Roughly seven years ago, Corey Wise was making the leap from high school principal in the Douglas County School District to working in central administration, but he hoped the new role wasn't his last stop in a public education system.
One day, Wise said, he wanted to be a superintendent.
Little could he know that opportunity would arrive in the middle of a pandemic.
Months earlier, the health crisis had decimated public school budgets and drastically changed the way education was delivered.
Beyond navigating COVID-19, the DCSD was also implementing an equity policy aimed at ensuring "access to equitable and rigorous educational opportunities" and "an inclusive culture," as the district puts it.
And a national debate about critical race theory in classrooms -- something that DCSD insists it does not teach -- was contributing to tense debates about the role of equity in education.
Around the time a string of area superintendents were leaving their posts, Wise was stepping up, throwing in for the permanent role at DCSD after serving as a co-leader and then interim superintendent following the departure of former Superintendent Thomas Tucker. He was named permanent superintendent in April and his term commenced May 12.
School Board President David Ray said near the school year's start that Wise faced a climate where any decision he'd make would leave some people unhappy.
“Anybody that would step in at this time would have significant challenges,” Ray said. “Our community is a community that really is very polarized about lots of different issues.”
That trend tracked throughout the first six months of Wise's tenure as permanent district superintendent. But now he'll be working under new leadership -- a board majority that has vowed to steer DCSD in a different direction.
Myriad issues culminated this November in a heated school board election that flipped the board majority from one willing to instate masking mandates and pursue equity in education, to a slate largely opposed to those issues, ones Wise had also advocated for.
“It's a tough, tough job in education right now,” said Rick O'Connell, a former district superintendent and mentor to Wise. “Not just for superintendents.”
O'Connell began mentoring Wise as he grew interested in a superintendency. Both are longtime district employees. O'Connell was the district's superintendent for two decades and Wise has spent the entirety of his 26-year career with Douglas County Schools.
Throughout the years, O'Connell has watched Wise's ascend district ranks. Wise began as a student teacher in 1996 and within a few years went from teacher to assistant principal to principal. In 2007, he opened Legend High School before transitioning to work as an executive director of schools.
While Wise mulled pursuing a superintendency, O'Connell's advice was for him to stay true to his values, "regardless of the political consequence."
School board directors across the county have been subject to everything from intense scrutiny to unfetteredvitriol during the COVID-19 pandemic. In Douglas County, school district leaders including Wise have shared in the brunt.
As the district followed a Tri-County Health Department mask-wearing requirement for students ages 2 through 11 in August, when Tri-County still oversaw COVID-19 policy in Douglas County, emails showed mounting pressure on Wise to fight the health order. That included promises of protests or voting for school board candidates who would consider removing him.
One person said they were organizing a pact of families who would refuse to comply, and that families would protest the policy by keeping children home on days the state conducted enrollment counts that determine DCSD's per-pupil funding.
“Corey and leadership looks really bad right now,” another person wrote.
Come October, Wise stood firmly behind the district as it launched a federal lawsuit against the newly formed Douglas County Health Department, initiating a legal battle aimed at protecting the district's ability to mandate masks. The health agency was formed amid opposition by county commissioners to Tri-County Health COVID policies that they regarded as too stringent.
“The choice is this: Are we going to ignore the recommendation of medical experts everywhere and put the lives of vulnerable students in jeopardy? Or are we going to give all children a fair shot to succeed in person, in school, where they belong,” Wise said in a statement announcing the district had filed suit.
The long-simmering mask debate reached a fever pitch as Election Day drew near. At the last board meeting before polls closed, numerous people opposed to masking mandates called for the resignations of the full board and Wise.
One meeting regular sat in the middle of the audience periodically holding a sign above his head calling for Wise to resign.
The four board members elected Nov. 2, all of whom have questioned some district policies, said on Election Night they know Wise has taken different stances than they have but that they want to get to know him better. Each promised to work with Wise.
One of the election victors, Becky Myers, said the district has seen too much turnover in the superintendent's office.
Myers echoed a comment Ray has made: That Wise is “homegrown,” someone who has been in Douglas County and the district for a long time and knows the community well.
“The district does not need another superintendent gone,” she said.
O'Connell, the former DCSD superintendent, said Wise is “the right leader for Douglas County, now and in the future. He's the right person for the job.”
To people close with Wise, he's the leader who stays behind to help custodians clean up. He prioritizes maintaining relationships with employees at every level of the system.
Wise also isn't the sort to think he has all the answers, Ray said, and as a leader “he relies heavily” on the team around him.
Wise moved people from the building-level into his cabinet. Ray said that choice “solidified that fact, that we have great people in our organization who should be in those higher-level positions.”
Right away, some of Wise's most important tasks would be addressing the trauma that students experienced during the pandemic and their learning loss, Ray said.
Looking at student performance would mean sending staff and teachers to delve into data troves, looking at which students need additional academic support and brainstorming about how to get it to them.
“That's a big one,” Ray said.
And in that vein, Wise and district leaders have held multiple meetings about grade-level performance among students and bolstering social-emotional programming in schools.
Excellence in reading is a priority for him, Wise told Colorado Community Media, and foundational to all other learning.
Wise sat down with a CCM reporter roughly three months after being named superintendent to discuss his background and goals for the district.
His late-summer days were filled with prepping staff for the start of a new school year. Teachers were coming back from summer break. He called it exciting. The energy of being with people is “a cornerstone of what, you know, makes school great,” he said.
The 48-year-old educator from Parker spoke about fostering a strong professional learning community within the district. Teaching is a professional job, he said. Giving educators the ability to do their work in a meaningful way means giving them the time. He'd look at everything from the full academic year calendar down to the bell schedule to accomplish that, he said.
Wise's philosophy is that “strong leaders lead through” challenging times, he said. He described himself as passionate. A strong personality. Relational. Education is not just a job, he said. He sees the field as a lifestyle.
“I always knew what I wanted to do. And I wanted to teach,” he said.
Wise got into education because of the example set by his parents, both teachers.
“I grew up in a middle school,” he said.
There was also inspiration by way of educators who taught him as an “Aurora Public Schools kid.” He remembers them by name.
In college his studies focused on special education. When it came time to student-teach, he sought out “the best teacher I ever had,” who happened to be at Ponderosa High School.
Wise interviewed to student-teach there while working toward his master's degree in severe cognitive education, although he'd later switch to pursuing a master's in administration, then was hired on as a full-time teacher.
He tried to stay heavily involved in his year-and-a-half at Ponderosa High School, he said, because “that's what great teachers do.” He coached, took on hall duty, went to plays and musicals.
Then as the district prepared to open Chaparral High School, Wise saw it as an opportunity to help establish a school's culture and influence instructional decisions.
He applied for a head coach and teaching role and stayed at DCSD's fifth high school for a decade. After three years of teaching, he moved into administration and left as an assistant principal to open the district's ninth high school, Legend, as its founding principal.
Wise left the classroom because school leadership urged him to consider roles in administration, he said. He was young to be an assistant principal, and young to become a principal when he applied to lead Legend, he said. He still feels young as a superintendent, he said.
He hoped he could help bring the community together to tackle the district's challenges, like boosting teacher pay to help recruit and retain the best educators. Wise said his goal would be forging a legacy as someone who took Douglas County Schools to the next level.
“My adult life, Douglas County has been in my life,” he said. “It's who I am.”
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