Colorado Mountain College President Carrie Hauser is living her dream job
Carrie Besnette Hauser considers her position as president of Colorado Mountain College to be a dream job.
“I’ve described it as a confluence, using a river term,” says the longtime river-running enthusiast. “It’s in Colorado, which I love. It’s the mountains, and it’s college.”
Hauser has embraced all three words in the name of Colorado Mountain College, which stretches across much of the state’s central mountain region, including Garfield, Pitkin and Eagle counties.
This summer, though, she celebrated a particular accomplishment regarding that middle word, “mountain,” achieving a new milestone in her avocation as a mountaineer by summiting the iconic and glaciated 14,410-foot-high Mount Rainier in Washington state.
It follows other climbing successes that include summiting 56 14,000-foot peaks in Colorado, and 19,340-foot Mount Kilimanjaro, the highest point in Africa. She also has trekked to Mount Everest base camp, at some 17,600 feet in Nepal.
Meanwhile, Hauser recently rose to prominence of a different sort, voted by the Colorado Wildlife Commission to serve as its chair until 2023. Her new position comes at a particularly pivotal time for the commission and CPW as they work to implement a measure approved by voters last year requiring wolves to be restored to western Colorado starting no later than the end of 2023.
“As much as it is a significant time commitment, I felt like during this year it was important for the Western Slope that a person from the Western Slope be a chair for the commission,” she said.
Hauser also has played a leadership role on another statewide issue of note, having been involved in efforts to bring the Olympic Games to Colorado.
It’s yet another reflection of someone with a longtime interest in outdoors and sports carrying those passions forward in her professional life and service to community.
Rabid about rapids
Even before Hauser became a gym rat in high school as a serious basketball and volleyball player, she was a river rat on the Colorado River. When growing up in Flagstaff, Arizona, her dad would take her on Grand Canyon hikes down to the Colorado River.
“Then he took me on a river trip when I was 12 or so, and I was totally hooked,” she said.
She later began working for Grand Canyon river-running company Hatch River Expeditions as a swamper, an entry-level worker who cooked, tended to porta-potties, led hikes, and on occasion rowed or drove boats.
“I just wanted to be in the Grand. That was all I wanted to do,” Hauser said.
Later on, though, she embarked on a professional career that took her to the Front Range, where one of her jobs was with the Daniels Fund. There, she served as a loaned executive whose work included time on the Metro Denver Sports Commission board to attract big sporting events. She co-chaired the women’s Final Four NCAA basketball tournament in Denver.
“As a former basketball player, I thought I’d died and gone to heaven,” Hauser said.
As for the Olympics, Hauser was part of an exploratory committee that went to the 2006 Winter Games in Torino, Italy, when Denver was pursuing hosting the 2018 Winter Games.
She later was involved in a Denver bid for the 2030 Winter Games. Neither effort succeeded because of a variety of factors.
It doesn’t help that Denver was awarded the 1976 Games, but state voters rejected holding them in Colorado over concerns about costs and environmental impacts.
”That’s a hard one to overcome in the Olympic movement,” Hauser said.
‘Historic’ wolf work
Hauser became president at Colorado Mountain College in 2013. She recalls advice she received around that time from Russell George, the Rifle resident who has served roles including speaker of the state House of Representatives, director of what was then the state Division of Wildlife, executive director of the state departments of Natural Resources and Transportation, and president of Colorado Northwestern Community College.
“He said, ‘Say yes to everything,’” Hauser said.
The point was that stepping up to serve in capacities such as on state boards is a way for the Western Slope to have a seat at the table, and Hauser viewed agreeing to serve on the Colorado Parks and Wildlife commission as one way of doing that.
She sees the wolf-reintroduction situation as one where it’s important for all interested Coloradans to have a seat at the table to voice their views, from ranchers worried about what reintroduction will mean for their operations to Front Range residents excited by science suggesting wolves can help balance ecosystems.
”One way or the other, (reintroduction) will be a very historic thing for Colorado, and I hope that we do it well,” Hauser said.
In her day job, Hauser has been involved with initiatives such as boosting representation of Latinos in CMC’s student body to better reflect the proportion in public schools in the college’s district.
This year, the federal government designated CMC as a Hispanic Serving Institution after efforts that increased its Latino representation to more than 25%.
A Sueños (Dream) Fund program allows DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) students not eligible for other financial aid to borrow money from CMC to pay to go to college.
The recipients then pay the money back interest-free through an income-sharing agreement, and the repaid money is used for other participants in the program.
Hauser also created a President’s Scholarship program, under which every graduating high school student in CMC’s district is offered $1,000 toward attending the open-enrollment school, as long as they agree to attend full time and apply for financial aid. Hauser said full-time students are far likelier to finish school, and students leave money on the table by failing to seek financial aid. These are issues the scholarship helps to address.
For anyone counting peaks — as climbers of Colorado’s fourteeners tend to do obsessively — 24 of the state’s 14,000-foot-plus peaks are in CMC’s district. Hauser has climbed some of the state’s fourteeners with her husband Jeff, including a particularly memorable one, Challenger Peak, 12 years ago.
When they summited, Jeff Hauser asked Carrie to sit down for a minute, and then asked her to marry him.
“His question for me was, ‘Are you up for a lifetime of challenges?’” she recalls.
On Rainier, her climbing partner was Jon Kedrowski, a geographer, CMC adjunct professor and mountain guide who this year also summited Mount Everest for his second time.
The memories of the Rainier challenges and the mountain itself are plentiful for Hauser, such as ominously hearing rocks and ice falling at night as she tried to sleep at a camp during the ascent.
But Hauser was particularly struck by a serendipitous encounter during the descent when she and Kedrowski began talking with a fellow climber they met, Don Nguyen.
They learned that he’s a mountain guide who cofounded a nonprofit called Climbers of Color — and was a student in CMC’s Outdoor Recreation Leadership program at its Leadville campus.
“His first comment to Jon and me was, ‘I would never be a professional guide if it wasn’t for CMC.’ Uh — OK, job done, mic drop,” Hauser said with a laugh. “That was pretty cool.”
George is impressed by the contribution Hauser makes to CMC and is glad she is chair of the wildlife commission, not just because of the wolf issue, though he thinks she’s well suited to play a strong leadership role handling that.
“She’s one of my absolute favorite people. I have as much regard for her as anybody. She’s brilliant, she’s dedicated, she means to do well, and she’s got the goods to do it,” he said.
This article first appeared in the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel and is being reprinted by permission in the Glenwood Springs Post Independent.
Aspen District Theater is due for a bond-funded upgrade
The Aspen District Theater and Black Box could use some upgrades, according to attendees at Thursday’s community meeting at the Black Box.
The entrance to the District Theater — located inside the elementary school — is also the entrance to the school itself, prompting safety concerns as well as issues with flow; the theater also shares bathrooms with the elementary school. (The Black Box theater, located in the high school, has its entrance to the east of the main doors.)
Access to the neighboring venues, while central to the district campus, isn’t easy to navigate for those with mobility challenges. And spaces near the District Theater stage that might otherwise function as rehearsal space or dressing rooms are currently operating as preschool classrooms.
Plus, the two on-campus facilities see use not only from student performers but from other community arts organizations like Theatre Aspen and the Aspen Community Theatre. That offers an “incredible opportunity” for students to gain exposure to professional productions, but it also means the facilities face challenges with availability and management, said Tammy Baar, who has been involved in both student and community theater in Aspen for decades.
Bookings must be submitted months or even a year in advance, and professional groups don’t always have access to all the facilities (like dressing rooms or a scene shop) that they need at the same space because many spaces serve multiple purposes.
“Clearly, the uses of (the theater) are limited somewhat by the design,” said Kurt Hall, who serves as the vice president and district liaison for the Aspen Education Foundation, a nonprofit that funds a variety of initiatives in Aspen’s public schools.
There’s an “enormous” amount of potential, said Melanie Muss, a local parent and real estate agent who is also involved in the community theater scene.
But considering the high caliber of performance that often takes place at the venues, the facilities themselves are “substandard,” she said.
“I think people come despite the spaces. … It’s more than just aesthetics, it’s a whole flow,” Muss said.
These issues are hardly new; back in 2005, the campaign for a $33 million bond issue floated the idea of upgrades at the District Theater, but that remodel never happened.
Thursday’s community meeting was part of a series of conversations happening this month to help consultants and planners evaluate how some of that bond funding will address the need for upgrades at the District Theater and Black Box.
Talks between planners and community members kicked off in earnest with Zoom and in-person meetings this week and will continue into the next week, Gena Buhler said in an interview after the community meeting.
Buhler has been in touch with a number of local arts leaders, but she and Gilbert Sanchez encourage anyone with input on the future of the District Theater and Black Box to reach out to both of them via email (email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org, respectively).
Architect Gilbert Sanchez, who has been extensively involved in the bond process with the district, facilitated the discussion alongside consultant Gena Buhler, the head of new business development in North America for the performing arts consulting company Theatre Projects. (Buhler previously served as the executive and artistic director of the Wheeler Opera House from 2015-2020.)
The target project costs for bond-funded updates to the District Theater and performing arts facilities is about $2-3 million, according to an Oct. 12 bond update that SitelogIQ’s Damion Spahr presented to the Aspen School District Board of Education.
A $6 million ballpark figure for the District Theater and performing arts improvements that was referenced during the community meeting was “simply an old number that was considered at one point in time,” said Spahr, who is a member of the owner representative team.
After years of master planning and pricing, an ultra-comprehensive, district-wide “wishlist” for improvements totaled $185 million in potential projects, $13.5 million of which was specific to performing arts, according to Sanchez.
In the meantime, “we’re going to have to prioritize,” Sanchez said. Doing so calls for an evaluation of the present and future uses of the two performing arts facilities.
Meeting attendees agreed that both the needs of the school’s students and the needs of the community should be part of the discussion moving forward; it’s not an either-or question but one of how to balance both.
Although the school owns and operates the structures, they are in no way exclusive to students, and the size of the District Theater — as well as the parking and bus accessibility available there — make it a “valley asset” with the potential to become a “world-class facility,” Hall said.
“I don’t think people realize what a unique asset it is,” Hall said.
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to correct the approximate budget for bond funding for the District Theater and performing arts; it’s about $2-3 million, according to a bond update presented during an Oct. 12 Board of Education update.
Cornerstone Christian School pastor says his students should be exempt from mask mandate
The pastor of Cornerstone Christian Church in the midvalley appealed to the Eagle County Commissioners this week to let his school determine its own policy on masks for students based on its religious status.
Pastor Jim Tarr, who also is president of Cornerstone Christian School, said the parents of students at the school should determine whether masks should be required rather than the Eagle County Health Department.
“In the role of society, children are not created to be obedient to any other system of government except for the wishes of their parents,” Tarr said Tuesday during the public comment portion of the county commissioners’ meeting.
He said the school isn’t forbidding masks as a precaution against COVID-19. It is letting families choose.
“There are a lot of parents who say, ‘I do not want to cover my child’s face for eight hours a day, five days per week, 180 days per year,’” he told commissioners.
Cornerstone Christian School is located along Highway 82 between El Jebel and Basalt. It has about 100 students enrolled.
Tarr took his case directly to the commissioners after he was told by the Eagle County Health Department the private Christian school must adhere to an indoor mask mandate that was extended Sept. 16 for all schools in the county. Tarr said his school requested a religious exemption.
“We didn’t hear anything for about three weeks, and that happened when we were reported to the county health department,” Tarr said. “So in that process, we began to meet with them and just said how can we navigate through this?”
The answer from the health department was to mask up. It’s an answer Tarr didn’t like, and it led to some turmoil at Cornerstone Christian School.
Principal Emily Lambert submitted her resignation after the school determined it would defy the public health order. A meeting that was called for parents after Lambert’s resignation became “very polarizing” with “anti-maskers versus maskers,” a parent said.
At least three families withdrew children from the school after the controversy erupted, according to one such parent.
As the standoff between the Christian school and county unfolded, county officials said it was their intent to meet with Tarr and explain why masks were required as a precaution against COVID-19. They said they weren’t interested in a heavy-handed enforcement action.
The county commissioners didn’t engage in conversation with Tarr. It is policy not to respond public comment. County manager Jeff Shroll said Wednesday that no resolution had been reached between CCS and the county health department.
Tarr indicated Tuesday he took offense at the tone of emails he received from the county health department.
“I just want you to understand the nature of the emails that were coming to me,” he told the county commissioners. “They would include language such as this — that the Legislature of the state of Colorado has granted to the directors of health departments, that they can, if we’re not complicit with their mandates during a crisis, they can actually take control of what happens on our property, they can quarantine. It also included this idea, if we don’t align with a mandate, then the penalty can be a $5,000 fine and 18 months in jail.”
Tarr closed his 12-minute presentation by noting that former President Barrack Obama was able to host a birthday party and not wear a mask during the pandemic without fear of getting fined or imprisoned.
“But you know what, what do I get from Eagle County? With all due respect, I get emails that are threatening, that carry threatening messages to me,” Tarr said. “And here’s the thing, if our policy ends up with me getting arrested or paying a $5,000 fine — trust me, I only have about one and a half $5,000 fines in me — then we’re done. But the truth is this. If the county (health department) comes against me, you have to understand it will be like shooting a fish in a barrel. I’m a little church and a little school, and I’m saying, please, let us live according to our faith.”
While Tarr didn’t make the case that the COVID-19 disease passes over students in religious schools, he did note that no classrooms had to be closed last year at CCS because of the pandemic.
Eagle County urges El Jebel Christian school to mask up
Officials from Eagle County Public Health and the Cornerstone Christian School in El Jebel plan to meet this week to try to get on the same page on COVID-19 precautions.
Eagle County issued a public health order Sept. 16 that extends an indoor mask requirement for students who are too young to be eligible for a vaccination. Students in schools and child care facilities must wear masks until Oct. 29 or until the community case incidence rate is maintained below 50 cases per 100,000 for seven consecutive days.
The health order applies to public and private schools, Eagle County officials said. But Cornerstone Christian School hasn’t mandated masks for its students, who are in classes ranging from preschool to high school.
“The decision was, this is a parent’s decision,” said Chase McWhorter, the parent of a student at CCS and also a candidate in the November election for a seat on the Roaring Fork School District board of education.
He said keeping circumstances as normal as possible for the students drives decisions at Cornerstone. McWhorter noted he wasn’t on the school’s governing board or administration. His perspective was strictly as a parent of a student at the school.
McWhorter said kids were allowed to do “kids things” all summer long — playing with one another, being around people without social distancing and not wearing a mask. Then school resumed and the county said they must wear masks again.
“To just slap it down the 11th hour, that’s where parents are frustrated,” McWhorter said.
Eagle County Manager Jeff Shroll said the goal of this week’s meeting is to sit down with Cornerstone Christian School officials and see if there are questions or issues about the mask requirement. The county’s actions are designed to keep schools operating in-person, he said. That’s achieved by avoiding breakouts of COVID-19 among students and staff, which forces online education. The county health department said the most effective way to keep kids in school is requiring them to wear masks.
Eagle County’s announcement of the mask requirement extension contended that conditions in the county warranted the precaution.
“The school year started with the challenge of a much higher amount of COVID-19 transmission in the community as compared to the 2020-2021 school year,” the announcement said.
The public health department noted at the time of the announcement in mid-September that “this decision remains difficult given the elevated concerns among community members, both for and against mask requirements.”
Elevated concerns over the mask requirement bubbled over in Jefferson County in Colorado’s Front Range this week, according to coverage by The Denver Post. The Jeffco Health Department sought a judge’s order to force three small Christian schools to follow the county’s mask requirement. The health department said its inspectors found the mask mandate wasn’t being properly enforced in classrooms. The schools contended, in part, that the mandate was unconstitutional.
Shroll stressed that Eagle County’s emphasis is on education rather than enforcement action. He said the county feels the masks in indoor settings are a simple yet effective precaution.
“We’re not mandating vaccines,” Shroll said.
Cornerstone Christian School’s position has reportedly sparked internal debate. Some parents decided to remove their children from the school, according to sources familiar with the moves but didn’t want to go on the record for fear of alienating other parents. The number of children pulled from the school over the lack of masks couldn’t be determined.
In addition, CCS executive director Emily Lambert and the school parted ways earlier this month. Lambert declined comment about her departure when contacted by The Aspen Times. She was in the position since July 2019.
Pastor Jim Tarr of the Cornerstone Christian Center, which operates the school, also declined comment on personnel matters and “families’ choices.”
Tarr invited The Aspen Times on Tuesday to submit written questions about the mask debate but said via email Wednesday that he and the governing board at the school decided not to provide answers.
“We are having a meeting with representatives from Eagle County and look forward to working with them,” Tarr’s email said. “We are pleased that we haven’t had any incidences of COVID last year or this year.”
Working on tiny house reaps big skills for Basalt students
Instructor Edgar Rojo (left) and students in his woods/construction class raise a structural insulated panel Sept. 7 on the tiny home they are building. Scott Condon/The Aspen Times
BHS senior Rachel Johnson works on framing on the tiny house on Sept. 7. Scott Condon/The Aspen Times
When Edgar Rojo returned to his alma mater high school in Basalt as a teacher of the woods and construction classes, he wanted to put the kids to work on something hands-on rather than spend a lot of time staring at books.
He hit the jackpot. Thanks to some good fortune, he procured a trailer and some materials needed to start construction of a tiny home. Roughly 34 students are sharpening their construction skills building a residence that Rojo hopes to eventually auction off to raise funds for another project.
The trailer and structural insulated panels were donated to Glenwood High School a few years ago for a woodworking class, but they sat unused after an instructor departed.
“I heard about it, and I got excited, being a builder,” Rojo said. “I brought it over last year, then COVID hit, and I got stuck with a trailer and no kids.”
Rules have eased a bit this school year. There has been more in-person instruction, and the work on the tiny house is in a safe, outdoor environment.
“Most classes don’t get to fool around with a $50,000 project,” Rojo said. He credited BHS principal Peter Mueller for being a big supporter of the acquisition of the trailer and materials from a sister school.
The plan is to have the tiny house framed this fall. Then custom work will begin on the interior during winter.
On one recent day at the work site, members of a class were using straps and muscle power to raise walls. Some students buzzed around with glue guns to secure the walls once they were set in place; others climbed scaffolding to help steady the panels.
Senior Jack Hamm is putting the skills he’s learned while working on a ranch into use at the tiny house.
“It’s fun because we actually get to go out and do stuff and it’s not sitting in a classroom writing down equations,” Hamm said. “It’s going out and learning stuff. A lot of us are probably going to go out and work construction at some point.”
While he has worked a lot with tools out of necessity on the ranch, he said he’s sharpened and expanded his skills working on the house. He’s been reading and applying blueprints. He’s learned how to use saws better. And he’s learned the proper way to put up panels.
He plans on sticking with the project both semesters.
“We’re going to be doing this all year,” Hamm said. “If we can get the roof up before winter, I’m sure we can work on the interior and make it look nice and cozy.”
While Hamm and most classmates were pulling wall panels into place, senior Rachel Johnson was measuring a specific space and then cutting a 2-by-4 for a snug fit between the wall panels where there will be a window. The 2-by-4 will help stabilize the wall and provide a foundation that can be drilled into once the window is installed, she explained.
Johnson said she is comfortable working with power tools from prior work she’s done with her dad.
“I helped build my current house, and I helped build a bunk bed with my dad recently, so I’m definitely in that world of construction,” she said. “This is more like, what do I need to do to help out the group and then doing it.”
Rojo said one of his big focuses in the class is getting students to be aware of what is going on around them so they can all stay safe and coordinate their efforts. It’s a lesson that Johnson has learned well.
“It’s working together as a team and trying not to kill each other,” she said with a laugh.
Johnson said she isn’t sure she will make a career of construction, but the class is helping hone skills she will need for do-it-yourself projects throughout her life.
Rojo got into the trades after he graduated from high school. He’s a master craftsman with Renaissance Woodworking in El Jebel. He regularly works at high-end residential projects in Aspen.
Rojo decided four years ago to take time out of his construction career to teach at Basalt High School three days per week, two classes on each of the days. It’s a way of giving back to his school. It’s rewarding and worth the financial sacrifice, he said.
In addition, he believes the number of people working the trades in the Roaring Fork Valley is dwindling so he hopes the classes inspire some students to pursue a career in construction.
“I think if anything, it’s planting the seed with the kids,” Rojo said.
Work on the tiny house in the back parking lot of the school has attracted a lot of attention among students.
“I’ve got more kids wanting to take class than I can handle,” he said.
Rojo receives help supervising the work from volunteer Dock O’Connell, a retired engineer who spent a career building power plants. He said he enjoys working with the young men and women and witnessing them advancing their skills. It was rewarding, he said, to see a student in the class tell a friend who isn’t in the class that he helped put up a wall.
The 8-foot wide, 40-foot long tiny house will remain permanently on the trailer — not to be moved around like an RV but so there is some mobility. Big metal screws anchor the foundation onto the trailer.
The house will have a loft to take advantage of space. In addition to customizing the interior, the students will furnish it. The class receives donations of furniture from contacts of Rojo’s in the construction field. The students dismantle the furniture and reuse the materials for new pieces. A big emphasis is reusing materials or using locally milled wood to boost the sustainability, Rojo said.
Rojo will use his contacts in the construction industry to have plumbers and electricians come to prep the tiny house. He also welcomes donations of materials from the construction industry.
There isn’t a specific plan yet for when or how to auction the tiny home, but Rojo is optimistic about the prospects given the housing shortage in the region.
No matter how it shakes out, Rojo believes the effort has already been worth it, for the kids as well as for him.
“For me, it’s the feel-good aspect of it,” he said.
Six candidates vying for three Aspen school board seats
Six local candidates are slated to compete for three seats on the Aspen School District Board of Education this fall, according to the district’s designated election official Eliza Robison.
Current school board president Suzy Zimet will be one of the names on the ballot this fall, alongside Anna Zane, John Galambos, Lawrence Butler, Stacey Weiss and Christa Gieszl, Robison wrote in an email.
Three spots on the board — those of Zimet, Susan Marolt and Dwayne Romero — are up for grabs.
Marolt is term-limited and cannot run again; Romero, who was appointed to the board in 2016 and elected to a full term in 2017, will not be running for reelection.
Members Jonathan Nickell and Katy Frisch both have two more years on their current terms.
Each open seat is for a four-year term on the board; meetings occur twice per month throughout the school year and often communicate with district administration, staff and members of the district community.
Pitkin County will distribute mail-in ballots to all active, registered voters Oct. 8, according to the county election website; ballots can be returned by mail, at local drop-off boxes or at the polls on Election Day, Nov. 2.
Winning candidates will take their oath of office around Dec. 3, according to Colorado Association of School Board election timeline Robison emailed.
The board will hold an officer election and reorganization meeting to determine which members serve as which offices (president, vice-president, secretary and treasurer are among the roles) around Dec. 9, the timeline states.
For more than a year, a draft resolution “supporting the development of an anti-racist school climate” in the Aspen School District has been just that: a draft.
The resolution never made the jump from discussion item to action item on the board’s agenda after it was floated last July in the wake of the murder of George Floyd. It acknowledged a number of ways district leaders could address inequities in Aspen’s public schools: centering historically marginalized voices, educating themselves on the impact of racism and discrimination and having honest conversations and listening sessions.
It also established action steps to achieve those goals, largely revolving around a district “equity team,” professional development, student voice and new language about hiring practices. But codifying those steps fell in priority at a time when officials had to first figure out how to reopen campuses.
“We got completely caught up in COVID, really. … We had a lot of other things as our priorities,“ school board president Suzy Zimet said in a Zoom interview. “And I don’t think the board really studied it, because we knew it was a draft, and we knew we would get back to it when we had time, when there (weren’t) so many urgent crises going on that took us away from that.”
The pandemic isn’t over. But the urgency of reopening schools is no longer the dominant conversation: Kids are already back in classrooms for the 2021-22 school year, masked up and in person as of Aug. 25.
And while the anti-racism resolution still hasn’t appeared on a school board agenda for approval, a number of its goals have already been accomplished, according to district leaders and officials.
An equity committee formed last October and is currently developing a mission statement that could be presented to the board in October of this year, committee member and assistant superintendent Tharyn Mulberry said in a Zoom interview.
The approval of an International Baccalaureate curriculum for all students this spring focuses on diverse perspectives and critical thinking, both of which play into that equity goal, according to faculty members like high school art teacher Stephanie Nixon and high school principal Sarah Strassburger.
School board members and administrators just participated in workshops on implicit bias in July with Bill de la Cruz, a self-described “facilitator of belonging and inclusion.” More professional development initiatives are on the way, according to Mulberry.
And the high school is already working to earn a “No Place for Hate” designation with the Anti-Defamation League, according to Strassburger and Mulberry.
The goal is “equitable outcomes” — the idea that every student in the district has the chance “to grow as they need to grow,” district superintendent David Baugh said in a joint Zoom interview with Mulberry and Strassburger.
IDENTIFYING THE NEED
It might seem to some that thinking about equity in the Aspen School District — where only 5% of the student body qualifies for free and reduced lunch and where millions of dollars in donations pour in annually for a district supported by a disproportionately wealthy tax base in a town that is notoriously rich and white — might be a little, well, inequitable.
After all, what does inclusion even mean in a county where exclusivity is sometimes defined by whether it’s millionaires or billionaires invited to the room? What’s the point?
“Let’s be realistic: Just because we live in Aspen that (doesn’t) mean that everybody’s rich and everybody is happy and everybody has everything, what they need,” said Norma Canchola, a bilingual case manager with Aspen Family Connections, during an interview in her office at Aspen Middle School. “We have to see the bigger picture. … Some people have struggles, and we noticed more when the COVID (pandemic) hit, that yeah, it’s a lot of people who are struggling to make it here in Aspen.”
Addressing that big-picture need hinges in part on seeking those “equitable outcomes” that district leaders see as the ideal endgame.
The goal is to improve “opportunity, access and inclusion” across the board, said de la Cruz, who facilitated the July sessions with district leaders and has spent years leading conversations on identifying implicit biases and building “vulnerability-based trust.” The language he uses — outcome oriented, with a focus on positivity — is intentional.
“I don’t use that word (equity) without saying ‘equitable outcomes,’ and here’s why: The word equity all by itself has been so misused, mystifying and used in ways that it was never meant to be used,” de la Cruz said in a Zoom interview.
There’s a pervasive narrative that equity is a zero-sum game — that if one person gains, another loses, de la Cruz said, and it’s a “deficit lens.”
“In most places that I travel around the country, when people think of equity, they think of two things: they either think of race or loss,” de la Cruz said. “If people’s mindset is that all we’re talking about with equity is race, then especially in rural communities where I am, where there’s either little or very or no racial diversity, the question is, well, why do we need to do this? … And if they do join into it through a deficit lens, then it will always be rooted in, ‘something is wrong,’ or ‘something is going to impact my child that I need to be alert for.’”
Opportunity, access and inclusion reframe the conversation, he said.
“I’ve met very few people who say, ‘I or my children don’t need opportunity, don’t need access, or don’t want to feel valued.’ Most people feel like that’s important to them, so it’s a more expansive conversation,” de la Cruz said.
In Aspen, the need lies mostly in socioeconomic differences and language barriers, according to those with boots on the ground. And differentiating resources to meet those needs makes an impact across the spectrum of inclusion, belonging and access, those three tenets of equity that de la Cruz focuses on.
Canchola, the bilingual case manager, sees two dozen or more families a year, many of them Latino, in her work with Aspen Family Connections, a nonprofit based in the school district that provides resources like financial assistance and academic and emotional support.
The organization ensures that families have access to the resources they need, Canchola said. But that still leaves belonging and inclusion to address, a challenge made more difficult by language barriers throughout every aspect of the school system; parents with long working hours have conflicting schedules to consider, too.
Events like “Noche Latina” (a back-to-school information session held in Spanish) and translations of school communications can facilitate inclusivity and help families navigate the school system, Canchola said. She’s currently developing a support group for Latino families and said that she and her colleagues are working on getting more feedback on what the greatest needs are.
“We believe that when the parents get involved in their kids’ education, the kids have more chances, better outcomes to become successful in school,” Canchola said.
The Aspen Education Foundation is also invested in improving those outcomes — quite literally — through funding for a number of initiatives that focus on increasing access to opportunities and resources for students, according to the nonprofit’s executive director Cynthia Chase.
Chase cites the hiring of another post-secondary counselor at the high school as an example of how these resources can actually create equitable outcomes that are so often a part of district conversations. Initiatives tied to that department, like an annual “senior bootcamp” that focuses on college application prep, are part of the work.
“That post-secondary office affords every student, every single one of them, an opportunity to create a path at our high school, and I think that is a real example of equity in the district. It touches every single student in that grade,” she said.
It’s a misconception that the district already has plenty of funding from Aspen’s tax base, according to Chase.
“What I find is, ‘It’s a public school and isn’t free?’ And you know, I think that is… something to overcome, that the education that the Aspen School District provides and is always working to provide in a better way, does not come free,” Chase said.
School financing in Colorado is a tricky equation that combines state support, local taxes and charitable giving from nonprofits. The district’s chief financial officer Linda Warhoe says there’s no “hidden stash, or money tree” available to fund new equity initiatives like professional development or trainings as they come on the table.
Then, too, there is the matter of school climate and culture. A voluntary survey completed by 295 Aspen High School students this spring showed that most students found the school to be a mostly welcoming, mostly supportive environment. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t ways in which the school could be a more welcoming place, according to Tameira Wilson, a history teacher and equity committee team member.
“In conversations with students, I think they want teachers to be able to identify where they’re coming from,” Wilson said. “And I think there’s a real need to share their story and their experiences, … There’s a real desire from students for teachers to get more training so they can get more understanding of where they’re coming from and just have a better way to meet the needs of the student body.”
These needs aren’t new. But over the last year, district leaders have been spending a lot more time thinking about them than they did before.
The district equity committee, with teachers, school board members and district administration part of the cohort of more than two dozen participants, has met 19 times since it was founded last October, according to Mulberry, the assistant superintendent. The topic of equity comes up on nearly every single school board agenda in some capacity, and each of the two initial sessions with Bill de la Cruz (one with the school board, one with district leadership) lasted at least four hours, de la Cruz said.
Most of the last year has been focused on setting the conversation on the right track: talking, seeking input and setting intents, according to Wilson. The team set three priorities — stakeholder input, professional development and curriculum — and established subcommittees for each, but they are still very much in the information-gathering and discussion stage.
“I think what we discovered really quickly is that we needed a lot more information to adequately tackle the three priorities that we set out last year,” Wilson said in a joint interview with school board and equity committee member Susan Marolt.
A big part of that work involves defining equity — which, well, no one seems to do in quite the same way. Wilson said pinpointing a definition has been one of the challenges in addressing the broad scope of the topic. But even beginning those conversations was “an accomplishment in itself,” Marolt said.
“I think you kind of have to do some grounding first, so that everybody is on the same page and feels comfortable … and it actually does take time, more time than I think people realize,” Marolt said.
It’s still a work in progress, even though trying to define the word was one of the first things the equity committee did, according to Stephanie Nixon, a committee member and president of the Aspen Education Association that represents teachers.
“It never was really determined, because we determined that it does mean a lot of things to a lot of different people. … It’s nebulous,” Nixon said.
There is, however, a general consensus that equity in schools means ensuring every student has access to opportunities, that they feel a sense of belonging, that they feel included and respected.
“There’s some very simple vocabulary: all means all, everyone means everyone,” Mulberry said.
It applies to all sectors of the equity conversation: curriculum, access, student and staff relations. It also marks a “pivot towards being positive” in the way many district leaders talk about equity, even if the goals are still the same, said Zimet, the school board president.
Baugh, too, noted a shift in the way many district leaders are talking about and thinking about equity. Words like “anti-racist” or “anti-homopobic” are no longer part of the vocabulary for many of those involved in conversations about equity in the school district; he said the terms can be divisive at a time when the goal is to bring people together to have those conversations.
“When you start labeling, you start judging, and when you start judging, it’s hard for people to feel like they feel welcome, or that they belong, right?” Baugh said. “When you start using names like, ‘we’re anti racist, you’re a racist,’ that means, oh well, now there’s a pretty solid fault line for us to have to wrestle with.”
Mulberry said it starts with an “idea of mutual understanding;” Strassburger said it involves “remov(ing) the shame and blame that doesn’t get us anywhere.” Zimet sees the positive framing as a way to “take all the negativity and strife out of all of the discussions that will be going on and make us all on the same page,” she said.
Wilson, for her part, doesn’t see it as an either-or situation between “all means all” and “antiracist.”
“I do not see them as being separate — I think that you can have an anti-racist school, and still be inclusive of everyone. … I personally do not fear the language as part of those difficult conversations that we have to have,” she said. “And I think that it’s about how we use the language and how we engage in those conversations that can make or break how included people feel.”
Is there some cognitive dissonance there, to have a draft resolution titled by its efforts to create an anti-racist school climate and officials who no longer use that language?
“Sure — but let’s think about that for a minute,” Baugh said. “When that was first penned and hashed around, kicked around, and eventually was released, it was at a different time, and it was in a very different stage of thinking about the challenges facing the country, right, just after George Floyd was murdered. … I think we’ve all grown a lot since then, and I think we can be a lot more encompassing and specific in addressing these issues.”
It stems in no small part from the sessions that the board of education and administrators had with de la Cruz. “Language matters,” de la Cruz said, which is why he’s so pro-, well, “pro.”
“I have chosen to use language that’s rooted in what I want to see happen … Belonging is the idea that I can be a part of this organizational culture without having to give up a part of myself to do so,” de la Cruz said. “Inclusion is looking at the systems through a critical self reflective lens to see, where are we having successes and creating inclusion, and where are we having areas where we are creating exclusion for certain groups? And it doesn’t take away from the fact that we have historically marginalized groups in our country.”
The district still doesn’t have one solid definition of equity, though the committee will need to pinpoint one soon. In a followup interview, Mulberry said that the committee is likely a bit more than a month out from presenting a mission statement to the board of education — one that, ideally, will include a definition of the term.
What the district does have is more trust and consensus, something that teachers, board members and administrators alike say has improved over the last year.
It’s trust and stronger relationships rather than “technical fixes” that will help the district make progress on a systemic level, de la Cruz said. Adaptability, “vulnerability-based trust,” self-reflection, stronger relationships — those are the key to moving forward in an environment where “people can share who they are and share their stories without fear of being marginalized,” de la Cruz said.
“Technical fixes for the things that we’re dealing with in America are gone,” de la Cruz said, “because there isn’t one person who holds the answer.”
Zimet sees that shift as a sign the district is “moving in the right direction,” she said.
“I think everybody is slowly seeing that we’re going to get to a better place, by doing this, we’re going to all be on the same page,” Zimet said. “I’m pretty confident, and I think we’re getting there pretty quickly. … And maybe I’m being optimistic, maybe there’s more room for improvement than I’m aware of, but I do feel like there’s a warmer atmosphere all around, and I feel that pretty strongly.”
Colorado Mountain College to require masks for all, vaccines for only some on campus
Colorado Mountain College plans to implement an across-the-board mask mandate for the first several weeks of school but will only require COVID-19 vaccines for athletes, students who live in residence halls and those who are enrolled in health care, public safety and first-responder programs, the institution announced Wednesday.
The mask mandate will apply in all buildings across all 11 of the college’s campuses, including five in located in and near the Roaring Fork Valley (Aspen, Carbondale, Glenwood Springs, Spring Valley at Glenwood Springs and Rifle) and six others throughout the state (Breckenridge, Dillon, Leadville, Salida, Steamboat Springs and Vail Valley at Edwards).
It will also apply to the college’s administrative offices in downtown Glenwood Springs. The announcement came days before the fall semester kicks off with in-person classes on Aug. 23.
“While this decision comes less than a week before classes begin, it was not made hastily,” the college’s Chief Operating Officer Dr. Matt Gianneschi said in a news release. “The decision-making process has been lengthy, inclusive and deliberative. In fact, we have been planning for the start of the fall term for months.”
Officials will reevaluate the mask requirement “on or about Labor Day” with public health data and vaccination rates in mind, according to the news release.
An Aug. 16 survey indicated that 89% of faculty and staff who responded to the survey have already voluntarily received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine; 85% of those respondents are already fully vaccinated, public information manager Phil Dunn said Wednesday.
“If vaccination rates continue to increase and transmission rates improve, we expect to conform our procedures to county-level public health guidelines,” Gianneschi said. “In the meantime, and while the summer tourism season is still in full-swing, we will ask students and staff to wear face coverings while we monitor local public health data in order to consider adjustments to our procedures.”
Though student-athletes, residents in on-campus housing and students enrolled in health care, public safety and first-responder programs must be vaccinated, the same requirement does not currently apply to faculty and staff who work in those departments (like coaches, residence hall staff or instructors in those specified programs), Dunn said in a phone call.
That said, the data from the vaccination survey suggest that it’s likely those faculty and staff are already vaccinated anyway, according to Dunn.
The college will offer free vaccination clinics at most campuses and will also cover the cost of offsite testing for faculty, staff and students who need a COVID-19 test.
The college will offer courses in four formats this fall: in-person learning, live-stream courses offered virtually in real time, hybrid courses that combine in-person and online instruction and “online anytime” classes that are pre-recorded and can be viewed any time.
Online classes begin one week after in-person classes and registration is still open for all formats.
As new school year beckons, Colorado colleges wonder: How do we get students to come back?
As the pandemic picked up steam, officials at Fort Lewis College in Durango asked this question:
“How do we express to our students that we care about them in this time of great distress?” asked provost and vice president for academic affairs Cheryl Nixon.
Nearly half of the students at the college are Native American, a community that has been hit very hard by COVID-19. Drawing upon guidance from students, the university began talking about Native American concepts such as creating a “community of care,” incorporating the Navajo principle of K’é or kinship, community and togetherness into the school’s messages to students, sometimes voiced by students themselves.
“That was using our students’ own authentic way to talk about who they were and their values as part of our COVID response,” said Nixon.
But that was just one factor that Nixon believes kept COVID levels down and contributed to freshmen deciding to come back in the fall of 2020. The retention rate tracks freshman year students returning to the same college for sophomore year. Fort Lewis saw an astounding jump in retention — from 62 percent in 2019 to 68 percent in fall 2020 — just as the college was heading into a full pandemic school year.
“We were surprised when those numbers came in strong last summer,” said Nixon.
That’s in contrast to a marked decline in the overall number of first year Colorado college freshmen (including community colleges) who returned to college for a second year, according to a new report from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. About 65 percent of college students returned to school in Colorado in the fall of 2020, down about two percentage points from the previous year.
It’s an even steeper decline than nationally where the retention rate for all students also saw its largest decline, dropping 0.7 percentage points to 66.2 percent.
“We know that the pandemic has had a significant impact on higher education,” said Dr. Angie Paccione, executive director of the Colorado Department of Higher Education. “Plans changed in some way for 75 percent of households in which at least one household member intended to take postsecondary classes in the fall of 2020. The good news is that our campuses are eager and prepared for a safe and full return this fall.”
Among all states, Pennsylvania had the highest retention rate of students at 74 percent. The lowest were in Oklahoma and Wyoming, at around 55 percent.
Colleges are keenly focused not just on who is coming in the door but who’s staying. Retention rates are an important early indicator of student success. Though Colorado’s pandemic-related, unprecedented one-year drop of two percentage points is worrying, COVID-19 revealed some new strategies for college administrators to employ to entice students back.
Some of Colorado’s four-year colleges got most of their students back during a pandemic year, while others struggled.
Among four-year colleges, Colorado State University managed to hang onto many of its returning students, with its retention rate going up slightly from 85.1 percent to 85.3 percent. That squares, in fact, with what happened nationally with 4-year colleges, which saw retention rates go up 0.7 percent.
Colorado’s flagship university, CU Boulder, saw an almost two percentage point dip in retention, dropping to 85 percent. Still, CU Boulder’s retention rates are significantly higher than the national four-year average of 76 percent. The CU Denver and CU Colorado Springs retention rate was 71 percent, each up three percentage points from the previous year.
Retention at Colorado Mesa University, where two-thirds of the students are first-generation, low-income and students of color, stayed the same at 75 percent.
At Metropolitan State University Denver, which serves a diverse population of students who often need additional support, the harsh economic impact of the pandemic was more severe. MSU Denver’s retention rate was about 59 percent, down about five percentage points from the year before.
The school is largely a commuter university where the vast majority of students also work. The pandemic left many struggling to survive. Fifty-seven percent of students there are first generation. Their average age is around 25 years old. Some have children who had to be cared for with schools shuttered. Some lost jobs and couldn’t pay for their education.
“Although I’m not surprised, obviously it’s concerning,” said Nahum Kisner, MSU Denver’s director of student support and retention. “As we move forward, how do we make sure that those students that we lost, that we’re bringing them back?”
Lessons are being learned as colleges wait for students to finalize decisions.
Over the past year, an MSU Denver retention committee developed a “student success roadmap” that highlights various milestones to ensure students are engaged, connected and have the academic resources to succeed. The school is beginning to market the roadmap to illuminate the pathway to graduation.
“Here are the people that we want you to connect with to ensure that you stay, that you feel confident about what you’re doing, you feel empowered to be able to graduate,” Kisner said. “It’s really important because we know we can get them there.”
The university has invested in a text messaging platform that uses artificial intelligence to help support students.
“Students can submit questions into a chat bot or text bot platform and be able to receive quick responses to general questions that they may have,” said Michael Nguyen, director of enrollment management systems and operations at MSU Denver. The school can then get in touch with students for a more personalized response.
The university has also boosted the credit hours offered for first-time students if they take a “student success” seminar course. It includes things like time management, how to connect to faculty and community resources.
“We’re able to use that success seminar course as a vehicle to support the students that are coming in, not only emotionally, but to create a village of support around these students,” Kisner said.
MSU Denver already has a student success seminar for transfer students, a robust peer mentoring program, and faculty who are involved with retention. The school will redouble efforts next year to make sure resources are targeted based on an individual student’s needs, be they financial, academic or related to mental health. Kisner calls it “holistic wrap around advising.”
“Making sure that they’re having a conversation with the student in that if the adviser hears, ‘Hey, I don’t have the money to pay for this bill,’ the adviser then immediately connects the student to the emergency fund,” he said.
The university recently sent out a text message survey to a limited group of students who haven’t yet decided if they will return to school. Nguyen said the survey found students are interested in coming back but there are two areas of additional support they need – registration for and selection of courses and financial concerns.
“We’re relaying them to the office of financial aid to see what options or opportunities exist in terms of any additional funding that may help finance our education for the upcoming fall semester,” Nguyen said.
In the meantime, Fort Lewis College, even after getting a big retention boost last fall, says the pandemic taught them things they’ll use in the future.
College officials point to other factors, alongside an outreach strategy that reflected the Navajo principle of K’é or kinship, that contributed to high retention rates.
The school mailed laptops and hot spots to students, many of whom live on Native American reservations or remote rural areas.
“That made students feel like they were being cared for,” said the college’s Cheryl Nixon. Some faculty reached out to returning students, keeping in touch with them and answering questions.
The school had also just revamped how first-year students experience the campus, offering new “First Year Launch” courses, each with about 15 students. They’re centered around professors’ passions and discoveries, “to get (students) thinking and talking and feeling like they were connected into a fun group.” The classes allowed students to build more personal relationships and a sense of connection.
“A lot of students returned to us the following fall because they loved the ‘in-person feel’ and even if it was online, they knew they’d be in a small class where they knew their professor, they weren’t going to be in a 500-person lecture class online,” Nixon said.
Two major projects on campus also got into place right as COVID hit. The new Skyhawk Station consolidated student support in one place that effectively streamlined the student bureaucratic experience, and a grant-funded academic hub that does tutoring, student outreach, and career support was established.
The pandemic revealed other things for officials at Fort Lewis, for example, that peer support should be expanded. Tutoring conducted by students shifted online last school year.
“They became a heavily used resource,” Nixon said. “We had more students reach out to other students than ever before even though it was via Zoom. That was unexpected.”
Colleges still face a number of unknowns and uncertainties as they prepare for the fall semester.
Many students are still wondering whether they’ll have a normal campus life. Similar to last summer, administrators are seeing some students wait until the last minute before finalizing their decisions whether to return.
“I think some of that is all dependent on things like vaccination policies, the variants, all of that, I think a lot of students are sitting on sidelines watching everything,” said FLC’s Nixon.
All the college administrators CPR News spoke with for this story share the same core belief when it comes to encouraging students back to campus, especially during the second year of a pandemic: Students need to feel safe and connected and have the resources to stay on campus.
Aspen Elementary’s Tana Rinaldi instills resilience in her students
Editor’s note: This article is the second in a month-long series on Aspen School District’s retiring teachers. New features will run every Friday in The Aspen Times through the month of June.
Tana Rinaldi always knew she wanted to be a teacher.
“Ever since I was a little girl, I would gather the kids up and I was always really good with kids. I just knew it,” the Aspen Elementary School kindergarten teacher said.
Kids tend to gravitate toward her, she said — whether she’s in the classroom or at a restaurant in Mexico.
“Kids love me! I don’t know what it is,” she said.
After 38 years as a teacher — 35 of them at Aspen School District — Rinaldi is preparing to bid farewell to the classroom when she retires at the end of the school year with plans to travel and spend time on the beach.
She has taught kindergarten as well as first, second and third grade, but she’s partial to the youngest students among them.
“Kindergarten is my favorite. They’re just little and cute and funny,” she said.
Laughter comes easy to Rinaldi when she recounts memorable moments. There was time she gave a piggyback ride to a student on the Rio Grande and hitched a ride with an Aspen Center for Environmental Studies naturalist, the time a kindergartner called an exclamation point a “dalmatian point,” the time a student inadvertently ended up on the laps of an unwitting family on a chairlift during a ski trip to Buttermilk.
Her sense of humor has helped keep things light throughout this year’s pandemic learning, too. When classes were remote, her kindergartners would often walk around their rooms to show off their dinosaurs or wander away from the camera to play with Legos on the floor.
“All I could do was giggle and laugh,” she said. That doesn’t mean teaching came without its challenges this year, though.
They’ve grown up a lot in the last year — and learned a lot, too, amid changing learning environments and quarantine policies, according to Rinaldi.
As her students adapted, so did she, working to keep her students safe while ensuring they had fun, too. Despite the hybrid classroom, she still maintained hallmarks of elementary school tradition like incubating eggs and hatching chickens, the evidence of a successful hatch audible in the background during her interview.
“I am a wizard teacher, because guess what? I made it work,” she said. “And that’s what you do — you don’t get selfish and you just make it work, because you have no choice. ….You just did your best. That’s all you could do. And if sometimes it didn’t work out, you just went back to the drawing board and you kept trying.
She considers herself a facilitator more so than a director at this point in the school year, giving students the tools they need to be “resilient and independent and good thinkers,” she said.
That tenacity is a life lesson she aims to impart on her students every year, and there are plenty to count among the resilient ranks of Rinaldi alumni.
With a tenure in Aspen education as long as hers, Rinaldi has taught the children of students she had in the early years of her career — students like Stefan Reveal, now a senior vice president at Aspen Bank, who was in Rinaldi’s first Aspen Elementary School kindergarten class 35 years ago and whose daughter, now 7 years old, got to have the same kindergarten experience.
“There’s quite a few Aspen kids that were in that first class that are still around and have had their kids in her class,” Reveal said. “It’s a great legacy to be able to effectively do two loops around the generational pathway there. It’s quite amazing. It’s great — what a legacy.”
Rinaldi’s warmth and kindness left a lasting impression on Reveal, he said.
“The fondest memory that I have is just watching my daughter’s face when she found out that Tana was my teacher, and she was confused and amazed all at the same time. How could I have been 5 years old? How could Tana have continued to be a teacher all this time?” Reveal said.
“It was just great to walk into her classroom and know that she was — she had much more experience by then, but she was going to provide the same love and care and motivation for my little girl as she did me.”