Guest commentary: Unconventional student experiences come from giving to AEF | AspenTimes.com

Guest commentary: Unconventional student experiences come from giving to AEF

Brooke Bedingfield
Aspen Education Foundation

Think back. Did you learn math and engineering by building a robot or participating in an aeronautics program? Did you get to spend a week on an experiential wilderness venture? Most of us didn't. But because of an innovative community of people and an organization willing to raise needed funds, kids in Aspen have these life-changing opportunities and innovative ways of learning that few other small communities can match.

Today, life is different. Students are facing a new reality — challenged by a difficult, competitive world that we couldn't even imagine yesterday, and they need our support to meet those challenges.

We are fortunate to live here. There are many reasons, and having extraordinary schools is one of them. We believe that all children deserve life-changing educational experiences. This vision is made possible because of generous and dedicated teachers, parents and community members. The Aspen Education Foundation has played a role in supporting innovative programs for 26 years, contributing over $11 million to the Aspen elementary, middle, and high schools; Aspen Community School; and The Cottage (preK).

Colorado ranks 42nd in the nation for per-pupil funding, which means there is an annual $1,300 per student deficit to adequately fund our K-12 classrooms. During our Spring into Action fundraising campaign, we are again challenging the community to step up and help bridge the gap in state funding so that we can continue offering children such extraordinary programs.

Your support helps give young people academic opportunities through the International Baccalaureate program, express themselves through theater and music, and gain valuable advice and guidance through college counseling. They also have a chance to learn science and math through experiential programs such as Robotics and Aeronautics, and to gain valuable interpersonal skills through Outdoor and Experiential Education. AEF's goal is to raise $50,000 for each of these six programs by May 5.

Some highlights: Now in its 51st year, Outdoor Education, a hallmark of the Aspen School District, promotes the development of perseverance, empathy, compassion and the ability to recognize and appreciate one another's differences. It's a learning experience that simply cannot be replicated in the classroom.

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"Theater teaches students how to be human. It's about communication and expression, empathy and compassion — critical skills needed in a digital world where our students are growing up on their cellphones," says Director Logan Carter. Students who study music show increased test scores, better executive functioning skills and higher social skills, and they are happier and better listeners.

Seventy percent of the high school students take at least one class in the IB program, which is designed as an academically challenging and balanced program of education.

The college counselors, headed by Kathy Klug, have exposed graduates to numerous college experiences, resulting in 99 percent going on to higher level education.

The "Robo Yetis FIRST Tech Challenge" robotics team tested its engineering prowess by building a robot that recently won top awards in the Colorado Regional FIRST Challenge.

The aeronautics program includes 55 percent girls, like Grace Ferguson, who overcame major personal challenges to become a pilot and the program's first person to receive a 100 percent score on the FAA Written Knowledge Exam.

Instructor Greg Roark said, "I was watching a human metamorphosis, the likes of which I had never seen."

As a result of rigorous academics and a broad array of educational experiences beyond the classroom, our young people have the opportunity to be inspired to higher levels of personal achievement. Kids are becoming critical thinkers, ready to embrace their future.

We are a community that celebrates intellectual curiosity and personal achievements. We aim to build on this strength by investing in one of Aspen's most promising assets — our children. Together we make a difference. To donate, visit http://www.AspenAEF.org/spring-into.

Brooke Bedingfield is the executive director of the Aspen Education Foundation.