Copeland bids farewell to CCSD No. 2

Dr. Jim Copeland retires from Carbon County School District No. 2, reflects on time with district

When Carbon County School District No 2 (CCSD2) superintendent Dr. James Copeland and his wife Melissa first came through the Valley about 16 years ago, they were enchanted with its beauty. 

"My previous position was in Fleming, Colorado," Copeland remembered. "The week I was interviewing with Fleming, I also interviewed with Pinedale and Walden."

Copeland said on his way to Walden after Pinedale, he and his wife went through Saratoga.  

"What is interesting, as we crossed the bridge and came into the town, both of us  said what a beautiful town it was," Copeland said. "As we drove onto Walden, we said it was a gorgeous area and if this ever becomes open, this would be a beautiful place to live."

Copeland took the Fleming job and was there for eight years.

"When my youngest son graduated high school and went off to college in Texas, this position opened up of all things," Copeland said. "I remembered the area and how it impressed us, so I applied and that is how we ended up here. It is really interesting how life can turn out."

When he took the job in the fall of 2014, the CCSD2 board gave him some challenges.

"They wanted someone to come in as superintendent and pull the various communities together as one district," Copeland said. "At the time different town schools were kind of operating on different calendars, and operating in the campus itself and the cohesion of seeing themselves as a part of a bigger district was lost in some ways."

Copeland said his first goal was to get all the schools on a common school calendar.

"That took about a year because I had groups come in, we had what was called the district accountability committee work with us and we had reps from all over the district," Copeland said. "It took almost a year to get everybody together on one common calendar."

Copeland felt if he could get a common calendar for all the communities because each place believed in their own calendar, he reasoned the towns where the schools were located would see themselves more strongly as a district.

"From this point, we worked on getting our curriculum a little more common district wide (by) pulling our assessment system together," Copeland said. "We still have work to do because it is a challenge on how this district is laid out with the seven campuses in the five communities. The distances between them create challenges also."

Copeland said he understood as he went to the different communities, there were differences which needed to be acknowledged to run the district effectively and fairly.

"We have three schools with basketball programs for instance," Copeland said. "We have to be fair for the students and make sure it can all be funded. It is not like many places that have districts with one big high school and one big elementary school."

Budgets are always a concern.

When Medicine Bow and Elk Mountain Elementary schools were being considered to possibly close due to low enrollment, Copeland remembers the two communities having meetings with the CCSD2 board to prevent the closure.

"When I came here eight years ago, Medicine Bow Elementary had 26 students and Elk Mountain I believe had 16 or 17 students at Elk Mountain Elementary," Copeland said. "Now we are down to nine students at Medicine Bow and four in Elk Mountain. The trend can certainly start back to more students attending, but the past eight years have not had that happen. It is possible we could run out of students before we run out of funding. Enrollment numbers will probably continue to be an issue, but we just have to see what direction it goes in the district as time goes on."

Copeland said finance and budgets are always a challenge for a school district even in the best of times and Wyoming is not going through one of those best of times.

"Wyoming does have a generous funding model, however due to less mining of coal and other things, it has affected funding," Copeland said. "I have had to make some cuts over the years, which I didn't really want to make. I have tried to keep as many cuts away from activities or classrooms that affected students, but it is always a challenge."

He pointed out that having multiple high school campuses, there may be a class in one campus that has eight students, while a larger school might have over 30 students for that class. This might mean having to look at the budget to get a new teacher. Besides finding the funding for a new instructor, another recent challenge is finding affordable housing for new hires in the county.

"Housing is becoming a major issue," Copeland said. "Probably for the first time that I remember, we had several teachers who we offered teaching positions, turned us down because of housing in the area. That is the first time we had multiple teachers say no based on housing."

He said this is not a situation only in CCSD2.

"I have talked to other Wyoming superintendents and they are having the same issue," Copeland said. "The housing in the past year or two has gone kind of nuts to be honest."

He said certain disciplines are hard to find teachers. Math and Ag are two subjects there seems to be a shortage.

"University of Wyoming has said they are having fewer and fewer students wanting to go into the teaching field," Copeland said. "So they are graduating fewer qualified teachers and this is a trend going on nationwide. Personnel will probably be a challenge for the near future."

Copeland said he has resisted combining sports in high schools where he could even though funding extra curricular activities can be expensive. He said these activities can be very important to a town's identity and spirit.

"The activities are one part of the block grant model where we go over and overspend than what the state gives us, and what that means is we have to pull in that extra money from other areas like groundskeeper or some parts of the model where we don't spend as much as the state allocates. You have to try and do what is best for the students and that is what I have tried to do in the past eight years I have been here."

Copeland said although the past years have created challenges, dealing with Covid protocols being high on the list, he has felt blessed being superintendent of CCSD2.

"I have gotten to know so many good people in this position," Copeland said. "We have a great staff and excellent parent base that supports their students. I don't go into a building where the students are not very respectful and everything is usually in order. I am not saying they are perfect, but generally speaking it has been a pleasure to be working in this district. The people connection has been a real high point of my time here."

Copeland said when he took the position, he had never worked with a school board as large as CCSD2''s nine members

"I was not sure how it was going to work out, but I have had tremendous backing from the board since I have been here," Copeland said. "It is so important to be able to feel like we are moving forward in this district and for a superintendent to have board backing, has really made this job that more pleasurable."

Copeland has been in education for 45 years and 35 years of it being in administration. He said it feels like the years have been more of a mission than a job to do what is best for the students.

"I like that this district is such a positive place to be and that is comparing it to other districts that I have seen and a few I have been a part of," Copeland said. "I think we are  so fortunate in Carbon 2 to have what we have and I would encourage people to remember that as we go down the road even if I won't be here to see it because I wish everyone the best that lives here."

The Copelands are moving to Texas in the weeks to come to be near their sons and granddaughters.

"I am blessed as a parent. Melissa and I have three adult sons who have good careers so far which they do owe to public schools they attended and were successful in,," Copeland said. "So we are moving to be near them, two of which are married and between them, we have three granddaughters. We will also be near Melissa's mother."

Copeland will still be involved in education.

"I am planning to continue to teach graduate level online courses," Copeland said. "Mainly I am teaching students that are finishing up their principal or superintendent certification. I have also been contacted by Texas A & M Corpus Christie, to possibly teach a course or two through them. So I am going to continue to be the realm of education and hopefully contribute to leaders in public education."

Copeland said when he leaves a school district, he believes the district misses his wife more than him because of her nursing skills. She was a CCSD2 head school nurse.

"Melissa has always been a wonderful asset when we come to a place and I have to say when mentioning blessings, I feel incredibly blessed to have her as my wife," Copeland said. "She has been wonderful throughout the years."

Copeland will miss all the people he has met through his job, whether it has been colleagues or parents.

"Then there are the students," Copeland said. "This district with all its different communities has just amazing students and it will be impossible not to miss them."

Copeland is not alone in feeling a loss of not being around people he has known over the past eight years. 

There are plenty who will miss him.

Laura Niswender, principal for Elk Mountain, Hanna and Medicine Bow elementary schools, met Copeland two years ago when she came to the district.

"Having Dr. Copeland as my very first superintendent in my position as an administrator was an absolute blessing," Niswender said. "He is incredibly supportive and he met me where I was at and helped me to grow as an administrator."

She said when there were difficulties or issues needing to be addressed, Copeland guided her.

"He was always very open about listening to my ideas and suggestions," Niswender said. "He will be sorely missed because I think he was a wonderful superintendent."

Jackie Jones, the 6th grade teacher for Hanna Elementary and head coach for the Hanna, Elk Mountain, Medicine Bow (HEM) High School girls basketball team and head coach for HEM track and field has known Copeland since he started.

"I think Dr. Copeland is leaving Mr. Jennings a well put together district," Jones said. "I think Dr. Copeland has united the district schools while respecting the individuality of each of the communities and the schools that are a part of them. He is the type of leader that lets staff do their jobs and that is appreciated."

Jones was grateful for his help in getting the new track facility behind Hanna Elementary.

"I know there were a lot of moving parts with AML being involved, but as the leader of the school district, he had to step up and come to the forefront and he did that."

She said Copeland did a great job during the Covid crisis.

"He was a strong proponent of the PLC (professional learning community) and when Covid hit and we could not get together in larger groups or grade level type of stuff, I think he worked hard to keep a united district during those uncertain times," Jones said. "I wish him and his wife Melissa the best and I hope they have a great time being near their family."

HEM Principal Steve Priest was still in the classroom when Copeland was hired. He was a science teacher at HEM and headed up the teaching staff.

"When Dr. Copeland was being interviewed. We formulated our questions and I presented them, so I have known him since the beginning of his coming to the district," Priest said. "I have been privileged to work with Dr. Copeland in many capacities. He had so much experience and knowledge and he was always willing to share what he knew. My first year as a principal I could always count on him for advice which would be useful."

Priest said Copeland had been successful in bringing the different campuses together while letting them have their own identities.

"He had been hired to address the lack of cohesiveness in the district when he first arrived because each school had its own calendar and each school was doing its own thing so to speak," Priest said. "We really didn't work together all that much. Dr. Copeland has done a great job of bringing all the schools a lot closer than we were. This district is a challenge and Dr. Copeland did an excellent job of meeting what was thrown at him. I am thankful for all his guidance and leadership and he should know he leaves the district in good shape."

Darrin Jennings, the new CCSD2 superintendent, worked with Copeland when he first came to the district as the Saratoga Elementary School principal five years ago.

"My first interaction with Dr. Copeland, the word "professionalism" comes to mind," Jennings said. "Besides being very professional, he is kind, courteous and sometimes, in this day and age, these attributes can be hard to find. He taught me that you can be kind, patient and professional at all times."

 Jennings said he has watched Copeland meet the needs of the students and communities and he plans to continue to build on what his predecessor has built so far.

"We will continue to bring all the schools and students together as much as possible in the district without compromising their own individual needs," Jennings said. "One thing I believe you need from a school leader is for them to be consistent, whether you are in crisis mode or just day to day. You need to know when you go to this person, there is going to be a consistent response. This is what you get with Jim. He is consistent in the way that really brings the most out of staff."

Jennings hopes to emulate Copeland's consistent professionalism when he takes over July 1.

CCSD2 Curriculum Director Noel Manning met Copeland five years ago when he applied for a position as a school principal. Manning didn't get that job, but he was offered his present position instead.

"From the moment he offered the position, I feel we established a strong bond," Manning said.

"I think we shared similar philosophies concerning education for schools to thrive and succeed."

Manning said Copeland made clear from day one he wanted Manning to help the district get teachers working together with curriculum, PLC and keep the competitive nature of schools to a minimum without them losing their identities.

"Every school has their unique attributes and we didn't want to kill them with blanket edicts, but the idea Copeland had us put forth was to be collaborative and move forward," Manning said. "We brought people together that had particular skill sets and had them work together for the good of the students and district."

Manning said he is grateful to have Copeland as his supervisor the past five years.

"I have been very happy with all the guidance and support he has given me because it was my first administrative job," Manning said. "He really took me under his wing and showed me the ropes. He built me up over time and helped mold me into the administrator I am today and appreciate it greatly and will miss him tremendously, but I wish him all the best in his future."

Copeland's secretary Dana Little worked with Copeland for four years.

"It has been phenomenal to have worked for him over these past four years," Little said. "When I took the job, I knew of him and I anticipated it would be a great opportunity and that is what it has been. He has been so easy to work for and he helped me learn my job and hopefully I made his job easier. He was a great boss and he will be missed."

Melissa Copeland, worked for the CCSD2 nursing staff six years ago and three years ago, she became the head nurse for the district. Before working with the nursing staff she worked for CCSD2 in special ed and in total has worked for the district seven years.

"I have thoroughly enjoyed working in this school district, not only because I was supporting Jim in his role, but because I had the opportunity to work with all the schools," M. Copeland said. "We are going to miss all the kids and parents from all the campuses. The staff here, there is none better."

She said as a couple they are not fully retiring.

"We are going to try and stay active, stay young and enjoying a lot of fun stuff," M. Copeland said. "It has been a pleasure to be here in this district and to have Jim as my boss. I know I am somewhat biased, but I think he has been an awesome leader for this district. I would like to also thank all the school board members of this district. They have been just awesome with their support for the kids and support for all of our staff."

The Copelands' were given a goodbye party on May 31 at the Platte Valley Community Center where CCSD2 staff, friends and family bid the well.

Their oldest son Mark was there with his wife Kara and daughters Emma and Hadlee to wish his father and mother well as they leave Carbon County.

"This is sort of making me feel old," Mark laughed. "But it is time for them to enjoy some time away from full time employment and more free time for hobbies and time to be around family. We have enjoyed it when we've come up from Texas to visit because this is such a beautiful place. But it will be good to have them nearby, especially as the girls get older."

It seems although everyone in Carbon County is sad the Copelands are leaving for Texas, all are happy and excited the couple are going to be around their entire family.


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