Tormohlen: Giving children the tools for success

Tamara Tormohlen
Giving Thought
Aspen Community Foundation, Board Photo, Mar. 13, 2014
Steve Mundinger |

In this column, we’ve discussed many of the issues impacting the Aspen-to-Parachute region and how various organizations are responding. Now we’d like to give voice to people who are working to effect positive change.

Rob Stein is a long-standing educator with experience in a variety of school sectors — public schools, private schools, charter schools and universities, among others. Known as an innovator and forward-thinker in his field, he is currently the chief academic officer and assistant superintendent of the Roaring Fork School District, which runs the public schools in Basalt, Carbondale and Glenwood Springs. He is expected to become superintendent of the 5,200-student district this summer.

Aspen Community Foundation: Even before students arrive at school, what things most help them learn?

Rob Stein: First, schools cannot be let off the hook by saying that community-based or social factors prevent students from learning. We are absolutely accountable for kids’ learning. That said, kids do show up at school with different levels of readiness and different backgrounds that either enhance or inhibit their ability to learn in school. Some of the big factors are health care, the stressors associated with poverty, and early-childhood enrichment and education.

ACF: Once they arrive at school, what are the most important things for schools to provide?

RS: The key skill, which is probably the gateway for all other skills, is literacy. We do have an emphasis on reading, especially in the primary years. As a school district, we’ve put even more emphasis on early intervention and instructional strategies to make sure every kid can learn to read by the end of third grade. … Reading is an essential skill for virtually all further learning, and we know that kids who don’t know how to read by the end of third grade tend to stay behind.

There are also critical-thinking skills. What I mean by that is we don’t just focus on the basic skills. We want kids to be questioners, doubters and explorers. So it isn’t just, “Tell me what you read.” We also ask, “What do you think about what you read? Do you agree with it?”

We’ve also put an emphasis on character skills or what we call “habits of a scholar.” Increasingly there’s evidence that those so-called soft skills are important to success in life: showing compassion and empathy, having the executive functioning to be organized, to self-manage, to self-regulate, to collaborate with others, having the perseverance to follow through on things. These are actually skills that can be learned.

ACF: What are the chief barriers to learning for kids in the Roaring Fork School District?

RS: We know that kids who get early-childhood education have an advantage; we know they’re starting with a leg up. The kids that don’t have early-childhood education definitely start with a disadvantage. Also, the kids from economically successful households have an advantage. Really, anything we can do to stabilize where kids live and their parents’ employment status. …

Another factor is access to health care. It can be a destabilizer, and it has a domino effect. Imagine a kid who gets sick — that might mean a parent has to stay home from work, or maybe an older sibling has to stay home and care for that kid. Now you’ve got two kids out of school. There are indirect consequences of poor health.

ACF: Describe some ongoing efforts in the district and its communities to counter or remove these barriers.

RS: The needs extend far beyond the typical mission of a school district and far beyond the budget of a typical school district. So there’s a kind of community umbrella that overlaps with the school district and takes care of some of the things outside what the school district can cover.

One concrete example is the Jump Start pre-kindergarten program. We’ve identified kids who have had no preschool, and we’ve invited them to a five-week program during the summer before they start kindergarten to give them a head start. Last year the Aspen Community Foundation’s Cradle to Career Initiative provided funding for some of the hard costs of providing that, and it was a big step in the right direction. Last summer we had 30 students in each of our three communities, so 90 kids altogether.

On the other end of the age spectrum, we have a shared goal as a community and a school district to get our kids ready for college and career. (The school district doesn’t) really have funding to provide the full suite of college-counseling resources, but through the Cradle to Career Initiative, (the Aspen Community Foundation) has worked with all the school districts (from Aspen to Parachute) to augment our counseling services and resources. … I think the whole notion of collective impact and collective community responsibility is very powerful.

Tamara Tormohlen is executive director of the Aspen Community Foundation.


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