Planting roots: ACES educators find a sense of place in Roaring Fork Valley schools

A kindergartner uses the insect goggles to experience what it’s like to have compound eyes during an ACES lesson at Aspen Elementary School on Thursday, March 24, 2022. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)

On a bluebird spring afternoon at Aspen Elementary School, 14 little insects prepared for transformation.

Abuzz with excitement, ants, ladybugs and bumblebees circled their surroundings and hibernated — then turned into migrating butterflies. Moments later, they became beetles and grasshoppers, then curled up into beetle eggs that hatched back into their original form: kindergartners.

Each week, this giddy gaggle and every other class at the school gets to learn about the world around them from educators hired by the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies. There are three full-time educators based in the quirky auxiliary environmental education classroom at Aspen Elementary and two each stationed at Basalt Elementary, Crystal River Elementary in Carbondale and Kathryn Senor Elementary in New Castle.

ACES senior educator Denali Barron leads a kindergarten class through a transformation into insects during a lesson at Aspen Elementary School on Thursday, March 24, 2022. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)

“What we’re doing is sharing the connection and the joy of being able to live here with students, and when you’re doing that on a daily basis, it’s hard not to catch it yourself,” said senior educator Denali Barron, who works at Aspen Elementary School and has nine years of classroom time under her belt with ACES.

Barron’s tenure is an anomaly in the educator role, which most folks fill for one to three years, she said. But it isn’t unusual for educators to plant roots here in the Roaring Fork Valley, watered by that sense of joy and connection.

Former ACES educators now work in classrooms and administrative offices throughout the valley as well as in long-term roles at ACES’ Hallam Lake nature preserve in Aspen and Rock Bottom Ranch in El Jebel.

Take Garry Pfaffmann, for example: He found a “huge sense of community” at ACES as a summer naturalist in 1997, which he followed with a winter naturalist gig and a couple of years in the classroom as an educator at Aspen Elementary. After a stint in the Peace Corps, with a desire to stay in education and in the valley, he landed at the Aspen Community School, where he has now worked as a teacher for nearly 20 years.

“I got my foundation, my teaching foundation at ACES,” Pfaffmann said.

ACES senior educator Denali Barron works with kindergarten students to examine butterflies during a lesson on insects at Aspen Elementary School on Thursday, March 24, 2022. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)

“There was a big emphasis on instilling a sense of wonder, instilling a sense of curiosity, multisensory learning … a huge sense of field observation and field trips and experiential learning,” he added. “I’m so lucky to be at the Community School where I can put those same educational values into practice.”

The close relationships ACES has with local schools and the “real-world experiences” it cultivates are part of a model that Sarah After said she hadn’t really seen anywhere else when she joined as an educator in 2006 and 2007, then stuck around as education director until 2013 before moving over to a teaching position at Aspen Middle School.

She now works at Aspen School District as a librarian and the International Baccalaureate Middle Years program coordinator. And like Pfaffmann, After also applies her experience at ACES to her current role in schools.

“(ACES) is really inquiry-based, where kids are exploring and asking questions and learning through experience,” After said. So is IB, she noted; the fundamentals of inquiry-based learning that she focused on years ago at ACES translate to her work on the implementation of a district-wide “IB for all” program.

A kindergarten student sprawls outside reading books on insects while attending an ACES lesson at Aspen Elementary School on Thursday, March 24, 2022. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)

In her early years as an educator, After said she also gained a sense of place that she still uses to foster connections with the community around her.

“I think starting on ACES was such a great way to get to know the community well — both the environmental place that I live in and also the people that live here, so it made me feel a part of things right away. … I still have that with me, and use that knowledge today,” she said.

Many former ACES educators say that bond with this place and its people is a core reason they decided to make a life and an educational career here in the Roaring Fork Valley.

Kindergarten students color their own insects during an ACES lesson at Aspen Elementary School on Thursday, March 24, 2022. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)

“I would say it’s just like a deep connection to place and community,” said Kamille Winslow, who is now the school programs manager for ACES after two years as an educator at Basalt Elementary. It probably helps that so much of the valley is attuned to the wavelength of people curious and passionate about the natural world, she noted.

“As an educator, you’re continuously learning, you’re creative, you are most likely … very enthusiastic about outdoor recreation, and the access we have here in the valley, I think, really encourages people to stay around here.”

ACES is now looking for its next contingent of educators with a hiring deadline of April 8. For those thinking about taking the leap, Winslow suggested that “having a growth mindset is really important, because every day is different. You’re going to learn new things from every student in every class.”

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