A lot has changed in the Cherry Creek School District since Patricia Villegas graduated from Smoky Hill High School in 1977.
When Villegas earned her high school diploma from Smoky Hill, the school was on the northern boundary of a district in the grips of growth and change. Much of the land around the building, which formally opened in 1974, was still undeveloped, and the new homes in the neighborhood were just beginning to fill up with families. Forty years later, the area is much more settled – Smoky Hill and the surrounding feeder schools are miles away from the Cherry Creek School District's northern and eastern boundaries.
Villegas, who's spent the years since graduation in Texas, has returned to her home neighborhood to teach Spanish at Laredo Middle School, within sight of her former high school. She's one of 37 CCSD alums to return to their home district as teachers for the 2017-18 school year. She was also one of nearly 300 new hires to report to the district's annual New Teacher Orientation event held Aug. 2 at Overland High School, a gathering designed to welcome the newest members of the Cherry Creek Schools teaching community before they headed to their individual school buildings.
While Villegas was quick to marvel at the transformations of the past decades, she was just as apt to note a sense of continuity.
"Cherry Creek Schools afforded me so many amazing opportunities," she said, pointing to her role at Smoky Hill as a student athletic trainer, a role that helped secure her an athletic scholarship in college. She was the first woman at her Texas university to earn such a scholarship, and she notes the Cherry Creek School District's longtime commitment to inclusivity helped pave the way for that achievement. "Cherry Creek Schools has always been about innovation … Every student is important."
The stress on every student was a recurring theme as hundreds of new teachers gathered in the Overland auditorium to hear feedback from CCSD Board of Education members, district administrators and executive directors.
CCSD Superintendent Dr. Harry Bull offered insights about the history, mission and current course of the district. His words connected directly to the district's mission statement, "To inspire every student to think, to learn, to achieve, to care." Bull stressed the word "EVERY" in that mission statement, highlighting the importance of inclusive excellence in a district of more than 54,000 students.
"We are all responsible for the success of all of our children in our schools," Bull said. "We've created a standard for ourselves that's higher than any other district in the country."
Specifically, that standard is rooted in a focus on all students, regardless of race, religion, sexual orientation or other factors. Assistant Superintendent of Performance Improvement Judy Skupa and Assistant Superintendent of Educational Operations Brooke Gregory spoke to that standard, as did Executive Director of Inclusive Excellence Michael Giles, who pointed to the district's continuing partnership with renowned educational expert Dr. Adeyemi Stembridge, who's helped guide school-based equity work across the district and design strategies to ensure that all children have the opportunity to be successful.
It all boiled down to a simple message for the district's newest crop of teachers.
"What you do for a child does make a difference," Bull said.
That message resonated for Javiera Pizarro, an Eaglecrest High School alum who will teach theater at one of the district's newest facilities, Middle School #11 set to open next fall. In the meantime, Pizarro will welcome her students at Sky Vista for the 2017-18 school year.
Pizarro, who's taught at other metro area districts for the past two years, said the orientation event summed up a valuable spirit of welcome and commitment to teachers.
"There's a difference when you walk into a Cherry Creek School District classroom. They make you feel like you're important," Pizarro said. "As a scared and nervous Hispanic student in high school, the Cherry Creek School District was a safe haven for me. My goal is to be able to get to know each and every one of my students, to always make them feel valued and important."