Up-Close with Harrison School District Leaders

March 25, 2021

By Susan Paulsen, CEI Strategic Communications Manager

Q & A with Superintendent Wendy Birhanzel and Assistant Superintendent and Chief Financial Officer Shelley Becker

Dr. Wendy Birhanzel and Shelley Becker

As CEI commemorates Women’s History Month in 2021, we recognize the increasing number of women serving in leadership roles in Colorado’s PK-12 education landscape. We checked in with several of our partner districts to learn how these women have navigated the havoc that COVID-19 presented, and what lies ahead. Harrison School District Superintendent Wendy Birhanzel and Assistant Superintendent of Business Services/Chief Financial Officer Shelley Becker shared some of their experiences managing the district that has an enrollment of almost 12,000 students. Harrison is located in Colorado Springs, and is the second oldest district in El Paso County.

When COVID-19 arrived one year ago this month, and the state was shut down, what were some of the first actions you took?

Superintendent Birhanzel: We were one of the first districts to actually make a call that we were going to shut down. We knew that our families needed their kids at home, and we only had a little bit of information about what was happening. Our immediate concern, quite honestly, was how are we going to make sure our families are taken care of, and I don’t mean educationally, I mean, how do we make sure they have food to eat, how do we make sure they are not getting kicked out of their apartments if they’re losing their job.

We are a Title I district, and we have a unique focus here on our families. I know there was a quick move to get everyone laptops and do online learning, and we did that also. But even more important was our relationships with our partners and families; we needed to hear from them about what they needed, and so our immediate fix was to get basic resources to everyone, and that was through grants and creation of a food bank at one of our high schools.

What is an examples of how partnerships enabled you to help schools and families?

Assistant Superintendent Becker: Before school started back up in August, we were quickly trying to get hydration stations into all of our schools. Parts were delayed, and the whole supply chain was in a bottleneck. We were able to get several pallets of eight ounce bottles of water to our two high schools within mere hours. In this case, it was a vendor we had worked with who responded to the need, and we were just so thankful that within less than 24 hours that the vendor, purchasing, and our warehouse were able to get this done.

Superintendent Birhanzel: When we shut down in March, we saw the heavy need for food distribution and set up a food bank at one of our high schools. We partnered with several churches and different local community partners; they helped us do shopping, helped us pack items, and helped us write grants.

We were able to connect people; we didn’t know what we were doing …we thought we were shutting down for a week and after spring break would come back and everyone would be okay. Then it dragged on, and we saw that we needed to be a voice and advocate for our families. Our principals called our families every week to check on them. We wanted to make sure if there was a need out there, families had an avenue to reach out and they knew that the district was here to support them.

Now that you’ve established some of these really strong bonds, how will you grow those and keep them productive moving forward?

Assistant Superintendent Becker: My biggest desire is that the pandemic has really brought to light to what K 12 public education really means, whether it’s in Harrison or across the state, across our country. Often times Wendy and I will get emails; one that comes to mind is a gentleman with a local business who wrote to say, “I want to give some money, who can I give it to and how.” I think the pandemic has definitely brought about this interest in ‘How can we help the kids,’ whether it’s volunteering time or giving a monetary donation. We will definitely keep looking at how we can strengthen that and move it forward, so that it’s just not a one-time COVID experience, but something we can make sustainable.

Superintendent Birhanzel: We now have hubs in our communities, and the school serves as a resource hub. If our families need anything, they trust the school and they know they can reach out to the school. We might not have it, but we can find a resource, or we can point them in the right direction. Our staff sees our families not as students in their classroom, but as people, and our families see our teachers and staff not as employees of the district, but as people, and so we’re all people together working through this side-by-side.

It seems that with the relationships that have been strengthened, the opportunity for really meaningful conversations and increased understanding has really been enriched.

Superintendent Birhanzel: This is a silver lining – the relationships we formed in a crisis. I feel like the relationships we have formed with our community have strengthened our district, and have strengthened our southeast community here in Colorado Springs. We can capitalize on that as we come across other barriers or other challenges – we’ve proven that we can work together and we’re all here to be supportive of one another.

What is the leadership role in fostering and maintaining partnerships… you can’t be all places at all times, you can’t be all things to everybody, so as district leaders, how do you empower others to move forward with partnerships and build capacity?

Superintendent Birhanzel: In our district, we have great leaders within each building and department who understand that we’re not just here to teach students to read and do math. Our students needs so much more than that, and we as a district can’t always provide that, so we need to have partners who can come alongside and provide the shoes, or provide the mental health, or whatever families and students might need. I think giving the space for school leaders to find what partners fill those gaps in their school has been instrumental. We have amazing partners in each of our schools, who will step up at any minute; they pride themselves on being partners and helping students meet their academic goals, social goals, basic need goals.

What I hear you saying is that you’re empowering your team of administrators; you’re giving them a little room to make some decisions to move forward with what’s best for kids.

Assistant Superintendent Becker: I think a lot about that, because we talk a lot about culture and accountability and systems, and I think we have really demonstrated this culture that it is more than just the students – it’s about the community, it’s about the partnerships. What I really appreciate about that is that we have a voice. And we are using our voice to tell our story; it can be tough, it can be happy, it can be sad, it can be all kinds of things, but it’s always authentic. We have the highest poverty rate in Colorado Springs, at 20 percent, according to the recent census data. In our community, parents’ average salary is $44,000; benchmark in Denver is $66,000. Really taking the time, I think, to look at this data to understand and have knowledge of our community is so important.

You both have worked a lot of hours, faced competing interests and different people asking for answers–maybe answers you don’t have. That takes a toll on a person in the best of times. How do you both take care of yourselves and how do you model or encourage that for others?

Assistant Superintendent Becker: You know, needing to be present and honest about where you’re at during any point in time, which I really became aware of a few months ago. Not only is it COVID, but we’re a declining enrollment district, we changed the district leadership model, and we also had a reorganization effective January 1. I was thinking about a time when Wendy and I were talking, and I was telling her that I’m just in this angry space right now… I see where we need to move forward quicker than we have been able to. And Wendy was saying at that time, I’m sad… and it was actually a great conversation, because we were both just being present with what we were feeling at the time. The other thing is that sometimes there’s no right or wrong answer… it’s about flexibility and change. I know that is so tough for a lot of people, and I have to be honest, I’ve had to realize for myself that at times, it might not be perfect, but at least we’re taking a step and moving forward.

In the finance department, at times we correlate numbers and data to the academic side by using letter grades. We might say “hey we put this new process in place, and our work was probably about a B-minus.” We know it’s not A-level work, but right out of the gate we’ve got a B-minus and here’s what we’re going to improve. I’ve become more attuned to recognizing progress. I definitely see the potential of where we can be a year from now as we continue to move forward. I know that as we have changed as a result of the pandemic, we’re energizing the system to help see the change and to help be ambassadors as well.

Superintendent Birhanzel: From my perspective, I think that’s why COVID has been so hard; it’s changed everyone’s work life, and then it’s changed what you do to take care of yourself. Shelley and I are both big travelers, but I can’t use that outlet now, which I rely on to have balance, recoup, and come back with a clear mind. I also think, historically, just to be honest, women are asked to do a little bit more to prove their worth at the workplace, and then they are often the caretakers in the stereotypical role at home, so it can be hard to be a woman in leadership in both places. For me, one thing I would agree with Shelley about, is being present. When I’m in meetings, I’m going to be conversing with people, making sure they feel valued, and making sure I’m hearing. And then that also translates to my home life. I’m spending time with friends or family, and I love my pit bull rescue dogs. Being present, putting my cell phone down and having a little bit of separation – I’m making sure that every weekend I’m taking time to have that separation.

I will say the hardest thing for me personally, is always wondering, is there something different we could have done to make it better for students, and the answer is always going to be yes. But we need to be celebrating our wins along the way… we’ve been able to provide food for our whole community since last March, we were able to provide busing, our students have been back in school since August… making sure we remind ourselves of what we have accomplished. Knowing we always want to do one more thing has been a challenge.

Shelley is the first female assistant superintendent of business services and Wendy is the first female superintendent at Harrison. Would each of you reflect on that for a moment?

Assistant Superintendent Becker: I am one of five girls and I have one brother, and this is a part of how we were brought up… we all did the same thing. It takes all of us working together, and to me it comes down to how can I jump in and help? The work I do at Harrison, whether it be in operations or other areas, comes back to being about what’s the right thing to do. For me, It isn’t a gender issue, it’s about doing the right thing for the district and for kids.

Is there something about Dr. Birhanzel that you find inspiring?

Assistant Superintendent Becker: Oh, a lot of things, but I have to tell you one thing I’ve really noticed about Wendy that inspires me is that she empowers me; she allows me to like look outside of the box. She’s not afraid of new ideas, thinking different, innovating, and that just really fills my soul.

Also, I’ve watched her off and on during meetings… she just comes in with a little sticky pad and a pen, when I feel like I’m packing my mobile desk! I’ve watched her be present, and she’s very responsive, very timely. I know how much must be going on for her, and her ability to be present and stay up-to-date is phenomenal.

Dr. Birhanzel, what is your perspective?

Superintendent Birhanzel: For a district to have a woman superintendent and a woman assistant superintendent of business services is pretty unique. What’s sad to me is that it is pretty unique. When we look at educators, they’re mostly female, but then we’re not promoting females throughout the ranks, or they only get to a certain level. So for our district, which is a district that prides itself on diversity, it’s exciting for me to see that our community can look up to us, and our kids can say ‘Oh, that is possible.’

The thing that inspires me the most about Shelley is that hearing ‘no’ or encountering a barrier is almost like a challenge for her. She will figure out how to knock that barrier down, and I really appreciate that she’s not just going to say ‘Oh, we can’t do that.’ She’ll figure out a way that we can do something different, and accomplish the same goal. From a financial perspective and an operations perspective, she’s really an advocate for our classrooms. She gets that a ‘no’ is a major problem. She will sit side by side with a principal, and partner with schools and departments to help them reach their desired outcome, supporting them along the way.

One example is that we have students who are hungry and would like to be able to have second meal at school. Shelley has made it her mission to figure out how these kids are going to get their second meal, because they’re not going to go hungry one more day under her watch. She takes it really personally, and makes sure that things are going to be better at the end of the day, for our students and staff.

Assistant Superintendent Becker:  Wendy is right, this is something that has really pulled at my heartstrings. When we had one of our schools tell us that their students are still hungry, yet nutrition services is following federal reimbursement guidelines, we started taking a close look at ESSER (Elementary and Secondary School Relief component of the CARES act) and the restrictions and reporting guidelines for the funding. We were recently part of a statewide nutrition services panel, and I think it’s going to get some momentum for positive change in how funding can be used to provide meals for kids. Adding the lost learning time, the social emotional considerations and even finding out where kids are… we need to address all of these things. There’s so much more to come for all of us collectively as we move forward.

Superintendent Dr. Wendy Birhanzel has served more than 18 years in public education. At Harrison School District, Dr. Birhanzel was named chief operating officer in 2018, co-Superintendent in 2019 and became the sole Superintendent in 2020. She earned her doctorate degree in Educational Leadership in Urban School Settings from the University of Southern California and has been an educator in California and Colorado. Her passion is to improve achievement for all students; she has led schools to achieve the National Blue Ribbon Award and National Title I Distinguished School recognition.

Shelley Becker has served as the chief financial officer at Harrison School District since 2016, and was recently named assistant superintendent of Business Services. Shelley earned a MBA in Entrepreneurial Studies from  the University of Colorado at Denver and a Bachelor of Science in Business Administration, Management and Accounting from Drake University. Shelley also served as the chief financial officer for Adams 12 Five Star School District in the metro Denver area.