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Making the grade

Parents in the midvalley should be facing a joyous time this spring as they prepare to enroll their kindergarten-age kids in school for the first time.

Instead, for some it has turned into a lesson in high anxiety.

For the first time in several years, Aspen Elementary School probably won’t accept any out-of-district kids next school year. Large classes in grades one through four will likely leave room for in-district kids only in kindergarten, according to Aspen Elementary School Principal Barb Pitchford.

Traditionally, a substantial number of Basalt and Carbondale parents have sent their kids to Aspen public schools. And the Aspen district has welcomed them with open arms.

Over the 15 years that Tom Farrell has been the superintendent of Aspen’s schools, the out-of-district population has ranged as high as 20 percent of the student body. This year, he estimated, 230 of the 1,500 kids in the Aspen public schools come from Basalt, Carbondale and other out-of-district locales.

Aspen used to charge tuition to out-of-district students. That made it like a private school option for parents and created a financial barrier for some families from Basalt and Carbondale who wanted to send their kids upvalley. But the state outlawed that type of tuition at public schools about eight years ago.

That forced Aspen officials to discuss whether to accept any out-of-district students. The debate was won by those who argued that middle-class Aspenites driven downvalley because of high housing prices shouldn’t be barred from enrolling their kids in Aspen’s schools.

Farrell said out-of-district enrollment jumped from between 8 and 12 percent a decade ago to between 12 and 20 percent now.

“The greatest numbers are from Basalt but Carbondale is right on its heels,” said Pitchford.

Touchy issue

Discussing where parents should send their kids to school strikes a nerve in Basalt. Some parents, who would talk only if they remained anonymous, acknowledge they may move upvalley to make sure their kids can get into the Aspen schools.

It’s not just young families with a child entering school for the first time that are affected. Midvalley families who already have a child in the Aspen schools have no guarantee that younger siblings will get in, said Pitchford.

In at least two confirmed cases, families have already moved upvalley specifically because of education.

Pitchford said, due to space limitations, she typically receives more out-of-district applications for kindergarten than she can accept. This year 15 kids were turned away.

Out-of-district enrollment is granted on a first-come, first-served basis. Parents have been known to line up at 5 a.m. on the day open enrollment starts to ensure their kids get into Aspen Elementary, she said.

So what makes parents go to such extremes?

Concerns commonly voiced by midvalley parents who send their kids to Basalt schools are the quality of education, the influx of Latinos and its affects on teaching, the condition of the facilities and teacher turnover.

Downvalley officials are well aware of the concerns. Accountability committees, comprised of parents and educators at each school, are seeking ways to get parents to give their schools a closer look. They’re confident the parents will like what they see.

The board of education for the Roaring Fork School District, which includes Basalt, Carbondale and Glenwood Springs, has discussed the loss of students. The goal, said board president Robin Garvik, is to find out what the downvalley schools can do better to address the concerns.

Parents who keep their kids in Basalt’s schools fiercely defend their decision and lament that Basalt will never really be a whole community until all families work to make the schools better. Yet they fear sounding critical of friends who send their children to Aspen.

“Don’t get me in trouble,” one parent of a Basalt student said after a frank discussion.

Parents reported that the choice of schools is a hot topic among moms gathering with their youngsters at Arbaney Park and the Basalt pool on hot summer days.

One mom, whose child attends Basalt Elementary School, said she feels indirect pressure when she hears a friend say “We want the best for our child so we’re sending her to Aspen.” The message, intended or not, is “Gee, if you send your child to Basalt you must not want the best,” the woman said.

The debate about where to educate kids seems to be intensifying as Basalt draws wealthier residents. A 1998 survey performed for the town of Basalt showed that 58 percent of the respondents had lived in town less than 10 years. Thirty-five percent had household incomes greater than $70,000 and another 25 percent had incomes between $50,000 and $70,000.

The survey also showed that 57 percent of Basalt respondents had school-age kids. Education is obviously important.

White flight?

The biggest issue looming over Basalt education is the influx of Latinos over the last decade.

There appears to be a “white flight” issue, but not because Anglo parents don’t want their kids around people with a different cultural background or with a slightly darker skin color.

The concern, parents say, is that the Basalt school system’s resources are drained from teaching so many Latinos to read and write in English. Some parents fear that might diminish the school’s ability to teach their Anglo kids.

“The bilingual issue can be a big concern,” said Garvik. “There are people leaving our school district for Aspen and private schools, where the issue of a second language isn’t as great.”

Basalt Elementary School has 279 Anglo and 236 Latino students enlisted this year. That’s a split of 54 to 46 percent.

The number of Anglo students drops for each grade level, with 66 fourth-graders the high mark. The number of Anglo kindergarten students fell to 40 this year, a decrease of almost 40 percent from the fourth-grade class.

A different trend has evolved with Latinos. The numbers of Latinos varies widely for each of the classes, but it is highest in kindergarten.

At Basalt High School, about 18 percent of the 400 students are Latino.

Farrell estimated that about 12 percent of Aspen’s overall student population is Latino. The numbers probably increase in the lower grades, he said.

Deedee Hooker, a parent of two kids in Basalt Elementary School, senses the influx of Latinos is a “huge issue” among many midvalley parents. Some parents who have pulled their kids from Basalt Elementary School or never enrolled them are basing their decisions on dubious assumptions, she said.

“They have only heard things,” Hooker said. “They have never checked it out.”

Hooker was motivated by her concern for the midvalley community to counter the rumors about the quality of Basalt schools. She volunteers her time to give parents of preschool children a tour of Basalt Elementary to show off the facility and programs.

“A lot of their concerns are dispelled,” she said. “There’s nothing bad about the school. My kids are thriving.”

Test scores

One tool that parents have to assess how well schools are educating kids is the Colorado State Assessment Program or CSAPs. They measure skills in reading, writing, math and science for kids in grades three through 10.

Aspen Elementary School received the “excellent” ranking each of the last two school years with the performance judged as “stable.” Basalt Elementary School received an “average” rating each of the last two school years and a “stable” performance assessment.

Basalt Middle School boosted performance from low to average over the last two school years. Aspen Middle School has earned a “high” performance ranking each of the last two years.

Downvalley school board president Garvik said she wanted to avoid a “comparison war with Aspen” but did feel that test scores only portray part of the picture.

Downvalley schools’ performance reviews are lower than Aspen’s because of the influx of Latinos, Garvik acknowledged, but that doesn’t mean the quality of education for Anglo kids is suffering.

There is evidence to support her claim. For example, at Basalt Elementary School 77 percent of all third-graders last year were at or above a proficient reading level, up from 71 percent in 2000-01. But when the scores of native English-speaking students are isolated, 91 percent were at or above a proficient reading level last school year, up from 83 percent the year before.

Latino students increased their proficiency in reading from 13 percent in 2000-01 to 38 percent last year.

State politicians dictated last year that Latino fourth-graders had to take the CSAPs in English if they had been in the school since first grade. Previously they had the option of taking the tests in Spanish.

Basalt Elementary School Principal Suzanne Wheeler-Del Piccolo said the change gave educators little time to change the program they had been following. As a result, test scores suffered, she said.

Downvalley educators also tout a hidden benefit of Basalt Elementary’s bilingual education, one of three programs in which students can enroll. The bilingual classes have 81 Latino students and 44 Anglos.

Each day, the Latino students leave their homeroom class in two 50-minute blocks for intense studies in Spanish and English. That leaves the Anglo students alone with their homeroom teacher for 100 minutes when the student-teacher ratio is significantly reduced.

It’s not just scores

For some parents familiar with both school districts, the decision of where to send their kids relied on more than just test scores.

Kris and Matt Ferguson of Basalt decided to send their 7-year-old son to Aspen Elementary School after thorough consideration. Kris Ferguson was one of the organizers several years ago of the Basalt Education Foundation, a committee that raises funds and plans programs designed to improve education. She had every intent of sending her kids to school in the town where she lived.

When it came time to enroll their oldest son in school, they chose Aspen, not so much because of what Basalt didn’t offer but because of what Aspen did.

“The program’s amazing,” said Kris. On a typical day, her son has Spanish class, computer class and yoga among his first-grade activities.

“My husband and I look at each other and say, ‘Is he in first grade or college?’ ” she said.

In addition, Matt works in Aspen. Enrolling their child in Aspen allows father and son to commute together and enables Matt to be more involved in his son’s education.

The Fergusons hope to send their other children to Aspen Elementary School. Kris said she has heard the days of open enrollment may be coming to a close. She doesn’t have to worry about it for another couple of years, but she has friends facing the issue for next school year.

“Everybody’s a little panicky about that,” she said.

Beth Mehall was another parent who worked hard to improve Basalt schools while her two sons attended there. She served for three years on the Basalt Elementary School Accountability Committee, a collection of parents, teachers and administrators who discuss school issues and make recommendations on policy.

Mehall became concerned that Basalt was getting hemmed in by pressure to improve CSAP scores. She feared it wouldn’t give teachers enough time to work with academically advanced kids.

Basalt Elementary does have a special program that works once per week with academically advanced kids, but Mehall questions whether that was enough. She was also impressed by Aspen’s approach to continuing training for teachers.

A greater level of comfort with the Aspen school system led her to pull her boys out of Basalt last year and send them upvalley.

Meat and potatoes education

Others parents who thoroughly researched schools decided the Basalt system was best for their kids. Mike Taets and his family moved to Basalt when his oldest child was in first grade.

They decided Basalt was best for a well-rounded education in a setting where they were comfortable.

“We wanted our kids to go to Basalt where parents had to work for a living,” said Taets.

They haven’t regretted the decision. Their son graduated last year from Basalt High School as a presidential scholar with a high grade point average and high ACT score. He was accepted at every college where he applied. He ultimately selected Colorado State University.

Taets said he understands why some midvalley parents send their kids to Aspen. Lots of his friends made that choice.

“I don’t think it’s better, I think it’s different,” Taets said. “Basalt is more meat and potatoes. Aspen is more cake. We’re meat-and-potatoes kind of people.”

Taets said the issue of where to send kids to school can be touchy. Parents on both sides of the issue fiercely defend their choices and show little understanding for those who choose differently.

“People assume that because the decision is right for them, it’s right for everybody,” he said.

Garrett Brandt graduated from Aspen High School in 1987, left the valley to attend college and get his law degree, then returned to Basalt in 1998. Although he credits Aspen with providing a “fabulous” education,” he and his wife decided to put their two children in Basalt public schools.

Brandt said he never felt pressure from friends to place their kids in the Aspen schools, but he knows from talking to his peers that school choice is a constant topic of discussion.

Brandt acknowledged that the Basalt system has issues to work on. For that reason, he is a member of the Accountability Committee. Its focus now is to improve parental involvement.

“There are, quite frankly, more parents downvalley that aren’t involved,” he said. National studies show that kids receive a better education when their parents are involved. It’s not just the educators’ responsibility.

Brandt said his kids are getting a good education in Basalt. His son, a third-grader, likes his teacher and is challenged to excel.

“He’s not just expected to do the minimum and be fine with it,” Brandt said.

Teacher turnover

Another issue that plagues Basalt is teacher turnover.

The starting salary for Basalt teachers is $30,000. State statistics show the average salary for Basalt Elementary teachers is about $35,500, while the average amount of experience is eight years.

In Basalt Middle School, the average salary is $36,500 and the average experience is nine years.

Aspen Elementary School teachers average 12 years of experience and a $46,500 salary. At the Aspen Middle School, the averages are 12 years and $44,750.

Younger teachers are hard-pressed to find housing at prices they can afford. Aspen did something about that; the downvalley district is looking into it.

A November survey showed that 68 teachers in the downvalley school district would be interested in buying or renting a unit in a school housing project. Of those respondents, 30 percent are in their first year while 14 percent have one year of experience. Another 23 percent have two years of experience; 13 percent are three-year veterans; and 16 percent have worked in the area between four and seven years.

Basalt real estate agent Diane Ash serves on a committee working to provide housing for Basalt’s public school teachers on school district land behind Basalt High. Ash is involved in the effort even though her oldest child attends the private Alpine Christian Academy in the midvalley.

She said she and her husband tried to enroll their 4-year-old daughter in the public school, but she didn’t meet the minimum age requirement. They enrolled her at Alpine Christian and have kept her there because of the high quality of education, small class sizes and strong religious and moral instruction.

Sending her daughter to Aspen Elementary School wasn’t an option, she said, because she believes in keeping her child in a school within the community.

Although Ash supports her community, she worries about high turnover among Basalt teachers and its potential effects on education. New teachers cannot get a foothold in the area because starter homes cost in excess of $300,000. Many leave after a year or two.

Ash hasn’t given up on the Basalt public schools despite her concerns. She said her youngest child may attend school there. She views her work on the housing committee as a way to achieve teacher stability and make the school system better.

“The schools are never going to get better if we just watch out for our personal interests,” she said.

Basalt Elementary’s Wheeler-Del Piccolo said turnover varies from year to year and is an unfortunate fact that any school must address. She had to hire 10 teachers this year and 17 the year before.

Still, she believes the teachers are effective and that students aren’t suffering.

“We have an outstanding staff here,” said Wheeler-Del Piccolo.

While the downvalley district searches for ways to provide housing and keep teachers, Aspen has found a way. It built 27 units in the Woody Creek area for teachers.

Flashy facilities in Aspen

Relatively speaking, the Aspen School District is awash in money because of the high assessed value of real estate there. It has received community support for bond issues that enabled construction of employee housing and new schools.

A new elementary school opened less than a decade ago. A $40 million addition to the high school opened this year.

The high school campus is close to the Aspen Valley Ski Club headquarters and a lift to the Aspen Highlands base. The city’s multimillion-dollar recreation center is across the street.

The Roaring Fork School District spreads its resources across three systems in Glenwood, Carbondale and Basalt. When the district built a new high school in Basalt about five years ago, administrators claimed there wasn’t enough money for what many people would consider basic amenities – a track, football field, baseball diamond and the like.

“Everything in Aspen comes easy,” said Basalt Mayor Rick Stevens. “We need to work harder down here.”

And people do work hard. A citizens’ group called Fields of Dreams is raising funds for the sports facilities and building them as the funds come in. The Booster Club is also active.

Stevens said that builds a stronger relationship between the schools and community at large. Much of the work on the sports facilities has been donated by individuals and businesses.

“The people down here are doing all the right things,” said Stevens.

Basalt High School Principal Jim Waddick said it is common for a new school to attract students from neighboring towns and districts. He said 10 kids transferred from Basalt High School to Aspen this year while four switched from Aspen to Basalt, creating a net loss of six students.

When Basalt loses a student, they are usually on the high end of academic achievement, Waddick said. Aspen High School has a highly regarded International Baccalaureate program that provides rigorous college preparation.

“If that’s what parents are looking for, we don’t offer that,” said Garvik.

But Waddick said Basalt High School does provide a very solid education that he believes stacks up well with any school in the valley. Basalt is one of only three high schools coordinated with the University of Colorado’s Succeed Gold Program, which allows students to earn high school and college credit if the teacher has met certain standards. Next year, 19 credits will be available at Basalt.

In CSAP scoring, Basalt High School earned a “high” ranking in 2000-01 and missed it by a fraction of a point last year because the range was adjusted. Aspen is in the “high” range.

Waddick said Basalt High School probably had a reputation of stressing sports over academics before he arrived. He has worked to change that reputation. On average, about 85 percent of Basalt High School students have gone on in recent years to two- or four-year colleges.

That’s close to Aspen’s figure of roughly 90 percent.

Nevertheless, downvalley school officials suspect the fancy facilities in Aspen entice parents.

“It makes families wonder why we can’t do that here,” said school board president Garvik. “If families can look past the facilities issue, they can make an informed choice.”

Reporter Scott Condon has a child attending Basalt Elementary School. His e-mail address is scondon@aspentimes.com


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