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El Paso County Colorado District 49

Keeping the light on

As our district endures a horrible season of loss and uncertainty, we have multiple examples of how a caring individual can change the course of a single life or an entire community. Amongst the sadness, it has been comforting to remind ourselves of the powerful impact a committed educator can have on students and colleagues.We first heard about Julia Roark when she applied to be superintendent of a school district a little north of here. Several of us knew people who were finalists for that job, so we read the articles and reviewed the resumes that were posted online. It was pretty clear to us that their top candidate should be an assistant superintendent from Aspen named Julia Roark. Well, fortunately for us, they chose a different leader.One year later, we met Dr. Roark when she applied to lead the Falcon Zone. We got excited. When we saw her perform through a gauntlet of panel interviews and timed tasks, we got very excited. By the end of the day, we saw six candidates, but no competition. Julia was the brightest prospect of the bunch, and we were thrilled when she agreed to come and lead the Falcon Zone. We knew we had a leader who was going to make us better ó we just had no idea how much light she would bring to our lives.Julia brought light to all she did and everyone she served. In education, we often talk about the aha moment when the light comes on and you have a flash of understanding. Well, with Julia it wasnít a flash because the light was always on. She wasnít just well-educated ómaking her smart; she was also well-experienced, making her wise. When she studied something, Julia learned all the things and quickly became an expert. When she first came to District 49, Julia came to me, somewhat sheepishly, and said she would need to miss one of our first leadership meetings. She had a prior commitment to attend a training in Alaska. What she didnít say was, ìIím a national leader for cognitive coaching, and there are dozens of school districts counting on me to come and lead their training.î She could have said that, but she didnít. One of Juliaís defining characteristics was humility. She never drew attention to herself or her accomplishments. When I visited her office this week, Juliaís degrees and diplomas were literally stacked on a side desk gathering dust. Somehow she never got around to posting her own credentials. What was displayed were a poster about kindness, a book about happiness, some Dr. Suess artwork, lots of pictures of her children, Austin and Alex, and a big framed glossy of her husband, Greg, front and center.Instead of resting on her past accomplishments, Julia doubled up on learning about our district, and brought years of leadership to serve the principal team in the Falcon Zone. Her principals would tell you that Julia rarely planned anything that began with ìIî ó it was always ìWeî except when she said, ìHow can I help?î If you messaged Julia with a problem or crisis, she didnít call back ó she drove over. She walked in the door and asked, ìHow are you doing? How can I help?î Last night, after we learned about the tragic death of Michael Finley, I needed to call Julia. We could always depend on her best when we were at a loss. Like the light she embodied, Julia brought warmth and insight. Imagine walking down a dark path, stumbling, uncertain, tentative Ö leadership is like that sometimes when problems and crises take you past your experience. But thatís just when we appreciated Juliaís light the most. She illuminated our understanding with her careful questions óreminding us to pause and reflect.Last summer, Julia lived out that philosophy on a long climb up our local landmark. As part of a district event, a bunch of teachers and parents, administrators and board members gathered for a symbolic climb up Pikes Peak. Julia was fully capable of lacing up her bright orange trail shoes and zipping up the mountain, but she didnít. Instead, she joined others and me in the final group (we were the ones planning a ìdeliberateî pace) and spent the next 10 hours encouraging our progress. One friend was moving on pace, but as the air got thin, doubt crept in. Julia said, ìJust 50 steps more. You donít have to climb the whole mountain, just 50 steps more. You can make it 50 steps, you can do this.î With her encouragement, that climber and our whole group turned 50 steps into 500. Then 500 steps into 5 miles, and eventually we ran out of mountain and celebrated at the summit. Thatís exactly Juliaís greatness. Sheíd walk alongside you until you ended up doing more than you knew was possible. Her personal warmth and professional wisdom enlightened our lives and made us all better. As sunlight brings life, Julia helped us come alive.No matter if you called her Julie or Julia, Dr. Roark or Mom, you knew when you called on Julia sheíd be there. We will miss Julia deeply and often. This loss is not something we will get over or move past. It is our new and painful reality. But, I encourage us all to remember that Julia left a hole in our hearts, but not a shadow. The light she brought is reflected in each one of us. The best way to honor her legacy is to live as she lived ó in the light.Each morning, the sun will rise and Pikes Peak will glow. We see the sun about 300 days a year. So every sunset when you see our sun and Pikes Peak in the sky together ó think of Julia. Remember her strength to encourage us all, ìjust 50 steps more.î Remember the light she brought to our darkness and the light that showed us a new way. May the life she lived be an inspiration to the lives we touch.

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