In 2020, Colorado AcademyUpper School Principal Dr. Jon Vogels announced that he was stepping down to return to fulltime teaching and to lead the launch of CA’s Speech and Debate Program. His successor, Max Delgado, will start at CA in summer 2021. In almost every way imaginable, the Colorado Academy Upper School that Vogels bequeaths to Delgado bears no resemblance to the school he inherited 18 years ago.
When he took over the Upper School position, Vogels found himself working in a worn, outdated, and overcrowded Upper School building that had been built in the ‘60s. It had one science lab.
Today, Vogels’ successor will find a state-of-the-art LEED-qualified Upper School building with multiple science laboratories, the 110-seat Knowles Lecture Hall, and the Anderson Innovation Lab, where students can design, engineer, and build whatever their imagination creates.
When he was hired, Vogels led an Upper School with 320 students—it’s now grown to 420. He had 32 fulltime faculty members—and now, he works with more than 50 faculty.
The school Vogels inherited had one part-time counselor sitting in a dark office in the basement. Today, CA prioritizes student social and emotional health, boasting two fulltime counselors. And they no longer sit in the basement.
Finally, alumni with good memories will recall one of the traditions in place when Vogels arrived. Twice a year during exam periods, all Upper School students would carry their desks over to the old gym to take exams. After watching small students struggle (and fail) to transport large desks, Vogels pointed out that the practice simply defied common sense. That was the end of what he calls “the great desk migration.”
But for all the changes that have occurred during Vogels’ tenure as principal, what is most important at CA’s Upper School has not changed at all—the feeling of connections within the community.
“Even as we have grown, we have not sacrificed the personal,” Vogels says. “I teach, I go to plays, I watch sports events, and it reaffirms what we do. We give students so many great opportunities to learn, perform, and achieve. We are fortunate to have the resources to support students and introduce them to situations where they can be successful. Then we stand back and let them flourish.”
Arriving at CA
Former Head of School Chris Babbs did not have to twist Vogels’ arm during the hiring process nearly two decades ago. Vogels had grown up in Denver, knew about CA, and was ready to return to Colorado.
He had watched two nephews and a niece attend CA, and now he had the opportunity to bring his own young family to the school. His son, Henry Chesley-Vogels, was in childcare when Vogels started the job. This year, Henry graduates with the Class of 2021, a homegrown example of what appealed to Vogels about CA.
“In a Pre-K through Grade 12 school, you can walk across campus and see a First Grader, a Sixth Grader, and an Upper Schooler,” he says. “I loved the environment where you could watch the span of a child’s education, and you could work with families over a long period of time. It’s also wonderful to see your own children grow up in that kind of community.”
Building a new Upper School
Perhaps one of the most important days during Vogels’ tenure in the Upper School came in January of 2013, when the ribbon was cut and Upper Schoolers flooded into the new building, after just seven months of fundraising and seven months of construction. Architects had encouraged Vogels and other school administrators to be “aspirational” in this new building, with an eye on letting the space help teachers take their practice to a new level.
“It was one of the most exciting things I got to do as principal,” Vogels says. “The decision-making was great fun, and we knew this building could transform Upper School programs at CA.”
There were no models for Vogels to follow. He was designing a building for programs that did not exist yet. He remembers how the idea of pulling lockers away from the walls and placing them in the center of the hall felt “revolutionary.” He envisioned Knowles as a “great space,” although he admits that, at the time, seeing how the space for the now-successful Innovation Lab would be used was “challenging.”
He persuaded teachers to give up their exclusive classrooms and share an office alongside teachers from different disciplines, where they could more easily exchange ideas. The result? CA has gone from few interdisciplinary courses to more than a dozen. He planned for rotating art displays, floor-to-ceiling white boards in math labs, classrooms with modular furniture to accommodate dynamic teaching styles and small groups, student lounges for each grade, and 22 skylights to bring natural light into both floors of the building.
“I still love the fact that we brought natural light into the building,” he says. “It was a huge win.”
Writing the next chapter
In fall 2021, Vogels will have a rare opportunity in any teacher’s career. He will work with students in a second new building. When the newly-built Leach Center for the Performing Arts opens, he will be the faculty adviser for the nascent CA Speech and Debate program, spending many of his Saturdays traveling to tournaments, in addition to teaching a full load of classes. CA has considered starting a Speech and Debate Club for as long as Vogels has been at the school. Now, he is the right man, at the right time, and in the right place—a wonderful new performing arts center with a space dedicated to speech and debate.
“I think it’s so important for students to learn public speaking skills,” he says. “No matter what field students go into, you need to be able to think on your feet, know about current events, and speak extemporaneously. Speech and debate builds confidence, language skills, and the competition is fun.”
While Vogels is pleased to have a new opportunity at CA, the school is equally delighted he is staying.
“I am so thankful to work with Jon and so pleased that he will continue teaching at CA,” says Head of School Dr. Mike Davis. “Jon always puts students first, and he is a man of deep integrity. His faculty trust him. Under Jon’s leadership, the Upper School has evolved in significant ways, beginning new programs and initiatives that have enhanced CA’s reputation on a national level.”
Vogels looks back with pride at his accomplishments—the commitment to caring for students’ social and emotional health, the strong group of faculty he assembled through the years who “put their heart and soul into what they are doing,” and the ways that CA has grown “without sacrificing what makes an independent school special.”
He acknowledges what he will miss—“working with an incredible administrative team”—but this principal who also loves to teach literature is ready to write the next chapter in his personal story.