School let out early Wednesday for the Roaring Fork School District, but nearly 1,000 of the district’s 5,800 students stayed behind to participate in activities ranging from art, music and dance, to science and outdoor projects.
The programs were provided by local organizations and coordinated by the Aspen Community Foundation’s Cradle to Career Initiative.
Teachers, meanwhile, gathered for two hours of professional development after the last bell rang at around 2 p.m. for schools in Glenwood Springs, Carbondale and Basalt.
Until now, professional development was accomplished with a late start on Monday mornings, but teachers found it challenging to have a meaningful meeting while mentally gearing up for the week and preparing for the day’s classes.
When the district broached the idea of switching to an early release, many parents objected to the inconvenience for transportation and afternoon child care. That’s where the Cradle to Career Initiative, a group of leaders from local school districts, nonprofits and other organizations from Parachute to Aspen, came in.
“The doors of the schools would be opened and dozens of organizations would be invited in to offer enrichment programs,” said John Bennett, Cradle to Career Director. “It’s a win-win.”
Myriad local groups jumped at the chance to reach out to kids and expand their education. The sort of activities previously confined to after-school time will be available on Wednesday afternoons and, in the vast majority of cases, on campus. All instructors are subject to a thorough background check, and part-time community coordinators and site coordinators have been hired to supervise at each school.
The activities have no grades, and the price for a student to attend one eight-week course is $10, which Superintendent Diana Sirko said helps encourage attendance and just about covers the cost of snacks.
The program has been so popular that the primary challenge is providing enough programming to meet the demand. Not everyone who wanted to participate made it into a course this round. Right now, about 25 percent of K-8 students are enrolled in the program, with a long-term goal of 40 percent.
Sirko thinks that will increase as more organizations and individuals step forward for the next session, which begins Oct. 29.
The schedule creates other challenges. Most bus routes will run twice on Wednesdays to accommodate the new schedule, but some routes are too long to return in 90 minutes to pick up youngsters who have been in the enrichment activities. Until the district works out an solution, families will need to arrange alternative transportation or arrive home much earlier than usual.
Although the primary focus is on elementary and middle schoolers, high schoolers in need of assistance or simply waiting for evening sports practice will have access to homework and academic support rooms. It may also prove an opportunity for students to put in volunteer time for National Honor Society or meet with advisers for precollegiate programs.
Meanwhile, teachers are getting the additional support they’ve been asking for, with long-term benefits for students.
“The most important influence on a student is teachers. We want to do everything we can to develop our teachers to be as effective as possible,” said Rob Stein, RFSD’s chief academic officer.
“It has an immediate impact on the quality of instruction,” agreed Rick Holt, director of curriculum, instruction and assessment.
Although there may still be some grumbling while the kinks get worked out, those involved in planning and running the program seemed happy with Wednesday’s maiden voyage.
“I think that RFSD should really be commended for their strategic thinking on this,” Bennett said. “It’s really innovative to combine strategic development with student enrichment.”