Soroco, Hayden, welcome new principals
OAK CREEK — New Soroco High School Principal Steven Fuller brings a diverse work background to his new leadership role.
Fuller began his career in law enforcement, receiving his undergraduate degree Administration of Justice from the University of Wyoming.
His first job was with the U.S. Border Patrol. However, he soon realized it wasn’t the right fit. He entered the private sector, working in the hospitality and food and beverage industries.
That career brought him to Colorado, near Meeker, where he thrived with the chance to develop strong people skills.
But, it still was not fulfilling that initial desire that led Fuller into law enforcement — wanting to change the world for the better.
“I realized education is the cause of, and solution to, all of the world’s problems,” he said. “And that I’d rather be fighting that battle.”
The door into teaching first opened when he tried substituting at his home school district near Chicago.
Even as a substitute teacher, Fuller saw he was making an impact in the lives of students.
Wanting to return to the mountains, Fuller took a job in Rifle, where he spent the past 13 years working as a teacher and program administrator.
The stars aligned, he said, when he accepted the position of principal at Soroco High School. He found a house in Oak Creek, a “fixer-upper” which he has been enthusiastically renovating all summer. There were birds living in it, and the occasional human who may or may not have been an official renter.
Fuller said he’s excited to be able to walk to school and was specific in wanting to work in a smaller, more intimate public school setting.
Central in his educational philosophy is fostering empathy and widening the perspectives of his students. Two people may disagree, he said, but much of that comes from a lack of understanding and appreciation for different perspectives — when both can be “right.”
Fuller encountered two programs in Rifle about which he became passionate.
First, the International Baccalaureate, with its mission “to develop inquiring, knowledgeable and caring young people who help to create a better and more peaceful world through intercultural understanding and respect.”
The other program Fuller embraced was the experiential education component of a class called “True Life Adventure.” Through that, students were taught team-building, communication, problem-solving, leadership, self-advocacy and other skills when they were taken out of their everyday environment and put into scenarios where they had to work together to find solutions to complex challenges.
Asked whether he will miss being in the classroom, Fuller said he is excited for opportunities to also provide instruction to adults, and he may keep a foot in the teaching door. He heard there might be a need for a woodworking instructor.
As school gears up to start on Tuesday, Aug. 20, Fuller said one of his top goals is to “get to know the school and community. I’m not coming in with the intent to change, or turn it into Rifle. I want to be a leader, but also an observer.”
Fuller says he has no plans to institute sweeping changes. Any changes that may come, he said, will only come after he has a genuine understanding of the community and culture.
For his students, Fuller’s primary goal is to ensure they leave Soroco with “the skills to do whatever they want.”
That may be college, or it may be another path — vocational, agriculture, military or literally “anything they want to do.”
Fuller said he is excited at Soroco’s steady climb in terms of state rankings and student achievement. “It’s great that we can advertise as ranking 10th in the state,” he said, and he wants to continue on that upward trajectory. But he also wants much more for his students than good test scores. Those strong test scores should be a “de facto” result of the broader education and experience they receive at Soroco, he said.
Hayden Elementary School
For new Hayden Elementary School Principal Stephen McDonald, the tight-knit community is everything he could hope for.
“In order for students to succeed, everyone needs to be invested in their education, and I felt that here,” he said.
It’s a bit of a cultural shift from the “concrete jungle” and the big-city environment he grew up in Newark, New Jersey, and from his ten years spent teaching in the Denver Public Schools, as well, where he taught in two different “turnaround” settings. He also worked as a dean and summer school administrator.
Hayden Elementary is currently designated as a priority improvement school under a corrective action plan, but this is something McDonald embraces and something with which he has experience.
“I see it as a challenge,” he said. “And now we take the steps we need to take in order to get ourselves out of that.”
Genuine improvement, he said, “takes a level of vulnerability and ownership by the whole staff. But, we can only improve. And that starts with building a truly collaborative culture and climate.”
It takes buy-in from everyone, he said, including parents. “We will move forward together.”
McDonald received his undergraduate degree from Marquet University and his masters from Regis University in Denver.
It is a unique year of transition for the elementary students, as they join the secondary students in the same building while the new school is built. They’ve deemed it “Camp Tiger Paw,” and are framing it as an adventurous 9-month long camping trip for the kids.
“Teaching a child to be a good citizen and a good person is more important to me in the long run than a test score,” he said. And he knows the importance of instilling self-worth in confidence in the kids. “Achievement is a bi-product of that,” he said. “Knowing that they matter — that everyone matters.”
McDonald admits he’s still adjusting to the small-town life and long winters, but he and his wife ski and snowboard and “love living in Routt County.” They are also thrilled to be raising their two kids, ages three and nine months, here.
He’s spent a busy summer helping to hire new second and fourth grade teachers, one special education teacher, four paraprofessionals and a P.E. teacher.
McDonald is also intent on recruiting and keeping talented teachers in Hayden. “Teachers have the most direct impact on the students,” he said.
He plans to be more proactive on recruitment and changing the perception that Hayden is a stepping-stone for teachers looking to move to Steamboat.
And McDonald, of course, is excited about moving into the new building next summer. “Hayden deserves a new school,” he said.
Strawberry Park Elementary School also welcomes a new principal with the hiring of Celine Wicks in February.
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