Jefferson High School principal Michael James started the school year by challenging his new freshmen to beat the upperclassmen to a cheering contest.

The freshman lost, but, James consoled them that over time their voices would become louder and their spirit stronger.

“I know it’s a challenge to have your first day of school in a new building,”James said.

Jefferson High School is the smallest high school in Jefferson County, with about 550 students. It is this small, close-knit culture that makes the school so special, James said.

“I am one of those principals that is going to push you in many different areas, and one of those areas is involvement,” he said. “I want you to raise your leadership. I want every one of you to be able to say ‘I am a student leader.'”

These freshmen weren’t just meeting new students and staff. Today, they met Jefferson County Public Schools’ new superintendent, Dan McMinimee.

There’s a lot at stake for the new district leader, a former Douglas County Public Schools assistant superintendent.

McMinimee came into leadership during a tumultuous time for the district. Tensions between the board and parents, teachers and community members reached an all-time high when Cindy Stevenson bowed out four months before her retirement, after 12 years as superintendent. Stevenson left, citing distrust between her and the board’s new conservative majority, leading residents demanding a recall of its board members.

His road to appointment wasn’t an easy one. After a split 3-2 vote from the board in May, community members raised concerns about his credentials and whether McMinimee is worth his $280,000 salary.

His message to the students echoed his own charge as district leader — they should become actively involved in their schools.

“You make the decision, today, whether you’re going to be engaged in the Jefferson community,” he said to the 200-some students, teachers and staff gathered in the school’s auditorium.

A principal for seven years, McMinimee said visibility and community input in decision-making are two of his top priorities this school year.

When it comes to getting parents and students involved in decision-making at the school level, McMinimee said empowering principals will be the most important thing.

“I think one of the big things that I do really well is high visibility and high access,” he said. “I think that’s important for people  — especially in a district the size of Jefferson County — to feel like they have access to the superintendent and board of education.”

McMinimee spent Jeffco’s first day back visiting seven schools, including Jefferson High and Edgewater Elementary, which have two of the district’s highest number of students on free-and-reduced lunch.

“If there are challenging circumstances, we need to provide the resources to make sure that building principals get an opportunity to do the things they need to do with their staff to make it a great place for kids,” he said. “Authentic engagement really happens at individual schools,”

After the school assembly, James and McMinimee met to talk about the school’s goals.

“We want to raise the bar for every student,” James said. “We want students to realize that a diploma is the most important gift to receive.”

James said he hopes McMinimee and Jefferson High students and staff can work toward those same goals throughout the school year.

McMinimee said one of his toughest challenges this year will be acclimating to Jeffco’s climate and culture.

“Dr. Stevenson was here for 12 years, so she leaves a tremendous legacy of knowledge around what’s going on in schools and who’s doing what,” McMinimee said. “She probably hired most, if not all, the principals in these schools. I think that familiarity is a big challenge to overcome.”

He said, from there, he hopes the board, teachers and parents can come together to develop common goals.

The board will meet later this month, and McMinimee said he is looking forward to getting to know its members and the community in the coming months.

“I haven’t had an opportunity to meet with them at all, except for my interviews way back in May,” he said. “I hope what comes of that meeting is a sense that we have some great goals that we’re going to be working toward, and we’re going to work together moving forward.”