Guest commentary: Aspen School District can hold its head high |

Guest commentary: Aspen School District can hold its head high

Sandra Peirce and Sheila Kennedy Wills
Guest Commentary


Every Monday, The Aspen Times is hosting a guest column from a Roaring Fork Valley nonprofit, government agency or local entity.

We have been distressed by a number of assertions recently made about the quality of the Aspen School District. Please consider the following.

The quality of the education our children receive has not been in a downward spiral for the last seven years. The contention to the contrary is based solely on the scores of whatever state mandated, standardized test that the students took annually (there have been four different tests in the last seven years). As board members, we question relying exclusively on a test that takes a third grader over 9 hours to complete and has absolutely no impact on the way an eighth-grader’s teacher will teach or the grade that eighth-grader will receive. (Evidently, a number of our parents think similarly as 17 percent of our students opted out of the PARCC test last year.) The District has long focused on the education of the whole child; outdoor and experiential education, sports programs, service learning opportunities, social emotional learning, and visual and performing arts are all areas that do not appear on standardized tests. The board looks at a wide number of indicators to determine the areas of strength and weakness; teacher judgment, DIBELS, STAR, PSAT, SAT and IB scores, student participation rates in Ex Ed and ODE, incidents of questionable behavior and evidence of social emotional health, graduation rates, the number of students matriculating to college and many other factors play a role in the board’s annual analysis of how our District is performing.

The board is a good steward to your tax dollars with a vision for the future. Since 2011 when it became apparent to the board that the State would never be able to meet its $2.1 million a year and growing funding shortfall to the District, the board has worked to develop plans that ensure the District’s financial health. Early on the District implemented the recommendations of a budget reduction task force while the board worked with the community for the passage of the Aspen sales tax initiative. The board then developed a creative, three-pronged financing plan which (thank heavens) the voters approved over the course of the 2015 and 2016 elections. Without hard work and creative vision, the District’s small class size and wide breadth of programming would no longer be economically feasible. The District spends 82 percent of its budget on salaries and benefits, 9 percent of which goes to administrator salaries. Comparing the number of district office personnel in the following districts: Roaring Fork (15), Garfield 2 encompassing New Castle to Rifle (14), Garfield 16 encompassing Parachute and Battlement Mesa (9), Eagle (16) and Steamboat Springs (11), Aspen (10) has the next to the lowest number of district office personnel.

The District does not have a noxious work environment that causes its staff to leave in droves. Sole citation to the TELL Survey of 2015 is misleading in that it communicates only a part of the story. Finding strong leadership for the high school had been a struggle, and that struggle came to a head during the 2013/2014 and 2014/2015 school years. Since then, the board has made school culture one of its primary goals, and significant headway has been made. Among the many changes implemented were the installation of new leadership at both the high school and the elementary school. The development of a High School Leadership Team consisting of teachers and administrators has led to more open communication and cooperative problem solving. District wide training in Adaptive Schools has led to more inclusive, safe and honest methods of conflict resolution and problem solving. Monthly meetings between representatives of the AEA and district administrators provide opportunities to address issues before they become significant. The TELL survey will not be re-administered until February 2018. The District administered a similar survey to its staff in the spring of 2017, however, and although the results show work still needs to be done, there are significant increases in the way the respondents feel about the support they receive and the climate in the workplace. Over the last eight years, the teacher turnover rate, including retirements, for the District has averaged 10.2 percent.

The District does teach STEM classes. Elementary school students are expected to learn specific technology skills and are exposed to robotics and aeronautics. Both of those classes become more robust in middle school, and computer coding becomes available along with required yearly science and progressive math classes. In High School in addition to computer science and three types of pilot ground school, the high school teaches 32 different types of math and science classes.

In the end, we have great teachers, great leaders and great kids, and an excellent school district that strives to improve.

Every Monday, The Aspen Times is hosting a guest column from a Roaring Fork Valley nonprofit, government agency or local entity.


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