Sterling High School’s new principal, Cindy Lystad, ready for the challenges ahead

It’s never easy stepping into a new job as school administrator, and this year there are more challenges than ever. But Sterling High School’s new principal, Cindy Lystad, has jumped right in to help navigate the waters of the unprecedented school year ahead.

Lystad, who replaces Mark Appelhans, who has returned to the assistant principal position after serving as interim principal following Wally Beardsley’s retirement in March, has been in education for 27 years, with most of that time spent on Colorado’s western slope. Her first job out of college was in Telluride, where she worked as a special education classroom resource teacher. After starting a family, the mother of four stepped away from every day involvement as a classroom teacher for a time, but did run for and was appointed to the school board in Telluride and served four years.

“We were very successful in passing mill levies for teachers’ salaries, bonds for a new addition. That was really when Telluride was really going through a lot of transformation and really developing as a community,” Lystad said, explaining that the school population really boomed during that time.

After that, she worked as an administrator in Montrose, while also serving on the school board in Ridgway for two years. She left board when she was named interim principal for Ridgway High School.

“There aren’t too many jobs in education I have not done,” Lystad said.

She has spent time as a para, a special education teacher, assistant principal, principal and interventionist and even stepped up when her school had no custodians, helping to vacuum floors and clean up spilled milk. Her time in those roles has made her comfortable working with various school staff as an administrator.

“It’s very important for me that if I ask my teachers to do something that I’m willing to do it myself or that I have done it myself,” Lystad said, adding” I truly understand the demands and responsibilities that we ask for from our teachers and I do ask a lot, the professionalism, the being available to kids, but I’ve walked the walk and talked the talk, I’ve been in their shoes, so I understand the time requirements and the amount of themselves that you have to put into being an educator, to be successful and to really connect with kids.”

With her youngest son graduating from high school, she and her husband were ready for a change and with her starting work on a doctorate degree about a year ago at University of Northern Colorado’s Denver campus, they were looking for somewhere that would be a shorter communicate for her to Denver to meet with her doctoral cohort and somewhere close to an airport, because her husband travels a lot. When she found the job at SHS it was just what she was looking for.

“It kind of worked, I’m only an hour and 45 minutes from Denver compared to six hours one-way, but the rural piece is still in there, I feel very comfortable in the rural realm and I really am an advocate for the rural voice to be heard at the legislative level,” Lystad said.

Her doctoral degree is in vocational leadership and policy, something she and Superintendent Shila Adolf bonded over when they first met.

“We both come from that philosophy of if you build really good policy you always have something to fall back on and it really gives equity and quality to how you deal with kids, and you deal with families and how you deal with teachers,” Lystad said.

So far, she is enjoying Sterling.

“Everybody’s been super great, it’s been super fun to meet the staff coming in here and I’ve really appreciated the community Zoom meetings that Shila’s been doing,” Lystad said, explaining that the meetings have helped her get an idea of what concerns families have, particularly related to COVID-19, and she understands those concerns. “This is a moving target for all of us and unfortunately I can’t just say, ‘well let me just pull out my COVID playbook of how somebody before me handled this,’ it doesn’t exist. So, we’re walking through this with them, but we’re parents too, we have spouses, we have parents that might be vulnerable, we have all these things in our own lives.”

While she is clear that she wants students back in school, she also feels a tremendous responsibility to keep everyone safe – teachers, custodial staff, lunchroom staff, coaches, students, parents and so on. She also wants to keep students at school, and not have them start and then a few weeks later something happens and they have to go to return to remote learning, “the trauma and shock of a shutdown we don’t we don’t want to go through that again,” she said.

While Lystad’s contract didn’t start until June, she was already working with the district in May, helping to plan what this school year will look like. It was something she had begun thinking about for her previous school almost as soon as school buildings were closed across Colorado in March and she’s excited to put those plans in place.

“We are completely different looking next year, just academic wise and how we’re meeting kids’ needs,” she said.

Because six-feet distancing isn’t possible due classroom sizes, all schools in RE-1 Valley School District will be placing students in cohort groups. That’s easy to do in an elementary school, when a second grade class, for example, can be sequestered, but it’s very different at the high school level when you look at 10th graders who have 10 different math and English classes they can choose from or a senior who might be taking a ninth grade English class but a college level math class.

It has been a challenge coming up with cohort groups that will work, but Lystad said they’ve come up with some “innovative ideas.”

To make the scheduling work SHS will be doing semester blocking this year, which is something a lot of other schools are doing. That means instead of students having four classes two days a week and then four different classes the other two days, they will have the same four classes every day, but those classes will be finished to completion by the end of the semester and students can enroll in different classes for the second semester, similar to college classes.

“There’s a beauty in it in several ways,” Lystad said.

First, students could possibly catch up in math because they could take two math classes in one year, for example algebra 1 the first semester and geometry the second semester. Also, it increases students’ ability to get more electives and if the district has to move back to remote learning it allows teachers and students to have a tighter focus, because there aren’t eight classes only four.

“A big advantage to reworking it that we’re really excited about is that it is going to allow a lot more flexibility,” Lystad said.

She is also excited about the district adding technology so that it can go one-to-one with students, meaning every student will have access to a laptop. Of course making these purchases has been somewhat difficult because many school districts across the United States are needing the purchase the same things.

“It’s interesting, the silver lining is in there,” Lystad said of the COVID situation. “We get to be more technology savvy, the teachers are all rallying around each other, saying ‘okay, we want what’s best for kids and we’re going to try this.’”

While change in schools is usually evolutional, meaning slowly over time new ideas are tried, evaluated and if they work they’re fully implemented, because of COVID, Lystad said schools are having to make transformational changes, working quickly to revise the way they do things because they have no other choice.

As she steps into the leadership role at SHS, Lystad’s vision for the school is that it is welcoming to every student, no matter where they’re coming from or what they want out of education, “I want to meet kids where they are,” she said. She also wants SHS to be a safe space, where students can make mistakes and learn from them and take healthy risks, such as trying out a class they wouldn’t ever have thought of taking, “it’s all about a growth mindset,” she said.

“I want Sterling High School to be a place people choose to send their kids to because they know we have their best interest at heart and will work with them and their family to get them the best and most appropriate education we can,” Lystad said.

As the school year begins, she would appreciate any feedback parents and students want to give about how things are going and what they need from the school to meet their needs.

Lystad invites those looking for more specific details about SHS’s return to in-person learning to attend a virtual Zoom meeting hosted by herself and Adolf on Monday, starting at 4 p.m. To join the meeting, go to