Dr. Mary Thurman, deputy superintendent of Colorado Springs School District 11 and an educator for the past 47 years, says that last year, a friend told her in passing “you’ll know” when it’s time to retire.
Thurman attests that’s exactly how it happened. “I remember waking up one day in 2017,” she says. “I wrote in my diary, I will retire in June 2018.”
That May during her review, she made the announcement to Dr. Nicholas Gledich, D-11’s superintendent, who then publicly announced her retirement in December 2017. Both Gledich and Thurman, who is the highest-ranking African-American in a diverse school district, will retire in June.
Reflecting on her last 16 years at D-11, Thurman says more work is needed to close the achievement gap in the city’s largest district, and she thinks that in order to do so, more people of color will need to take leadership positions and become involved in all roles in the district — she says it’s been a challenge for her to attract other passionate people of color like herself. She also thinks we need to assess where the gaps are in our system and provide resources to fill them, as well as change our attitude toward our students.
Her message to the community: “These are your schools. Attitude determines altitude.”
Thurman, who grew up in Alabama, says she was poor as a youngster but didn’t know it until she went off to college. She says that one of the reasons she didn’t know is because those around her never made her feel like it was a barrier. She says the people around her expected the best of her, told her so, and supported her. She believed in herself, because others believed in her.
“People are not who they think they are, they are not who you think they are, but they tend to become who they think you think they are,” she says. “We’ve got to believe in our kids,” she reiterates.
Thurman first moved to the area when her husband became a professor at the Air Force Academy in 1983. She first taught at Academy School District 20, in the northern part of the city. “At that time, I didn’t know there was more than one district here,” she says.
Over the next 15 years, Dr. Thurman worked her way up from a math and science teacher to eventually becoming the second in command at D-20. In 1998, her husband accepted a position with the Department of Education in Washington, D.C., moving the family across the country.
Thurman says she didn’t imagine ever coming back to the Springs. In Manassas, Virginia, she became the principal of Metz Middle School. She says she doesn’t refer to that period as a “step down,” but rather a “step aside.” “I had a wonderful time while I was there,” she says. The students and staff loved her too; every month for close to a year after she left, they sent her flowers. Thurman and her husband decided to move back to Colorado Springs in 2002 after the events surrounding Sept. 11, 2001.
Before she even arrived, Dr. Norm Ridder, then D-11’s superintendent, asked her to serve as deputy superintendent. She ended up staying in the role for 16 years.
Thurman says she plans to stay in the Springs and looks forward to spending more time with her daughter and grandchildren. She’s equally excited for fresh new leadership that will build on D-11’s accomplishments and take its students to the next level.
Thurman says she’s most proud that she kept the focus on what was best for all students; implemented a program aimed at making teachers more effective at their jobs; and worked in partnership with the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs to educate the next generation of administrators.
D-11 is in the process of choosing a new superintendent from two finalists: Joel Boyd, instructional superintendent at Boston Public Schools, and Michael Thomas, chief of schools for Minneapolis Public Schools. (Thomas, notably, is African-American.) Thurman believes it’s best for the new superintendent to help choose his new deputy so they have the right synergy. When the hire is made, she plans to help her successor transition into the role.
She offers this advice to the new leadership, and the community: “I wish that we would not use the term ‘low-socioeconomic status’; I wish we would completely take those words out of our vocabulary. We need to expect the best of all children, and give them the tools and resources they need to get there.”