Departing School Superintendent/ Principal Describes Lake City Community School as ‘Incredibly Strong’ as result ‘Phenomenal Staff, Amazing Students’…
With 16 years under her belt at Lake City Community School — 11 as math instructor and the past five years as combined school principal and superintendent — Dr. Leslie Nichols is enthusiastic as she looks ahead to the next chapter in her educational career.
Last Friday, after announcement she has been selected to replace Doug Tredway as Superintendent of Gunnison RE1J School District, Nichols immediately penned an open letter to Lake City Community School middle and high school students, “you guys have made the Lake City school amazing.”
Telling students she was writing the email letter “with tears streaming down my cheeks,” the departing school superintendent said it had been a “privilege watching you grow up and being a part of your lives.”
She went on to assure local students that the local school “will continue to be the fantastic place it has always been, full of teachers who adore you and work so hard to create the best education possible.”
In a separate letter addressed to school parents last Friday, March 9, Nichols stated that the decision to accept the Gunnison post had been “exceptionally difficult” but taken with the full knowledge that “the state of our school and our district is incredibly strong. Every teacher and staff person is of the highest caliber and it is this team, along with every one of our families, that has created the excellent education your children experience here.”
Nichols expressed complete confidence in Hinsdale’s five-member school board, led by its president, Phil Virden, in working to make a smooth transition in the weeks between now and July 15 when she becomes Gunnison School District Superintendent.
Nichols planned a meeting with school board president Virden on Tuesday this week to begin to work out details for the impending transition. Nichols was hired as Hinsdale School Superintendent and Principal in February, 2013, as the culmination of a search which began in August, 2012, to replace retiring Dr. Karen Thormalen.
According to Nichols, Hinsdale School Board will have several options, including the possibility of naming an interim school superintendent until a permanent replacement is found.
Nichols tells SILVER WORLD that she continues to “love my job” at the Lake City school and was not looking to take a new position. Gunnison was the only superintendency for which she applied and came, she says, at the urging of her immediate predecessor, Doug Tredway, who is retiring this summer after over 30 years with Gunnison RE1J, the last five years as Gunnison RE1J Superintendent.
Tredway first made overtures to Nichols in April, 2017, which she says “sparked the idea.” She refers to Tredway as her mentor who during occasional meetings during the past year “kept encouraging me to apply as superintendent, that’s what planted the seed.”
In addition to what she terms “a fortuitous opportunity,” Nichols says the move “just down the road” to Gunnison is good timing with her youngest son, Thomas, entering the 9th Grade next school year and the fact she already enjoys significant ties in the Gunnison and Crested Butte communities from the years when she and her late husband, Jack Nichols, conducted the outdoor recreation business Cannibal Outdoors, as well as all members of the Nichols family taking part in the Gunnison hockey league.
The change from Superintendent in Lake City to Superintendent in Gunnison presents numerous career changes, notable of which is the fact that Dr. Nichols will no longer hold the title of principal as she does in Lake City and will be focused almost entirely on administration as superintendent.
Hinsdale County’s annual school district budget amounts to $1.3-million compared to $18.1-million for Gunnison RE1J in the current school year.
The Gunnison school district is expansive and is one of the largest in the entire state. In the present school year, the district enrolls a total of 2,084 students and employs a total staff of about 300, including five principals who oversee preschool through 12th grade schools in both Gunnison and Crested Butte, as well as a 47-student kindergarten-8th Grade charter school in Marble.
Looking ahead to July 15 when she takes over as Gunnison Superintendent, Nichols says her simple goal is “to keep a good thing going.” One early goal which she already cites for the neighboring district is to focus on continued development of early childhood education.
Asked for her sequential priorities in terms of importance in the Gunnison Superintendent position, Nichols says that safety is her top priority, followed by budget and finance. She also cites developing relationships with staff and families and, finally, implementation of state law.
She refers to the lockdown at Gunnison High School which occurred in December last year and says she feels comfortable that the Gunnison School District, like Lake City, has in effect an Emergency Operations Plan which has been cited as one of the best in Colorado. The plan is continually updated, she says, with input from law enforcement and guidance from state agencies.
Nichols’ emphasis will be working closely with the five-member Gunnison school board, assisting in preparing meeting agendas, drafting and updating policies impacting the school district, and working with the Colorado Dept. of Education ensuring legislative mandates are implemented.
Aiding in her work is assistance from the Gunnison County Education Assoc. and a Gunnison RE1J executive cabinet which she terms a “super close team” comprised of directors for curriculum and instruction, special education, finance, facilities and transportation.
Noting time constraints in Lake City, she says it will be exciting in her new position to take a pro-active “advocacy role” in broader, state-wide educational concerns by working closely with state legislators on legislation impacting education.
She says she intends to maintain a close working relationship with the district’s principals who will serve as her ongoing connection to the individual schools and classrooms
Asked for her views as she steps into the new position, she says Gunnison RE1J is in “great shape,” particularly mentioning the fact the district has a carefully crafted plan to consistently fund transportation and facility/maintenance needs, and is working hard to develop affordable employee housing.
As Gunnison Superintendent, Nichols says she will continue to develop a strong and mutually beneficial relationship between the Gunnison and Lake City school districts. She says there will be a definite continuation of sharing special education services between the two districts.
“I will of course have a continuing passion for the welfare of education in Lake City and will be cognizant of every opportunity for sharing ideas and resources from Gunnison to Lake City.”
A native of Orange, California, Leslie Trimble Nichols spent her adolescence in Hawaii and Fairfax, Virginia. She was a student at University of the South, Sewanee, Tennessee, when she first made the acquaintance of Lake City resident Jack Nichols who was also a student at the university.
She received her BA English degree from Sewanee in 1992, after which she transferred her educational focus to Colorado and, specifically, Lake City.
She first called Lake City home in summer, 1993 and joined Jack Nichols on a memorable Volkswagen bus trip which took the couple to kayaking and rafting locations in Mexico and Central America. She laughs in recalling that they had exhausted their funds and were returning northward back to the United States when their VW unexpectedly caught fire and burned.
The fire failed to dampen the couple’s quest for travel, including numerous rafting treks through the Grand Canyon. Jack and Leslie married in Lake City in 1995; he died as the result of an ice climbing accident in January this year.
The Nichols are the parents of two sons, Johnny, born in 2000, who is in Austin, Texas, taking a sabbatical from his first year at Denver University, and Lake City Community School 8th Grader Thomas Nichols, who was born in 2004.
Leslie received her Master’s Degree in Curriculum and Instruction from University of Colorado, Boulder, in 1995, and her Doctorate in Education Leadership from Jones International University in 2012.
Her career as a middle school/high school math teacher at Lake City Community School spans a total of 11 years, 2001 through 2007, and 2008-2013, interspersed with one year, 2007-08 when she taught at Northland Preparatory Academy in Flagstaff, Arizona.
Leslie’s first three years as a public school instructor teaching middle school/high school English, speech and math, and coaching track and basketball, were in Paonia, Colorado, from 1996 to 1999.
She succeeded retiring Dr. Karen Thormalen as Superintendent and Principal at Lake City Community School at the start of the 2013-14 school year.
Asked to recall her initial challenges when she first became superintendent/principal in Lake City, Nichols repeats a familiar mantra, “keeping a good thing going,” and is effusive in her praise for her predecessor, Dr. Thormalen, and the school staff.
Successes which she enumerates include the ninth consecutive year — every year since the award was initiated, in fact — in which Colorado Dept. of Education has awarded the Lake City school “Accreditation with Distinction,” as well as the Governor’s Distinguished Improvement Award for 2017.
Leslie defers credit for the local school’s successes over the past five years to a “phenomenal teaching team. All of our achievements are the direct result of our incredibly talented and dedicated staff.”
Under her tenure, the school district honed its special education programming by hiring a teacher for the deaf, Emily Motsinger, whose talents are shared with Gunnison School District.
She refers to progressive policies which have been adopted by the school district relating to parenting leave, personal leave and establishing a “personal leave bank.” A critical aspect of the school’s recruitment and retention program for teachers is affordable housing, with designation of the school-owned “Happy House” on Gunnison Avenue as a faculty housing unit.
The Hinsdale district responded to a 30 percent enrollment increase during her first four years and successfully managed slight declining enrollment over the past year. Technology integration, she says, remains strong in the school. Nichols is proud of a counseling program implementing “restorative practices” in terms of intervention and support for students, and terms an “enormous success” the two-year facilities planning process which culminated earlier this year with a BEST grant application for school renovation and expansion which was made to Colorado Dept. of Education.
Organized academic and sports competitions have also received state recognition for Hinsdale School District under the watchful eye of Superintendent Nichols. She states that the school’s Knowledge Bowl team has consistently been state and nationally-ranked for the past four years. The 2016-17 school year was particularly memorable as the local school’s teams for Knowledge Bowl, cross country, basketball, and track all advanced to state.
At least one team from Lake City, she adds, has competed in state finals each year since she has been superintendent.
Asked about challenges during her tenure as superintendent, Nichols mentions the failed bond issue for facility expansion in 2015 which she terms “quite challenging.” She says Lake City Community School continues to face challenges, principal of which is the existing school facility and within the areas of security and safety. “We’re behind the times,” she says, “in terms of design and security features in the changing landscape of school safety throughout the state and country.”
Also vexing in more recent months was the SRS/PILT funding issue with Hinsdale County — “I’m very eager for that to come to a resolution; it’s a problem which never should have existed” — and last fall’s split in the basketball cooperative between the Lake City and Creede schools.
Asked for her vision of Lake City Community School in five years, Nichols responds that she foresees a new facility and continued academic excellence.
“I see maintaining the school’s integral role in economic development in Lake City and a continued emphasis on social/emotional health resulting in a healthier, safer school environment.”
Nichols cleverly deflects a final academic question regarding her years at Lake City Community School.
“If you were preparing a report card based on your work here during the past five years, what grade would you give for yourself?”
With only a momentary pause, Dr. Nichols responds, “I’d give my staff an A.”
“I don’t know what grade they would give me.”
Even though she and son Thomas are moving “just down the road” to Gunnison, Lake City, she says, will remain very much central in her focus. Although they will spend the school year in Gunnison, they will return to Lake City each summer.
“After all,” she adds, “Lake City is still very much our home.”