Carrie Stephenson draws from past experiences to lead Mesa Middle School
CASTLE ROCK – Not many people have the vision – let alone the willpower – to build an abandoned Greyhound bus into a family trailer. But for Mesa Middle School principal Carrie Stephenson, it's this innovative, undaunted, creative spirit that makes her fit so well into her role as the leader of the school.
This is Stephenson’s first leadership role at a middle school, and Mesa has proven to be a completely different and demanding experience than from her years at some of Castle Rock’s elementary schools.
“I never settle,” she said. “I like being a leader and taking on projects, and I like it when there’s a challenge and when there are issues to be resolved.”
That drive and ambition comes from her family, who have lived in Colorado for over 100 years. Her father, possessing a similar passionate spirit as Principal Stephenson, moved the family around in pursuit of various professions.
“My dad was kind of a jack of all trades,” she explained. “So we’ve done everything from own[ing] a ski shop, to owning a ski resort, to owning a John Deere store, to farming…so I had a lot of different experiences growing up.”
Most of those experiences also involved her large family that consists of five brothers and two sisters. Her older brothers influenced her outdoorsy, hands-on attitude. This later drew her to quit a short-lived Burger King job she held in high school, and gave her the desire to help build their family hardware store.
“So he let me be a part of the construction crew that built the family hardware store. When you grow up with five brothers, you’re kind of expected to know how to use a screwdriver,” she said with a smile.
After high school graduation she decided to put the screwdriver back in the toolbox and enroll at Kansas State University to become a teacher and bring some of that fun, hands-on attitude into the classroom. Upon finishing her student teaching in Chicago, she married her high school sweetheart and moved back to Colorado to teach elementary school in the Littleton Public School system.
Then in 1993, a sixth grade teaching position opened up at Roxborough Primary School and she has remained in the Douglas County School District ever since.
After her time at Roxborough, she received her masters degree in Educational Administration. She then moved from assistant principal at Castle Rock Elementary, to assistant principal and principal at South Elementary.
Eventually, Stephenson had the opportunity to exercise her innovative and creative spirit and open a brand new school called Sage Canyon Elementary.
“I had a year of being a planning principal and working with a core team,” she explained. “And that was just an amazing, fulfilling experience.”
Stephenson had been principal at Sage Canyon up until the end of last year when she was asked to move up a level and preside over Mesa Middle School.
“Something that has always driven me in my career is the need for a challenge so I thought about it and thought it would be a nice next step for me…so here I am,” she said.
Now, well into her first semester at Mesa, she has noticed the obvious differences between elementary and middle level students, and even some in the teachers.
“Middle school teachers have focused and been trained so well on their content area and are truly content area experts,” she illustrated. “At the elementary level, teachers are truly pedagogical experts, so they know their methods.”
“I hope that my perspective coming from elementary to middle school is important so I can help teachers at the middle level begin to merge the content area expertise as well as focus on the pedagogical approach,” she explained.
That elementary school perspective will not only provide teacher support, but also a level of personalization and fun for Mesa students.
“An advantage I think that I have being at Mesa is that I’ve been in this feeder area for so long and I know the kids by name here. So knowing this community and the uniqueness of this area of Castle Rock is really important,” she said.
“You have to have a more personal relationship with them,” she continued. “And gosh how boring would it be if it wasn’t? I wouldn’t like it. I have to be able to joke around with kids, or like yesterday, pull somebody up on stage to serenade in the lunchroom. You have to be goofy with them. And if you do that in the right way, they still respect you and they still know where that line is.”
Stephenson is eager to make an impact on Mesa’s students, staff and community, and instill a positive school culture.
“Making learning engaging and fun for kids is my passion, and you can develop that in so many different ways,” she said. “Encouraging collaboration among teachers and encouraging risk-taking behaviors celebrates failure, which is important for students and teachers. If you celebrate that failure, the culture is much more positive than if you hide it or punish it.”
“And (the students) don’t know what they’re good at yet. Let them try some things and if they fail so what? They’ll try again and they’ll learn something from it they can apply in another setting,” she added.
As a leader, Stephenson wants to figure out the best methods of education reform while still being successful in a school setting and being held accountable by state measures. Naturally, with the creative and big-picture spirit she has, she hopes to create what she calls her “perfect school”.
“It would absolutely include fun, engaging, student-driven learning,” she said. “The teachers would be the facilitators but also experts in that learning. It would be an action-based school where kids extended their learning beyond the four walls of the school and picked up a servant mentality in solving real problems in the community. I would love for that to be what Mesa is about.”
“And the fact that Mesa is an IB school provides us a perfect framework to head in that direction,” she added.
When Stephenson isn’t implementing positive reinforcements at Mesa, she enjoys pulling from her past and opening up that toolbox again. Her and her husband of nearly 24 years enjoy “doing dramatic things,” as she puts it.
Their first big adventure was transforming that greyhound bus into a camper and using it to travel around the country. Now, they are in the process of building a log cabin in a remote area without running water or electricity, and look forward to passing it on to their two daughters as a family heirloom.
“We like taking on projects,” she said, and Mesa Middle School seems to be another great adventure that Stephenson can put her creativity and innovation, and a little elbow grease into.