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Children, and a Brighter Future for Them, Remain Susan Sanchez's Inspiration

Children, whether her own or the hundreds she has guided, supported and championed during her time in education, have always served as the center of Susan Sanchez’s life. Principal Susan Sanchez

Today, she is in her sixth year leading Morton Elementary School and its Bulldogs with the same gentle and compassionate touch that comes with the title of “Mom.”

A D60 product, Principal Sanchez first envisioned herself as a teacher while a third-grader at Belmont Elementary School. Her teacher, the late Laveta Wood, “made me love everything about school. She was amazing and I thought to myself, ‘I can do this,’” Principal Sanchez said.

After graduating from East High School, Principal Sanchez enrolled at the University of Northern Colorado – “Go Bears” – to major in education. Like her mentor Laveta Wood, Principal Sanchez wanted to teach the third grade.

“But I didn’t teach third right away. I initially taught fifth at Bradford Elementary,” she said.

Principal Sanchez recalled that first day in front of her 30 students as nerve-racking.

“Spann had just closed and those students were being bused into Bradford,” she explained. “So we had families that were excited to be there and others that were anxious. So there was a lot riding on that first day and building those relationships with those kids.”

Having student taught at Bessemer Academy, Principal Sanchez discovered that an assertive approach, with a focus on relationships, worked best. 

“So I spent a lot of time building up relationships and helping students work through challenges: a lot of things like that,” she said with a laugh. 

At Bradford, Principal Sanchez’s colleagues included future D60 principals Stephanie Smith and Elaine Madrid as well as its Superintendent, Charlotte Macaluso. 

“At that time, the District had no set curriculum, so my teammates and I had to create our own,” she said. “So we spent a lot of time doing that. It was an amazing team at Bradford.” 

Principal Sanchez spent nearly a decade at the East Side school.

“The kids needed me, and you knew that, so you went above and beyond to do whatever you needed to do to help them succeed,” she said.

Elaine Madrid, who had become Principal at Carlile Elementary School, needed a Literacy Coach and saw in her one-time Bradford colleague the ideal candidate.

At Carlile, Principal Sanchez had the opportunity to work with every teacher and student in the building: a foreshadowing of her eventual ascent to the title of building leader.

“It gave me an opportunity to get to know everyone and not just be in my grade-level niche,” she said. 

After 3 years at Carlile, Principal Sanchez’s journey continued at Beulah Heights Elementary, where she served as an Interventionist and then Literacy Coach. Inspired by the strong and productive leadership of Principal Gina Gallegos, Principal Sanchez’s mindset began to shift into building leadership mode.

“Gina made me her Teacher in Charge, because she noticed natural leadership skills in me,” Principal Sanchez said. “And that’s where it started.”

After 3 years at Beulah Heights, Principal Sanchez followed her mentor Gina Gallegos to Heritage Elementary School, where she spent the next 6 years.

“While at Heritage, I also was the Teacher in Charge,” said Principal Sanchez. Acceptance into a building administration training program allowed her to further expand her leadership aspirations and gain valuable insight into what being a Principal entails.

Back at Beulah Heights, Principal Sanchez served an Internship under Principal Tammy Neal.

“That was an amazing experience,” she said. “I was right there basically as her Assistant Principal for my internship.”

Having earned a Master’s in Educational Leadership, and with encouragement from her mentor Gina Gallegos as well as her successor at Heritage, Kim Cura, Principal Sanchez began to spread her leadership wings by applying for Principalships at three schools: one of which was Morton.

“I knew I was a finalist for Beulah Heights but wasn’t positive about Morton at that time,” Principal Sanchez said. “When I got the call from Human Resources, I thought I was going to be told I either did or didn’t get the Beulah Heights position. But I was told the Superintendent had a different plan in mind for me.

“So I said, ‘OK. Let’s do this.’”

As it turned out, Principal Sanchez replaced Floyd Gallegos, the husband of her mentor Gina, who was named Principal of Park View Elementary.

With the exception of Mr. Gallegos, and staff member Sandy Craddock, Principal Sanchez knew very little about Morton.

“I was basically starting from scratch. And I had to do a lot of hiring that summer, because some people followed Floyd to Park View and some went other places,” she said.

Principal Sanchez recalled her first day on the job as “nervous and busy.”

From the outset, she made it a point to forge relationships with the families as they dropped off their children for the first time with a new building Principal.

“I remember everyone saying to me, ‘Where is Mr. Gallegos? Why are you here?,’” Principal Sanchez said. “And that went on for pretty much my whole first year. So it was a lot of ‘filling those shoes’ type of thing.”

During that first year, Principal Sanchez was the patient observer, assessing what practices were working and what would benefit from change.

“In my second year, I implemented things I thought the building needed and that would work for it,” she said. “There was a lot of focus on data and how we could improve upon that.”

In one year, Morton left the Priority Improvement framework and became a Performance school. It’s an achievement Principal Sanchez attributes to a collaborative approach.

“My staff is amazing: and it’s been a pretty consistent staff over the last 4 years,” she said. “I’m more about shared leadership as much as you can in this position: getting their input on things, seeing their strengths and helping them focus on those strengths. They are so talented, and I do my best to honor those talents.

“But we make whatever we do about the kids. Every decision we make is child-centered.”

The relationships she has built with the Bulldogs over the past 6 years stand as a high point in Principal Sanchez’s time at the school.

“I’m very relationship-oriented and it’s my goal to know every child’s name by December,” she said. “It’s about letting the kids know that they matter. We do have a pretty constant community, without a lot of mobility, and I’ve gotten to know a lot of families really well. And I would say we have a majority of families that truly want their children to be successful.

“So it comes down to being there for the kids and their families, and my staff is so child-centered that they do the exact same thing.”

As a leader, Principal Sanchez describes herself as a “strong person, very assertive, but everything I do is about the kids. People know if I care and it’s not hard to guess how I’m feeling: good, bad or indifferent. I’ve told many a story to my staff while crying.”

After 27 years in the District, Principal Sanchez said it’s the children who continue to serve as her inspiration in fulfilling the oftentimes overwhelming responsibilities that come with a Principalship.

“That’s why I do it: the kids,” she said as her voice began to break with emotion. “My goal is to help them become productive citizens. That’s in our mission vision statement. Whatever route they decide to take in their life, I want them to know what it means to be a good person: to work hard at whatever you do and develop the grit that it takes to survive in the world.”

As Bulldogs, it’s only natural that the children be familiar with “PAWS,” an acronym designed to reinforce positive behavior.

Each morning after reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, the Bulldogs call out what each of those letters stands for: P-ersonal Best; A-ccountable; W-ise Choices; and S-afe. 

Outside of the Morton building, Principal Sanchez’s life revolves around her children: “watching them play sports. I follow them all around the state and country. That’s pretty much my life’s work.”

That motherly love, Principal Sanchez believes, has helped her to be a more compassionate Principal.

“After I became a Mom, whole bunches of things changed about my style as a teacher and now as a leader,” she said. “I always think how I would want someone to treat my children if they were in those situations.”

Instructional Coach Sandy Craddock, who has work alongside Principal Sanchez for the past 6 years, characterizes her as an “amazing, professional administrator who truly cares about children and her staff. She’s definitely brought the essence of teamwork to the building: working together has been her mission, and she’s brought this school together.”

When it comes time for Principal Sanchez to pass the reins of Morton to the next leader, she hopes to be remembered for being “firm, fair consistent, and that I truly cared about the kids. I want people to know that everything at Morton is truly about our little Bulldogs.”