mulberry, who comes to Aspen from a career in the Pueblo municipal school district, is confident he can turn around whatever bad feelings might be held over from the past six years, during which time four different people have occupied the principal’s office (not including Mulberry).

“At every school,” he said, “there’s always a backstory, whatever happened in the past, past grievances.”

But Mulberry, who is 45 and married with two kids, told Aspen Journalism in a recent interview, “You can’t solve past grievances.”

Mulberry said he expects there will be talks with teachers, or even students and parents, that might center on the past.

“I think you’d be foolish not to listen to what happened,” he continued, explaining that listening is the way to accumulate information about potential pitfalls as well as possible beneficial outcomes that may have arisen from circumstances prior to his taking over the school’s administration.

“It should inform your judgment when you’re making decisions about processes,” as a way of figuring out “how to proceed” in situations that might reflect those past problems or resonate out of past grievances, Mulberry said.

“But,” he said, “I don’t want to do an autopsy on what went on before.”

Instead, he has been concentrating on making sure the registration of students for the fall semester goes smoothly (school starts the week of Aug. 24), getting to know teachers and administrators, learning about the district budget and his own building budget and getting set for a public meet-and-greet event today at Aspen High School.

A troubled atmosphere?

The troubled atmosphere at Aspen High School, however deep or shallow it may be, did not just focus on Martin, according to observers.

Also departing unexpectedly in June was Assistant Principal Mark Grice, along with a popular assistant superintendent, Julia Roark. The departures left behind a cloud of concern on the part of some parents and teachers about staff morale and relations between teachers and administrators in the Aspen School District.

A couple of teachers and a librarian, who were leaving their jobs at the end of the year, informed the school board by letter that there were serious problems at the district administration level.

In those letters, librarian Lauren Cassatt and longtime teachers Kirk Gregory and Andy Popinchalk pointed directly at Superintendent John Maloy as the main underlying cause of a growing atmosphere of fearful distrust of the administration, disrespect for teachers and a bullying style of management that contributed to their decision to leave their jobs.

“I have seen my colleagues be disparaged by administration without acknowledging the wisdom, creativity, love for the students and loyalty my friends have exhibited over their combined 66 years of teaching at Aspen High School,” Cassatt wrote about Gregory and Popinchalk.

The apparent unhappiness on the part of some teachers was reflected in the 2015 results of an annual statewide survey of teachers, called the TELL survey (available on the Colorado Department of Education website, www.cde.state.co.us), largely concerning the treatment of teachers by administrators, a perceived lack of enforcement of student codes of conduct and a lack of respect on the part of administrators for teachers’ abilities and experience in dealing with the daily education of the student body.

Maloy, in a written statement to Aspen Journalism, discounted the importance of the TELL survey, the letters to the school board last spring and of a “no confidence” vote by teachers in 2014 concerning the job performances of both Martin and Grice.

Maloy wrote that his administration has taken steps to remedy any unhappiness on the part of teachers.

Those steps included numerous meetings involving Maloy, various teachers and administrators, the Aspen Education Association (essentially, the teachers’ union), and members of the school board, among others.

According to Maloy, his goal was to “create a more cohesive team and a respectful and professional work environment at Aspen High School,” by adding new members to the “leadership team” of the teaching staff, known as the Instructional Leadership Academy.

The Instructional Leadership Academy, he wrote, came up with a mission statement that reads: “We are a representative system that continually engages in reflection and communication to cultivate a healthy school environment.”

Problems being addressed

In responses to a series of questions sent to the school board — responses that were an amalgamation of statements from individual board members assembled and written by board President Sandra Peirce — the school board did not directly address the accusations against Maloy.

Instead, the board’s responses referred to measures taken by the board and the administration to deal with the perception of low teacher morale in some areas.

“We are hopeful that the new high school administrative team, working in tandem with staff, will develop and consistently implement improvements in this area,” Peirce wrote in her responses. “It is our expectation that the new high school administration will develop a productive professional relationship with the leadership team and the teaching staff as a basis for continuing this work.”

Regarding the TELL survey results, Peirce conceded that it indicates there is trouble at the school in some areas, but expressed the hope that the new administration team at the high school will be able to resolve any lingering difficulties.

Aside from the letters written by Cassatt, Gregory and Popinchalk, and statements made by them to Aspen Journalism, no teachers have spoken out publicly concerning Maloy’s job performance.

Some teachers have indicated agreement with the complaints but have asked to remain anonymous out of fear of reprisals.

According to Steve Heldt, president of the Aspen Education Association, “The (Aspen Education Association) has been working with building and district-level administrators as well as the board of education to address teacher concerns by implementing action plans to create a more open, honest, collaborative and cooperative professional work environment at Aspen High School. The (Aspen Education Association) is pleased with the progress we have made over the past years and looks forward to continuing our work with the new high school administrators this coming year.”

The new guy

Regardless of the troubled situation he is stepping into, Mulberry feels he is well prepared for whatever comes his way.

Though he recently has worked in an urban school system, he grew up in Lamar a town in the extreme southeastern section of the state, and feels more comfortable in a small-town environment than a big city.

His parents, he said, were “flower children” of the 1960s, and his family moved around a lot, including a stint as “back-to-the-land” farmers.

After earning his teaching degree at Colorado State University-Pueblo, he said, he took off for about a year and moved to Summit County to be a ski bum, working odd jobs and living a bohemian lifestyle before returning to Pueblo to get a job as a teacher and, ultimately, a school administrator, and to rejoin the woman who would become his wife and mother to his children.

Mulberry said he had already considered applying for the Aspen High School administrator’s position once about six years ago, when it was advertised as open, but since he had only recently begun working as principal at Centennial High School he decided he should stick with it.

When the Aspen High School job came open last spring, Mulberry said, “I jumped at it.”

As a former International Baccalaureate program instructor himself (world history for juniors, history of the Americas for seniors) as well as having had experience with Advanced Placement courses, he was happy to learn that both are present in the Aspen High School curriculum and looks forward to working with teachers in both disciplines.

“I think I’m really good at communicating,” Mulberry said, adding that “one of my goals is clarity in communication,” in his dealings with teachers as well as students and their parents.

“I just think it’s a great opportunity,” he said of the job, calling the Aspen School District “a storied district” known for progressive educational ideas and programs, in particular mentioning the ExEd program, which is something “they aren’t doing anywhere else” that he has worked.

As for his reception so far, he said, “Everybody’s been very welcoming, very forthcoming.”

For instance, he said, soon after he arrived, he walked into his office to find a tabletop sculpture of a thick tree branch with a rainbow trout arched around it and a fly line and fly dangling near the trout’s mouth.

“That’s never happened to me before,” he said, with a tone of wonderment in his voice.

He also had praise for the talented teachers he has met so far, and for “the very involved parents and the talented and engaged students. That’s the excitement I’m getting when I speak to teachers. Most of them, when they talk to me, are excited about where we’re going.”

Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism is collaborating with The Aspen Times on education coverage. The Times published this story on Tuesday, August 12.

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