Upscale, But No Less a Challenge

by Jay P. Goldman

When Mary Rubadeau declares, as she did recently to a local newspaper, “the rules are shifting, the landscapes are shifting,” she’s not prognosticating an imminent earthquake in her charming Rocky Mountains town of Telluride, Colo.

She uses these graphic words to acknowledge that the upscale resort town in the state’s southwestern corner cannot rest on its laurels, the lofty test scores traditionally rung up by the student body that set the pace for the rest of the state. The reason? A 30-fold increase in English language learners (to 120 students today) who’ve shown up over the decade Rubadeau has served as Telluride superintendent is challenging the school system’s capacity to serve a much-wider range of learning needs.

While insisting the community never has been a completely homogeneous place, Rubadeau says the influx of Spanish speakers and the greater degree of poverty in the school ranks will test the personalized learning program that has become her calling card. Known as the Individual Mission and Assessment Plan, or IMAP, the intervention model combines purposeful planning, prioritization of resources and small-group instruction to inspire learning at high levels.

About 10 percent of the 710 Telluride students currently have individual plans, including the 3 percent who are classified as highly gifted. At some point during the year, 70 percent of all students are placed in IMAP cohort groups for remediation or acceleration. These cohorts are flexible and typically run for 4-8 weeks, until the student demonstrates proficiency.

The IMAP process, with parallels to professional learning communities, took root first in Juneau, Alaska, Rubadeau’s previous superintendency for four years before moving to Colorado, where her visionary leadership is emulated widely today.

“Without reservation, I rate this creative model as one of the most successfully implemented programs that I have ever observed,” says a senior manager with the Colorado Department of Education, Jhon Penn. “The measured gains did not happen by accident.”

Generous with sharing her brand, Rubadeau invites staff from other communities to attend her own district’s IMAP leader training, encourages her principals to support those in other school districts with implementation and provides strategic advice to superintendent colleagues. The latter selected her as 2007 Colorado Superintendent of the Year.

Steven Smith, who followed Rubadeau from Juneau to accept a middle school principalship in Telluride, hails Rubadeau as “truly believing in a participatory leadership model. … We work with her, not for her.”

She takes considerable delight in playing a hands-on role in the small system, something rarely possible in 6,500-student Juneau or the 9,900-student system in Soldotna, Alaska, before that. “You can’t do this work without relationships. That’s so apparent to me,” Rubadeau says. “It’s great to have great ideas, but unless you can fire them up in other people … ”

Within the structure of IMAP, the superintendent ensures teachers have the planning time and autonomy to tailor instruction to student need, mostly through project-based and integrated learning. “We’re equipping teachers to differentiate,” particularly vital when educating transients and children with limited English facility, she says.

But even affluent tourist towns suffer economic anxieties, and the Telluride R-1 School District must proceed without the benefits of an $18 million facilities bond that would have added eight classrooms, renovated a century-old elementary school and provided new affordable housing to retain teachers. The measure met a decisive defeat in November as Telluride voters rejected every spending measure on the ballot, including rebuilding the one major road into town.

A few weeks before Election Day, the superintendent was asked whether leading the schools in such a beautiful setting with an upscale image made her the envy of others. “You must realize,” Rubadeau replied, “that like most resort communities, we have our idiosyncrasies. … We share one of the toughest jobs, no matter what the community. I’m privileged to be here.”

Jay Goldman is editor of The School Administrator. E-mail:



superintendent, Telluride, Colo.

Previously: superintendent, Juneau, Alaska

Age: 59

Greatest influence on career: My father taught me the value of setting far-reaching goals and working with diligence and integrity to accomplish them.


RubadeauMary Rubadeau

Best professional day: Graduation days, as I know that the young men and women we are sending out into the world have the skills and attitudes to make the world a better place. Last May, Gov. Bill Ritter gave his only high school commencement address that year to the Telluride graduates.

Books at bedside: No Challenge Left Behind by Paul D. Houston, A Leader’s Legacy by James M. Kouzes and Barry Z. Posner and The Daily Disciplines of Leadership by Douglas B. Reeves

Biggest blooper: As a newly appointed superintendent in Juneau, I assumed I had the skills to speak on any topic whenever the news media called. After some embarrassing newscasts and articles, I learned to say that I would get right back to them so I could prepare a clear message before getting in front of a microphone, camera or pen.

Key reason I’m an AASA member: I trust and appreciate the positions and strong advocacy for children and public education that AASA brings to the national arena.