You can't believe what this guy can do!" Mike Poore, the Colorado Springs School District 11 deputy superintendent, tells me.
Poore spent 23 of his 27 professional years working his way up the D-11 ladder, from teacher and coach to administrator. He's saved a high school, been named all-state basketball coach, pioneered innovative public-private partnerships in schools, and led the painful process of closing schools with compassion.
But Poore isn't talking about himself. He's talking about Steve Jessop, D-11's high school auditorium manager.
Back when Poore was principal of Mitchell High School (1997-2002), Jessop worked for Poore. Jessop, Poore says, is just amazing with lights, so Poore fought for years to have him named auditorium manager. He continued pushing, even after he took a job in Denver as superintendent of the Sheridan School District from 2003 to 2007.
Persistence paid off.
"That impacts every single high school performance in those auditoriums," Poore says, enthusiastically. "Man, I feel good about that!"
Yes, the little things do count to Poore. And the big things, too.
Poore wanted to be in charge of the very biggest things in D-11. He twice applied to become superintendent, only to be passed over. But this spring, Poore will move on to become superintendent of Bentonville Public Schools in Arkansas. Poore's departure comes at a hard time for D-11, which is facing state budget cuts that threaten to bloody its bottom line.
It'd be a good time for a hero. But this time, it won't be Poore.
Back in 2009, Poore was trying to do the right thing when he agreed to be the lead man for the closing or repurposing of nine schools. He believes it was best for kids. Instead of putting money into buildings, D-11 could put it into teachers, and when budget cuts came — and by golly, did they — D-11 could avoid furloughs that cut into kids' education.
But shutting down neighborhood schools hurts, and Poore doesn't look back on the very public process fondly. He remembers a pain in his side every time he spoke on the subject. He wondered how things could have been different.
"In some ways, I feel like if I had been selected superintendent back in the Sharon Thomas time [the former superintendent was fired in 2006] when I applied, that we wouldn't have been there," he says. "Part of the closure was declining enrollment ... because we're losing out to other options. Yes, there is a migration out east, but the second thing is, we're losing out to some competitors. We lose more kids to District 20 than we should; we lose kids to some private schools; we lose kids to charter schools, we lose kids to homeschool. And one of the things I think I've always done well in every setting, is to build enrollment."
At the conclusion of that 2009 closure process, Poore found out that he again had lost his bid for D-11 superintendent, this time to Nicholas Gledich of Orlando, Fla.
"It happened on the same night," Poore remembers. "So, you're sitting here and hearing all the board members talk about that they've just selected Dr. Gledich as the superintendent, and then you know that in 15 minutes, you're going to be up in front trying to finalize this school closure business. ...
"I love D-11. I love Colorado Springs. It sometimes felt like that love wasn't coming back."
To his credit, part of what got Poore this new job was the work he did even after that painful night. Poore's continued bringing private and nonprofit dollars and expertise into D-11. Galileo School of Math and Science has partnered with Colorado Springs Conservatory, which provides theater and music programs. Jack Swigert Aerospace Academy works with the Space Foundation. Irving Pathways Academy leans on the Greater Colorado Springs Chamber of Commerce, Colorado Springs Regional Economic Development Corp. and The Broadmoor.
Focusing on kids
"In my world," Poore says, "you don't spend any time talking about what's screwed up. I think it's counterproductive. I know everyone says you've got to be real, but I think you end up being just as real by focusing on the positives — and it gets you there faster."
Poore has a good record of fixing the screwed-up stuff. When he took over as Mitchell's principal, he was told the school, plagued by gang problems and declining enrollment, would be a charter in one year if it didn't shape up. Poore turned that ship around, he says, just by being everywhere. He walked the halls, went to the games, even visited the churches.
"When I was a principal, I felt like I knew every single kid in my school — 1,500 kids," Poore says. "That's what it has to be. That's how you make a big place feel smaller; that's how you make someone feel like they're connected. And where we have problems sometimes in education, that's it."
Poore won't be here to help save D-11 from more budget-slashing, but he thinks Gledich and the board have been doing a good job so far making ends meet. And he has some advice for all of them: Show the community that good schools are worth paying for, that they attract jobs and make neighborhoods.
"It's a shame," he says. "I'm not sure everyone understands the value of a really strong educational setting."