A new direction for GarCo District 16 | PostIndependent.com

A new direction for GarCo District 16

Bea Underwood Elementary students respond to a question from Ms. Campbell.
Will Grandbois / Post Independent |

When the Great Recession hit and the oil and gas industry pulled up stakes, Garfield County District 16 went down with the ship.

As families moved away from Parachute and Battlement Mesa, the district lost about 300 of its roughly 1,000 students, which in turn led to a 30 percent reduction in staff. Test scores lagged, teachers went without raises and school was reduced to four days a week to save money.

Today, the district has a new direction, test scores and enrollments are up, and there’s some money in the coffers thanks to a successful mill levy and bond issue last November.

“We’ve ridden out the storm pretty well,” Superintendent Ken Haptonstall said. “For our demographics, we outperform almost everybody. If we weren’t already seeing success, I don’t think they would have or should have supported us.”

“We really try to create a sense of community and purpose. We want to put kids in the driver’s seat and make them participants in their education, not just observers.”Jory SorensenGrand Valley Middle School principal

The $30 million bond extension will pay for some security and infrastructure upgrades as well new curriculum resources such as textbooks and software, while the $1.1 million mill levy will help to shore up the budget.

It will also pay for a counselor to help students with college readiness and a new position digging up community internships to give each high schooler hands-on work experience.

“We can do all the academics we want, but that’s where kids get those work skills,” Haptonstall said.

The most meaningful changes, however, aren’t about the money.

“A lot of it we were already doing,” Haptonstall said. “I think the bond and the mill levy will really help us support that learning.”

At the elementary and middle school level, the district has implemented expeditionary learning (EL), a curriculum that emphasizes hands-on, integrated learning with plenty of community tie-in.

“It’s just a matter of trying to make connections for kids that are authentic and real,” explained Brady Ray, principal at Bea Underwood Elementary. “The school has been underperforming. We’ve owned that, and we’re going to do something about it. The whole staff is dedicated to that.”

In one of the Bea Underwood’s multi-grade classrooms, third-grader Geysha Esparza is learning about bold beginnings in writing.

“You have to grab them and pull them in,” she explains.

Upstairs, one teacher is reading a Magic School Bus book about the solar system to another teacher’s class. Two teachers mean more individual attention, and the story will both help the students learn the science and prepare them to write a story of their own.

It seems to be working.

Kaylae Medina has been learning about the phases of the moon in her fourth-grade class, and has no trouble identifying the current phase as a crescent.

“Expeditions are fun,” she said of the EL program.

Destiny Daniels, an eighth-grader at Grand Valley Middle School, agreed.

Her class is working on the geologic time scale. In the process, they’re tackling the stratigraphy of societal change and the boom and bust cycle. For a hands-on component, they’re tracing themselves to make a time scale of their own lives.

“It gives us something to do besides sit in class,” she said.

For GVMS Principal Jory Sorensen, the curriculum is about a lot more than that.

“What’s really different about EL is that it includes both academic rigor and what it means to be a good person and a good citizen,” he said.

At both schools, staff are working to instill a set of five principles: collaboration, responsibility, inquiry, service and perseverance, or CRISP. The stakes are particularly high in the in-between years of middle school, Sorensen said. Chief among his tools is the morning meeting, which brings the whole school together to share talents and discuss goals.

“We really try to create a sense of community and purpose,” he said. “We want to put kids in the driver’s seat and make them participants in their education, not just observers.”

When students reach Grand Valley High School, they’ll need all those skills. While many schools embrace Advanced Placement for a few classes, Grand Valley takes the next step with AP for all. Like expeditionary learning, AP comes with the stability of teacher training and consistency. The AP test is covered by grant money, and many students are making the cut for college credit, while those who don’t aren’t penalized. The standards set by the college board are rigorous, but Principal Ryan Frink believes students across the spectrum benefit.

“We’re meeting the kids at their skill level,” he said. “It’s not just pushing the top 20 percent but taking everyone and pushing them further.”

More than the content, he hopes to instill some of those same CRISP values.

“When they leave here, wherever they go, they’re going to have the grit to persevere,” he said. “What you remember, and what you actually become, are the skills you learned along the way.”

It seems to be making a difference. The school recently received the Governor’s Award and was recognized as a gold level School of Opportunity.

There’s a noticeable change at the gaps on either side of high school, too.

“The message we’re getting from graduates about the transition to college is much more positive than it was a few years ago,” Frink said. “And every year, our freshman class comes in with better study habits.”

Added Haptonstall, “We’ve basically said here’s the bar, and pretty much all the kids are getting there.”

In some ways, the challenges have been a blessing. The four-day-a-week schedule provides students an opportunity to take college classes, and staffers benefit from biweekly professional development days. There’s actually more instruction time, and if parents aren’t home to take care of younger kids on Mondays, the students can attend school-sponsored programs on science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

The schedule may also be a reason for teachers, who are susceptible to the same turnover as students, to stick around — although the district’s program to pay for master’s degrees for long-serving teachers probably doesn’t hurt either.

Although some might bemoan the fact that only about a dozen students in each graduating class have passed through the whole system, the instability may make them more tolerant.

“These kids are used to new kids coming and going,” Frink said. “Most of them were new themselves and they know what it’s like.”

The oil and gas industry has also pitched in for the construction of some of the schools, and the district is well situated for grants.

“We’re the epicenter of oil and gas,” Haptonstall said. “Whatever happens, good or bad, it’s going to have an impact on us.”

Eventually, though, he’d like to turn the tables.

“I want people to want to stay here because the school system’s that good,” he said. “That, to me, helps build a community.”

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