The management and the messenger: Superintendent Harry Bull and Tustin Amole, Cherry Creek Schools’ communications director. Photo by Peter Jones
BY PETER JONES
With a name like Harry Bull, the Cherry Creeks Schools superintendent may have been destined for a career in K-12 education—just imagine what fun middle-schoolers have had with that one during his nearly 40 years in public schools.
“There’s a whole lot of different names people call me,” the “no-bull” official said with a self-deprecating smile. “While I would tell you that Harry Bull is a very English name, there’s a lot you can do with both ends of that.”
Lately, Harry Bull—the name he inherited from his father—has been called the Colorado Superintendent of the Year, in large part for his leadership role in ongoing efforts to increase school funding for the cash-strapped public-school system.
Superintendent Harry Bull does not visit Cherry Creek’s 60 schools as much as he would like, but when he does he has fun. Courtesy of Cherry Creek Schools
His other titles have included Administrator of the Year from the Colorado High School Press Association, Honor Administrator of the Year from the Colorado Music Educators Association and School Library Journal’s Administrator of the Year.
“Excellence is a moving target,” Bull said. “Whenever you get really close, it moves up.”
This week, Bull gets another designation as The Villager’s Man of the Year, an honor he shares with the accompanying Woman of the Year, Tustin Amole, the longtime communications director for Cherry Creek Schools who will retire at the end of this schoolyear.
The magic in ‘we’
Bull, who turns 60 in March, is typically modest.
“I just see myself as a guy who gets up in the morning and packs my lunch and comes to work,” he said. “The accolades are wonderful. I’ve been very appreciative, but it’s about the work we do here for the kids.”
The district leader is prone to emphasize that plural pronoun again and again.
“We believe strongly in great neighborhood schools. It’s something this community values,” he said. “I believe this is an honor for our district. I hope it’s an honor for our community. It’s the teachers that make the magic happen.”
But because magic has a price tag, Bull has had to teach state lawmakers a thing or two. In 2013, he convened more than 70 of Colorado’s superintendents to develop a position paper that called for restoring nearly $1 billion in K-12 funding that had been held back during the economic recession. The efforts were credited last year with helping to secure more—but admittedly, not enough—funding for all the state’s public schools.
For Tustin Amole and Harry Bull, it’s all about the students. Photo by Peter Jones
Bull makes sure to place that emphasis on “all.” Although he was appointed by the Cherry Creek Schools Board of Education to manage a district of more than 54,000 students in more than 60 schools, the superintendent takes a holistic view on public education.
“Our focus this year will be on the rural districts. This is not [necessarily] about everybody getting something,” he said. “As superintendents from across the state, we were able to mobilize our communities to really exert political pressure on the legislature.”
Although the politics of education has not necessarily come naturally to this onetime high school coach and social-studies teacher, Bull has gradually gotten used to it.
“It’s grown on me,” he said. “It’s kind of like eating your vegetables.”
As an academic leader, Bull has focused on student achievement, raising the Hispanic graduation rate and improving the ACT scores of minority students, prompting recognition from the Colorado Department of Education. Under Bull, the district has been recognized as one of the large Colorado school districts to make the most progress in those areas.
“Cherry Creek is not the Cherry Creek of old,” the superintendent said. “We’re almost 50 percent students of color. People don’t view us that way, but we are.”
Born a teacher
Broad-based aspirations and district-wide standards are a long way from what the young Harry Bull might have once imagined. Years ago, his simple childhood dream of becoming a classroom teacher was as wide-eyed as that of a would-be astronaut.
“When we had career day, my classmates would go hangout with the racecar drivers, pilots, or doctors and lawyers, I would just go back to school and hangout with the teachers,” he said.
By the time Bull was old enough to realize that a teaching gig might be harder than driving a racecar, he was getting his own education about education.
In the end, Dr. Bull—as he is often called—was awarded a doctorate in educational leadership and policy studies at the University of Northern Colorado in Greeley.
Bull would land his first teaching job at Aurora Central High School in 1980 before coming to Cherry Creek four years later to teach at Overland High School. He has since been assistant principal at Smoky Hill, principal at Grandview and the district’s executive director of high schools. He was tapped as superintendent in 2010.
The only downside for Bull in an executive position for a large district has been his perpetual distance from the actual classrooms where the pencils meet the paper.
“I used to come home covered in chalk all the time,” he said. “When Dick Koeppe was the superintendent [in the 1980s], it was a very small district. The urban lore was that he could walk out of his office and go to a school and read to kindergarteners.”
While Bull makes every effort to visit as many schools as possible, it has been a long while since he last tried his hand at Goodnight Moon. With declining enrollment in Cherry Creek’s center, a need for 21st century vocational training, and what he describes as the permeation of post-election hate speech, Bull has his hands full.
“The things that happen in our community happen in our schools,” he said. “The kids need to be able to come to school in a setting where it’s safe, where they can be themselves, where they can express their ideas and hear other kids’ ideas—that’s the essence of learning.”
What’s more, Bull, an Elbert County resident whose four children attend Cherry Creek Schools, is not just a superintendent—he’s a Cherry Creek parent.
“This is my 37th year in education,” he said. “I believe in this gig.”
Tustin Amole remembers the day when then-Superintendent Monte Moses hired her as his workaday public-information officer. In the early days of the internet, Amole’s nascent two-person department’s job was to oversee Cherry Creek Schools’ publications.
And there was something else.
“He said, ‘I want you to keep us out of the media,’” Amole recalled with a smile. “Well, we both laughed at that one. But I was very successful for getting the right things into the media that told our story. At some point, we got onto this narrative that public education is failing, when in fact we are doing more than we ever have before.”
Cherry Creek Schools spokeswoman Tustin Amole does what she does best.
Like any “story,” there are good parts and bad parts, as well as the boring and even the ugly. From winning test scores and mill levy victories to lunchroom “scandals” and teachers behaving badly, Amole has strived for nearly two decades to tell the Cherry Creek story in full, even in the face of death threats and only a few obnoxious journalists.
“As a former reporter, I was very familiar with the open-records law so I knew what had to be given up,” Amole said. “There’s no point in stalling. People who try to stonewall the media—it always ends badly for them.”
Fortunately, the director of the seven-person communications department for one of the largest, most diverse and highest-achieving school districts in Colorado has also had plenty of good news to report during her 18 years on the job.
“We’ve been blessed with great community support,” she said. “I’ve been through four [bond] elections, all of which have been successful. Throughout all the turmoil you see in public education, Cherry Creek has been this oasis of calm.”
Amole has become more reflective than usual as she nears her 65th birthday and inches toward her retirement this summer at the close of the 2016/17 schoolyear.
Along with her boss, Superintendent Harry Bull, The Villager’s Man of the Year, Amole shares this week’s cover as the accompanying Woman of the Year, a fitting title as she winds down—at least, formally—a career that has spanned education, newspapers and the family business in more ways than one.
“I’ve been working pretty much nonstop for about a half century,” the fifth-generation Denver native said, belying a relative youthfulness. “I worked after school. My grandparents had a jewelry store. It’s just time to kind of reinvent my life and see what else I can do.”
The education beat
Like her father, the late Rocky Mountain News columnist Gene Amole, the Cherry Creek spokeswoman pursued a career in journalism, even working alongside her father for nine years while she covered cops and later education in the same newsroom.
“It was a gift. I wouldn’t trade that for anything,” she said.
Gene never pushed his daughter into journalism, to say the least. Years ago, when she told columnist Dick Kreck that her father “would have drowned her as a small child” if he could have predicted her career in newspapers, Gene responded in his inimitable style.
“My father was a little irritated with me,” Amole said with a laugh. “He said, ‘I would have drowned you as a baby—I wouldn’t have waited until you were a small child!’ I don’t know what he thought. He wanted us to find our own way.”
After police-beat stints at the Aurora Sentinel and The Greeley Tribune, Amole took her notepad to the Rocky, where she finally—and somewhat reluctantly—found her way to the education beat after a mid-career sabbatical in Guatemala.
“I wanted to kind of re-evaluate. I was burning out on the cop beat,” she said. “When I was assigned education, I thought, ‘oh well.’ But I was relieved to be doing something different.”
There was far more to the story than Amole realized. Once she got past the school budgets and obligatory back-to-school features, she discovered a world she barely knew existed.
“It was going into the classrooms and seeing amazing teachers work with kids. It was all the complexities of it,” the former reporter said. “I became fascinated.”
Although Amole found her niche, her burnout eventually relapsed and was affirmed by the events of April 20, 1999—a news event that would combine Amole’s cops and school beats, but also signal the end of her career in newspapers.
“[Columbine] was horrifying,” she said. “Trying to talk to parents whose kids had been killed. Seeing all the grief and all that horror was traumatizing. To this day, I can’t watch the videos.”
After searching for new life in nonprofits or local government, Amole landed at Cherry Creek Schools in July 1999, three months after the Columbine school shootings.
“I found myself on the other side of the fence and seeing things from the inside a little bit differently,” she said. “You really have to be inside an organization to understand how it works. Eighteen years later, everything you see here is what I figured out.”
The media and the message
Amole had never worked the game from the other side, but from the vantage point of a journalist, she knew for sure what kind of public-information rep she did not want to be.
“I had dealt with so many bad people—people that didn’t return your phone calls, who were antagonistic, who wouldn’t give up what the law said they had to. I had decided I wanted to be the kind of spokesperson I wanted to work with as a reporter,” she said.
At the same time, Amole was determined to be proactive in getting the word out, with her team going into classrooms and doing the reporting themselves, if necessary, when the local press was not interested in doing the legwork.
“That’s why this office has grown,” she said, noting her office’s current array of self-sustaining digital platforms. “It was my dream to create a virtual window into our schools.”
Although Amole is uncertain of her next step, she does not expect to be off her horse for long. Consulting work, advocating on education issues, or even returning to journalism on a very freelance basis are all on the table for now.
“If I regret anything as a journalist, it’s that I tried to simplify things and put them in too small of a space,” she said. “Coming over here has made me realize how much I left out.”
Amole, who has no children of her own, says she will miss the Cherry Creek community—including the staff, faculty and students—that she has long called her second family.
“It’s going to be hard for me to leave,” she said. “My favorite thing is to go to the elementary schools. You see these young little faces and they want to learn. At that moment in their lives, anything is possible.”
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