Aspen Community School is head of the class |

Aspen Community School is head of the class

Jim Gilchrist, principal of the Aspen Community School, in the school’s main gathering area Friday.
Jason Auslander/The Aspen Times |

The No. 1 middle school in Colorado based on overall performance on standardized tests is located right in Aspen’s backyard, according to a website that crunches state data.

Middle schoolers at Aspen Community School in Woody Creek received an A-plus and a perfect score en route to being the top ranking out of 501 middle schools in the state, according to

“We were really psyched to be No. 1,” said Jim Gilchrist, the Community School’s principal. “But no one is beating their chest. This valley has some awesome schools.”

ColoradoSchoolGrades uses data taken from standardized tests administered to every public school student in the state and creates a letter grade for each one, according to the website. Gilchrist said the data includes student achievement scores and student growth rates.

“The state is especially excited about student growth,” he said. “We call that learning.”

Aspen Community School is a kindergarden-through-eighth grade charter school, which is part of the Aspen School District. Any student who lives in the Roaring Fork Valley is eligible and enrollment is based on a lottery system, Gilchrist said. About half of the school’s students come from the midvalley and half from the Aspen School District, he said.

The teacher to student ratio is about 15-to-1, compared with something like 25-to-1 in a standard, large metro-area middle school. The school places a large emphasis on the arts, outdoor education and getting students to think critically, Gilchrist said.

That means giving students the opportunity to work independently on projects rather than the standard model of listening to a teacher all day, working on handouts and taking tests, he said.

“We try and create a climate where it’s cool to be smart and work hard,” said Gilchrist, who’s been with the school for 31 years. “Our mission is to create lifelong learners.”

For example, the school’s seventh- and eighth-grade classes are currently studying homelessness and will travel to San Francisco later this year to work in a homeless shelter, he said.

Tricia Johnson, a Woody Creek resident with two children who attend the Community School, said that freedom for students to pursue topics they’re curious about sets the school apart.

“The biggest thing I’ve noticed is that sense of agency,” Johnson said. “They get to choose certain things to study.”

Her son Finn, 11 and now in sixth grade, expressed an interest last year in studying civil rights, she said. The boy’s teacher called her and said that while the subject can be intense, the teacher felt he could handle it, Johnson said.

As a parent, it was great to see how much he cared,” she said. “And now, a year and a half later, he’s still involved in social justice.”

Johnson’s daughter Tatum, 14 and an eighth grader, also has benefited from the same outlook. In her case, she was ahead in math and needed to be challenged, Johnson said. However, instead of giving her more math that might have been redundant, her teachers instead asked Tatum, a musician, to compose songs for an upcoming school play.

“I wouldn’t have my kids at any other place in this valley,” Johnson said.

While the Community School’s elementary students are not ranked as high as the middle school, Gilchrist said he’s particularly proud of the middle school ranking, because students that age often prefer to goof off rather than achieve academically.

That means the Community School is able to lay a solid foundation in elementary school, allowing middle schoolers to “go off the rails” when they get there, he said.

“I’m incredibly proud of our teachers, students and parents,” Gilchrist said.

Aspen Middle School received a C-minus from ColoradoSchool, and ranked 276 out of 501 middle schools in the state, according to the website.

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