CARBONDALE, Colorado - The Roaring Fork District Re-1 school board voted 4-1 Wednesday to deny a charter application for the Two Rivers Expeditionary School (TRES), saying more work needs to be done to refine the proposal.
The board did leave the door open for a new plan to be submitted next year for a charter school to open in Glenwood Springs for the 2014-15 school year, rather than next fall as was proposed.
"From the beginning ... I was ready to say 'yes' to this," school board member Daniel Biggs said during a regular board meeting held in Carbondale.
"I am not opposed to the concept of a charter, and I think it should be part of the district," rather than the state charter school system, Biggs said.
"But, if we are to approve a charter it needs to be fully vetted, and we need to have confidence that it will provide a good experience for children," he said. "I'm still at 'yes,' just not right now."
By statute, the school board had until a late-December deadline to decide on the charter application.
The TRES group asked for an extension until late January to address the board's concerns. But a majority of the board, with member Terry Lott Richardson casting the dissenting vote, felt that a fall 2013 school opening wasn't realistic.
"The expeditionary learning approach is very exciting, and I think it has great potential," board member Richard Stettner said.
"I was looking for unanimous support, and we're not there," Stettner said, citing recommendations from district staff and the district's parent accountability committee, as well as the Colorado Charter School Institute, to deny the charter application.
EL exploration set in motion
At the same time, the board, by another 4-1 vote, decided to enter into an exploratory process starting in January to consider a possible conversion of Glenwood Springs Elementary School, or a combination of schools, into an officially sanctioned Expeditionary Learning (EL) school.
"This [charter] proposal has really driven a conversation in this district, and allowed us to be able to dream this dream," school board President Matt Hamilton said of the EL model envisioned with the TRES proposal.
Expeditionary Learning uses the same academic standards as traditional public schools. But the teaching methods are intentionally project-based around each subject, including in-depth, hands-on "expeditions" both inside and outside the school.
Jon Mann, the regional director for the national EL Schools organization, outlined the exploration process for the district to use in considering the conversion. It will involve visits to EL schools around the state, as well as training sessions for district administrators and staff. A district delegation will also be sent to the EL National Conference in Baltimore, Feb. 28 through March 2.
The total cost to do the study will be around $20,000, including travel costs, said interim Re-1 Superintendent Diana Sirko.
Board member Bob Johnson voted against doing the exploratory study, saying the district needed to gauge the "community as a whole" first.
"We haven't heard from enough of the community yet that this is where we need to go," Johnson said.
Hamilton said it will be important to engage the larger community, and particularly the teaching staff at GSES and other schools through the exploratory process.
"I do feel this is the right next step, and the right process. But it does need to be a cooperative process, and it's something we will mutually decide on in the end," Hamilton said.
Faculty buy-in is key to success
Mann, in a recent presentation, recommended that at least 80 percent of teachers in a school should be on board before doing an EL conversion.
Staff involvement and buy-in are important, said GSES kindergarten teacher Sara Peuschold.
"We do have concerns, and we want to be sure that this is really well thought-out," she said. "And we need to know that this is something the district can commit to for the next several years."
GSES Principal Penny McDill said after the board's decision that the school administration and staff is open to the idea of an EL conversion.
"We want to learn, and we want to make learning the best it can be for the kids at GSES," McDill said.
TRES proponents were hoping the school board would opt to test the EL model in a smaller charter school setting of around 200 students before looking at a larger school conversion.
"We believe you have to start looking at this kind of innovation in a smaller school environment," said TRES interim head of school Debra Winston, a former EL school designer who has worked on both conversions and charters.
Rebecca Ruland is a Glenwood Springs parent and TRES proponent who is also a school administrator in Garfield District 16 in Parachute, where two schools are in the early stages of an EL conversion.
The TRES charter proposal grew out of a desire among parents to have a small, kindergarten-through-eighth grade school with multi-age classrooms and "integrated studies," Ruland said.
A discussion on adopting the EL model on a wider basis is good to have, she said.
"We are all involved in a very important process that could lead to change in education," Ruland said.