With the election dust starting to settle, Jefferson County Public School’s newest board members, Michelle Applegate and Erin Kenworthy, say they’re ready to put aside politics and get down to addressing the issues that resonated with the community on the campaign trail.
These two moms, whose children attend Jeffco schools, found knocking on doors, making phone calls and reading emails from constituents eye-opening.
“They asked questions about how we’re protecting our LGBTQ youth and how we’re going to protect against anti-Semitism in our schools. The resounding message that I think we heard is that people want our schools to be successful,” Applegate said.
In one instance, Applegate found herself speaking on the phone with her now high-schooler’s first-grade art teacher by surprise.
“His wife is also a teacher, and after our five-minute conversation catching up about each other’s lives, I hung up feeling like I was doing the right thing,” she said.
“Those types of one-on-one connections reassured me that people can work on hard things, and they can do it in a way that bodes good results and is respectful and feels good at the end of the day,” added Applegate.
Applegate said that she and Kenworthy want people to see themselves in the district’s leadership.
“Come have a conversation with us,” she said. “We aren’t always going to agree, but it can be done in a respectful manner where we can walk away and feel good about the effort and the conversation.”
“I really hope that we can get to a tone and a tenor on the school board and at those meetings, where we’re all on the same team trying to support our schools and our students so they can be the best that they can be. And that doesn’t have to be divisive,” Kenworthy said.
Kenworthy said she was especially impressed by the insightful and direct questions Jeffco students asked during the student-led forum and that she’s excited to continue those conversations. She believes student input is essential for developing the types of programs that will lead them to successful futures.
Kenworthy’s most memorable campaign moment is what she calls “parenting while campaigning.”
“I took my kids (first grader and sixth grader) door knocking. They were down the street, and I was trying to have conversations, and then my oldest was on rollerblades, and he was falling over in people’s driveways. We didn’t last long that day,” she said while laughing.
Kenworthy also said, at one point, they met a woman who’d just returned from Ukraine, where she’d been doing humanitarian work.
“At first, she was annoyed that we knocked on her door, but after she read our flyer, she came back out and told me how grateful she was that we were running for the school board and that I was taking my kids with me to show them that it’s important to be involved in local politics,” she said.
What it comes down to, they both said, is that they’re real people with feelings and hopes and dreams and disappointments like everyone else.
“Sometimes we expect elected officials to be superhuman and have everything figured out,” Kenworthy said. “And I just wanted to say that I have piles of laundry in my house, and I share a bathroom with my children. I go to therapy. I like to roller skate.”
Applegate added, “I’m the one that’s going to be hair-on-fire chasing a wild-eyed three-year-old who is precocious and terrorizing and the most fun and amazing little human there is while watching a high school lacrosse game and trying to help my eight-year-old with his chess. But we do this because we’re passionate about it, and we love it.”
Applegate and Kenworthy are both excited to dive into the business of running a district, especially one the size of Jefferson County. With 69,000 students across 155 schools, the district is Colorado’s second largest.
“I’m looking forward to getting up to speed on where the organization is and understanding superintendent Tracy Dorlan’s priorities, the cabinet’s goals, and how we can support them in their roles,” Applegate said.
Kenworthy agreed and said she’s excited to visit schools and meet with principals, staff, and families across a broader section of the district than she’s currently familiar with.
“I’m also looking forward to meeting the folks working at the district level and understanding the lay of the land when it comes to our personnel and getting to know who we’ll be working with when it comes to different policy issues that we’ll have to discuss,” Kenworthy said.
Both are impressed with the current board’s High School Reimagined and Family Response Service Teams (FRST) initiatives. The High School Reimagined initiative is a year-long community feedback process that will gather input from high schoolers, educators, business owners, and families to decide how to best prepare high school students for life after graduation.
“I love the high school reimagined idea that they’re working on right now. High school looks very similar to when I was in high school, which has been a while. And so I’m excited to see the research that comes out of that,” said Applegate.
FRST provides families with a single point of contact in the district who can help them resolve their concerns and needs should they need help connecting to the district’s resources.
Kenworthy said she loves the idea of providing a case manager to help families navigate issues. “Instead of calling your school and getting a principal and the school secretary involved, and then they’re calling the articulation area superintendent, and so on, now the idea is you have somebody who takes your call and then helps you navigate through it and find answers. I think this service can potentially increase family engagement and support.”