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‘We should be one of the top performing academic schools in the nation’: Aspen’s next superintendent shares his approach to the leadership role

Tharyn Mulberry, right, wraps up his work at the Aspen School District’s Board of Education meeting on March 6, 2024, where many faculty members recommended he be considered for the position of superintendent. David Baugh announced he was stepping down from the leadership position in February.
Halle Zander
Aspen Public Radio
Tharyn Mulberry, right, wraps up his work at the Aspen School District’s Board of Education meeting on March 6, 2024, where many faculty members recommended he be considered for the position of superintendent. David Baugh announced he was stepping down from the leadership position in February.

The Aspen School District is going through some big changes: The school board is wrapping up spending a $114 million voter-approved bond acquiring staff housing, teacher turnover remains an issue, and students are pushing back on a possible smartphone ban.

This is all taking place while the school district welcomes a new leader.

Assistant Superintendent Tharyn Mulberry will take over as superintendent of the Aspen School District on July 1.

Reporter Halle Zander spoke with Mulberry this week about how he plans to support kids through some of the district’s latest challenges.

(You can read the transcript of their conversation below or listen by clicking on the play button above.)

Halle Zander: Tharyn, why don't you start by just telling me … What do you want the community to know about you?

Tharyn Mulberry: What I bring to this role and what the community knows about me is that I'm a known commodity. I've been here 10 years. They have an idea of the type of work that I'm going to do. And my kids are in the system. I have skin in the game. I'm 100% invested. I do not feel when parents come in and have conversations with me that they're an interruption of my work. They’re the reason for it — same with students and same with staff. I have a reputation for making sure to listen and really try to find a unique solution that can honor the traditions that we've had as a district, but also push us in the direction we need to go to be competitive moving forward.

Zander: So teacher retention has been an ongoing challenge at the Aspen School District, and I remember last summer there being a very long list of open positions on your website. First of all, what are some strategies that you want to implement to try and reduce that gap?

Mulberry: Unfortunately, in education, it's just a high turnover field. The latest stat that I think I've read is 50% of teachers quitwithin the first five years of teaching. So add in some of the confounding variables in Aspen of housing, cost of living. You will have some of the hardest conditions to try to find people to move here and do the work. We have just made incredible inroads in doubling the housing pool that we have now. We went, I think, from 50-plus units to over 100 with the most recent bond and those expenditures, which has greatly improved our chances of retaining staff. And we'll probably need to have 70% housing in the future to be able to staff the district properly.

Zander: So the Aspen School District is just wrapping up, spending about $114 million from a bond that voters approved in 2020, mostly on staff housing. But you're gearing up to ask for another one. What more are you hoping to accomplish?

Mulberry: You know, some of the big picture items that we didn't get accomplished in the first bond: an early childhood center, building a pre-K. Currently, most of our pre-K is housed in portables outside of the school district. We'd like to change that situation. And then secondly, looking at some renovations for the theater were some other ideas that we had to put on hold. Obviously, some of the deferred maintenance pieces that we've had as a district, as well.

Zander: The last Healthy Kids Colorado survey data is from 2021. So quite a while ago. I know we're going to get new data this summer, but the last batch told us that Aspen School District students were reporting higher levels of drug and alcohol consumption compared to regional and statewide averages. So, as superintendent, what do you think the schools can do to help curb this high number?

Mulberry: I got to tell you, when I was principal at Aspen High School, I was asked the exact same question by a newspaper reporter. I think it was from the Aspen Times. And he said, “What are you, Mr. Mulberry, going to do about the alcohol problem at Aspen High School?” And I just had to look at him and I said, “Do you really think the school's the vector for alcohol in Aspen?” And I just said, “Have you ever been to a closing at Highlands?” And so, I think, that we have a resort community. There are lots of opportunities for those sorts of activities to occur. I think one of the best essays I've read by one of our students stated, “We live in everyone's weekend.” But the reason why I say that is I don't think it's just a school issue. It's definitely a community issue. We've increased our partnerships with the Hope Center and counseling, and we partner with law enforcement and do intervention work. We have an incredible organization called Aspen Family Connections that reaches out and does family and community support. It's definitely a community issue and one of the things that we're currently using all of our community partners to combat.

Zander: The Aspen School District is considering banning smartphones or restricting them in some way. What's your stance on it?

Mulberry: I'm for the ban. I do think that students look at this as a sense of loss, that they're losing something. But I immediately look at what they would gain in having the opportunity to talk to one another during the school day. Now, obviously, we're going to have a conversation about this as a community, and I'm going to go the direction that is recommended to me by my team. But my personal thought process on this would be a ban would be a great thing. Because I do think that we see a lot of complicated social issues being exacerbated by social media, especially with the younger students. When we get to the high school and some of the other areas that you see a huge amount of distractibility that comes from the constant need to feel connected on the various platforms.

Zander: So a little over a year ago, there were a number of swatting events at the Aspen School District. How do you feel like the district can help students feel safe at school?

Mulberry: The locking of the doors, the closing of the campus, banning of cell phones, believe it or not, all of this initiative work is driven by best practices around safety. And we certainly learned a lot that we need to do around communication. Now, we have the standard response protocol as the kickoff training every year when we start at the district. So I think it has elevated that as a priority. And it's really one of the things that has been a significant change from when I started to to where we are now.

Zander: You all have instituted the IB for all curriculum, recently. That rollout is underway. Are there any other curriculum changes that could be coming down the pipeline in the next few years?

Mulberry: So first of all, IB is the umbrella in which all things curriculum-wise are under. So there will be not a curriculum per se, but there will be lots of resources that we're vetting right now that would be plugged into that model. I think they're looking at STEM scopes right now for science. They've used Autentico language resources for world language, and we have multiple teachers piloting those resources now. If they work out, we'll be adopting them and they'll be plugged into that IB curriculum framework.

Zander: Your neighbors in the Roaring Fork School District, they're undergoing an equity audit this coming year. Are there similar conversations about DEI and making Aspen a more equitable place for students of color and other underrepresented groups?

Mulberry: So, one of the items I'm very proud of with my work as an assistant superintendent, I was able to lead the equity team in the Aspen School District. And we've had the IDI, the intercultural diversity inventories, completed for every staff member. It's a battery of survey questions that will give you an inner cultural awareness rating, and it'll give you suggestions on what you need to do, both personally and organizationally. So we'll be doing some work like that. We currently have a referral process for students to see if there's any of those issues where they can have a place where they can share those sorts of issues that they're having in the school district. As the saying goes, we have miles to go before we sleep with that work.

Zander: Big picture goals for the district that we haven't touched on yet. What are things that you hope you can accomplish during your tenure?

Mulberry: I'm excited to see, one, that we should be one of the top performing academic schools in the nation, and even in the world. And I'm not joking. It's not hyperbole. This is something that I think is very attainable. I think that we need to continue to honor some of the great traditions we've had: the outdoor ed program, the great relationships, our connection to environmental work. My challenge to my team now is what are we going to do next level. So look for some things coming out of the design field. Look for things coming out of computer science and manufacturing and robotics. We have all of the right ingredients to do the best work possible.

Zander: Thank you, Tharyn.

Mulberry: Thank you.

Halle Zander is a broadcast journalist and the afternoon anchor on Aspen Public Radio during "All Things Considered." Her work has been recognized by the Public Media Journalists Association, the Colorado Broadcasters Association, and the Society of Professional Journalists.