Women's History Month: Pam Kirk

There came a moment well into the pandemic when award-winning principal Pamela A. Kirk glanced back at her stellar career in education, took a close look at her retirement fund, and made a decision she had expected to make three to six years from now. After considering the constant stress and pressure of being a principal juggling all the crazy logistics of the COVID-19 years, she carefully planned her exit from Southmoor Elementary School in Denver, put her house on the market, and bought a new one in the college town of Laramie, Wyoming. 

Geographically, the distance wasn’t that great, but the life change was dramatic. She had been born and raised in Denver, had lived only seven blocks from her childhood home, and had devoted 33 years to educating the children of her native city. Now that she and the partner in her life have finished renovating the new place, she has to figure out the rest of her life. 

“Education, of course, still totally intrigues me,” she said. Meanwhile, she has a lathe and is trying her hand at wood turning.

Education was Pam Kirk’s destiny.

“I was one of those kids who always played school,” she said. “I would line up my dolls and stuffed toys, and my sisters Laura and Lisa, and I would teach.” 

After high school, she planned to go into the five-year education program at Colorado College, but when she learned that the program wouldn’t allow her to study abroad during her junior year, she switched to art history and spent part of one “amazing year in Florence.” Later, married to a graduate student at Northwestern, she earned her master’s degree in elementary education at the National College of Education in Evanston.

The apex of her exceptional career is hard to pinpoint because she has reveled in nearly every job she’s ever had. “I loved being a third-grade teacher,” she said, recalling her earliest positions in Illinois and Colorado. “It’s such a transition year for children.” But even then, school leadership beckoned. Chuck Raisch, her principal at Steck Elementary School in Denver, was trying to steer her into leadership and promising to mentor her throughout. It seemed as if the moment she acquiesced and began leadership training, Chuck announced his retirement. After the initial shock, Pam put herself in the hands of his successor LaDawn Baity, who knew instruction deeply: “LaDawn became my stellar mentor, and one of my best friends for life.”

Her two other great mentors turned out to be women educators as well. While she turns to La Dawn for big picture advice, she turns for everything else to Denver school leaders Lindsay Meier and Cheri Wrench. “Except for Chuck, all my mentors have been women,” she said. “I could call these two for anything. If I had a (crappy) day, I could call them.” She has been able to depend on them in the best and worst of times, including the COVID-19 years.

To outsiders looking in, however, the apex of Pam’s career might seem like her years as principal of Asbury Elementary School in Denver, during which she won a Governor’s Center of Excellence Award for Outstanding Growth for 2013–14. By then, she had been named a Wallace Foundation Principal Resident, and had served several times as an assistant principal and interim principal. During her years at Asbury, she led the school in transitioning from a traditional school to a project-based learning school.

“We needed to figure out how to get our kids out of straight rows where they were all doing the same things,” she said. “It wasn’t working.”

This work flowed into a Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation grant to develop a personalized learning model. It also brought one-to-one technology to every child in the school so that sharing sparse computers became a thing of the past. Through this project-based learning, they managed to tap into all students, including the ones who hadn’t been learning. For third graders, for example, they launched the Curiosity Project, which allowed children to create a project on anything they wanted and present it. She particularly remembers one struggling boy who had never participated in any activities nor written a word. He decided to study V-8 engines.

“Suddenly, he had a four-page paper written,” she recalled, and he read it, while his classmates sat enrapt. “We realized we were shifting the way our kids would learn.”

During those years, Pam also introduced the RULER Project, which values students’ emotional intelligence and is supported by the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence. The program lives on without Pam. She is convinced it is more important than ever considering all the student trauma wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The pandemic years coincided with Pam’s new principalship at Southmoor Elementary School, beginning in 2019. That year her father, Richard A. Kirk, a bank president and chair of the board, died, leaving her without her major role model. “He was the one who was my cheerleader whether things went well or not,” she says. No matter what was happening, he would say, ‘You can be the best.’” At this moment of greatest loss, she wondered whether she would ever again feel at home anywhere. 

However, there was no question she was needed at Southmoor during this devastating period. She had managed through hard times before, particularly through a year as principal of a particularly challenging middle school—“I can tell you, middle school is not for me!”—where there had been four principals in one year, and where 23 of 27 staff members were brand new. It was a kind of hell on Earth and yet, she says, “Believe it or not, I would do it again.”

At Southmoor, as the pandemic escalated, she told herself, “I’m a really great operations person, so I’ll make sure we have the systems and structures in place to make the kids feel safe.” She and her staff had to figure out what systems were needed in a situation as unprecedented as this one, while also determining how to maintain high expectations for the staff. Teachers were online with students a minimum of three hours a day, and much longer with those students who never returned to the classroom for a range of unfortunate reasons, including lack of transportation. The staff also had to seek creative ways to help those children feel part of the school community. 

“Somehow, it all worked, and we had a lot of positive feedback from families,” Pam said. Yet she knows the varying conditions took an incalculable toll. 

As if the pandemic weren’t challenge enough, while at Southmoor, Pam joined forces with six other district colleagues to organize a local union. “It went very fast,” she said. “By our second call with AFSA, there were 60 of us on the phone.” The co-presidents of the Denver School Leaders Association (DSLA), AFSA Local 136, would be Eric Rowe and Cesar Rivera. 

Starting in January 2022, Pam was one of five leaders who helped negotiate DSLA’s first contract with the Denver Public Schools. The contract included a one-time $2,000 bonus “for effort and additional duties related to preventing, preparing for, or responding to COVID-19.”

At her new home in Wyoming, Pam Kirk reminisced about those days: “I love organizing.” 

She has volunteered for AFSA’s retirement committee and hopes to do more with the national union. She has also thought of revisiting the intermittent dream she has shared with Lindsay Meier and Cheri Wrench, of starting an education consultancy together. She’s applying for a teaching license in her new state and staying in touch with her children—Lindsay Magill, a biochemical engineer; Kirk Magill, a high school math teacher; and Nicki Magill, who is getting her doctorate in math. 

Aside from turning wood, she has begun to meditate, do yoga and walk her dog Ellie for an hour a day. “This is the hard part,” she says, “just learning to have fun.”