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AHS graduation returns to music tent; students told to strive to ‘be better’

Valedictorian Gemma Hill, sporting a comfortable onesie in a nod to their remote learning days during the pandemic, talks during the Aspen High School graduation ceremony on Saturday, June 4, 2022, inside the Benedict Music Tent in Aspen.
Austin Colbert/The Aspen Times

With a gesture to the seniors seated behind him, Chris Keleher decided to break the No. 1 classroom rule, which is to never turn your back on the students.

But he did so without fear of a spitball or a few passed notes — or whatever kids do these days when the teacher isn’t looking — to share a few words of wisdom, from one departing Skier to the nearly 140 more waiting to receive their diploma.

“Before I really begin, I’m Irish, so there is a real chance I just burst out into tears at any moment. I could also get into a fist fight,” Keleher said to laughter from the crowd that packed the Benedict Music Tent on Saturday morning for Aspen High School’s Class of 2022 graduation ceremony. “I remember every word that was spoken at my own graduation way back in 1986, except for what was actually said. I don’t even remember who spoke.”

Keleher, the homegrown AHS student turned teacher and cross country coach who did find out that noted ski racer Jimmie Heuga spoke at his own graduation, was this year’s commencement speaker. The ceremony signaled an end to the seniors’ time as students in Aspen, but also to Keleher’s 23 years as an educator with retirement on his doorstep.

He reflected back on lessons learned from his own cross country coach and the idea to “be better” in all aspects of life, and how Aspen’s core philosophy of blending mind, body and spirit has inherently embraced that very concept.

“Being No. 1 is awesome, but very few of us will ever get the chance to be No. 1 at anything. You don’t have to be No. 1, just be better,” Keleher said. “Whatever your direction and drive, I hope your greatest value comes not from the size of your paycheck, but from the satisfaction of fighting the good fight and giving back to the community. Just be better.”

While this year’s graduating class bookended its time at AHS with two relatively normal years, their sophomore and junior years were overshadowed by the pandemic. Saturday’s ceremony was a major step toward a return to normalcy with its return to the Benedict Music Tent for the first time since 2019.

Because of the pandemic, the 2020 graduation ceremony was held in the parking lot at Buttermilk Ski Area, and the 2021 ceremony was held outside on the turf field on the Aspen School District campus.

Commencement speaker Chris Keleher takes in the moment during the Aspen High School graduation ceremony on Saturday, June 4, 2022, inside the Benedict Music Tent in Aspen. Keleher, a longtime teacher and coach, is among those retiring this year.
Austin Colbert/The Aspen Times

“This graduation is perhaps very different from any that have gone before it,” Superintendent David Baugh said during his introduction. “This class is also very different from any that have gone before. They have survived a pandemic, continued to learn and thrive, and for this we are very, very thankful.”

The roughly 1 hour and 40 minute ceremony included a return of live musical performances from the students — including a solo act by Emma Boucher singing Taylor Swift’s “New Year’s Day” — and traditional speeches from the valedictorian and salutatorian.

Traditional, however, didn’t quite define valedictorian Gemma Hill’s wardrobe choice when she took off her gown to reveal a comfortable-looking onesie, something she said was a nod to the nearly two years spent learning from home during the pandemic.

“This town has fostered us to grow into compassionate young adults. It has taught us lessons of life, from frostbite to close encounters with bears and dangerous climbs,” said Hill, who will attend UCLA to study neuroscience, during her speech. “Growing up in this town has given us the tools necessary to take the world by storm, because I think we can all agree it’s a very specific student that exits Aspen. They are filled with grit, determination and a healthy relationship with a wildly unrealistic amount of discomfort.”

For Hill, this discomfort was getting up at 5 a.m. each day for swim practice — which she said was mostly to watch Class 3A swimmer of the year and fellow senior Kayla Tehrani lap her in the pool — part of that “be better” mentality this year’s graduating class has little issue embracing.

Salutatorian Laila Khan-Farooqi, a future Duke student who will study computational biology and bioinformatics, had a similar message as Keleher in that life isn’t all about being No. 1. She, like Hill, was part of the Aspen girls swim team and was there when it finished second at state when she was a sophomore.

Khan-Farooqi told her classmates that not finishing first isn’t the same as failing.

“As your salutatorian, this means I’m speaking today as the first loser in the race for highest GPA,” Khan-Farooqi jested before reflecting on her time with the swim team. “I will say, I’m very good at being first loser. But this was in no way a failure. We lost to a team with six times the number of competitors we had and each person on our five-woman team swam personal bests in their individual events. How could this possibly be classified as a failure? A loss maybe, but a failure? Not in the slightest.”

Most of the awards and scholarships the students received were announced at the AHS senior awards ceremony on Thursday night. The final tally included approximately $380,000 across 148 individual scholarships. According to Susanne Morrison, one of the school’s administrative coordinators, around 86% of the graduates have plans to attend a four-year college in one of at least 32 states and six countries.

“As our nation and our world continues to be in various stages of unrest, it is your generation and your class who has the power, talent and, dare I say it, rich opportunity to set us all on a new path, a better path,” said AHS Principal Sarah Strassburger. “A path that mirrors what I saw every day in the halls of Aspen High School this year: smart, compassionate, engaged and vocal students who stand up for what they believe, treat others with decency and respect, and are not afraid to challenge the status quo — or me.”

Caps are tossed into the air at the conclusion of the Aspen High School graduation ceremony on Saturday, June 4, 2022, inside the Benedict Music Tent in Aspen.
Austin Colbert/The Aspen Times

This year’s senior class helped pave the way for three state championships in athletics in 2021-22 — boys golf, dance and boys basketball — with Lucas Lee having been the lone athlete to have been part of two of those. Lee received the loudest cheers when he walked across the stage to get his diploma, a remarkable feat considering he lost both of his parents during the school year.

Lee joined Lindsey Heinecken at the very end to lead the tassel change, marking the students as graduates, before the caps were removed and sent skyward toward the music tent’s cavernous ceiling.

“You have it within you, each of you, to be better with everything you do. Be passionate about what you do. Whatever you do, do it with conviction,” Keleher said, making note of his long-held desire to one day become an astronaut. “Don’t negotiate for mediocrity. You don’t have to be No. 1, you don’t have to be perfect, just be better. Though, if one of you becomes an astronaut, do whatever you can to get me a seat. Window or aisle, that would be perfect.”


Guest commentary: Safety a top priority at Aspen schools

Last week’s horrific school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, has not only gripped our nation but has sent shockwaves throughout our local community. Our Aspen School District administrators, board, teachers and staff mourn the tragic and senseless loss of 19 innocent children and two beloved teachers. Our hearts go out to the victims’ families as they process this unthinkable violent massacre.

Many of you have expressed your sorrow and dismay to us. This latest incident has hit all of us very hard, particularly in light of other mass shootings that our nation has experienced in recent years. Incomprehensibly, since 2000, there have been more than 600 shootings resulting in death or injury at elementary and secondary schools around the country.

More than ever, it is important for us to come together in our grief to support each other and to focus on moving forward in a constructive manner. As always, the safety and well-being of our students must be our top priority. As parents and educators, we all share the same pain and stress, and we worry more than ever about the safety of our own children and students.

Sadly, this is not a new worry, and we cannot labor under the assumption that Aspen is somehow immune from these risks. When it comes to safety and security concerns across our campus, ASD has been laser-focused on this issue for a very long time. In fact, in 2020, the community resoundingly supported a bond referendum that allocates significant funding for many necessary facility upgrades, including security infrastructure.

We have detailed and comprehensive plans in place for every known safety contingency, developed with the aid and expertise of outside security consultants, to assure that our plans and readiness are state-of-the-art and optimized for successful outcomes. We spare no effort or expense in this regard.

Below are just a few examples of the current protocols in place to address safety and security measures on campus and in the schools. Further enhancements are scheduled to be completed this summer.

— School resource officers (SROs) are located in each school building. These law enforcement officers are armed and active members of the Aspen Police Department and the Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office.

— Schools have increased the use of drills with students, teachers and staff. The drills assist everyone in knowing what to do in a variety of crisis situations. The drills include lockouts, lockdowns, evacuations and shelters.

— The Aspen School District requires all employees to wear photo ID badges while on campus. First responders need to know who belongs and who doesn’t belong on campus in a time of crisis.

— Schools require all visitors to check in at the front office. A new identification system has been implemented in all the schools that provides immediate feedback if the person visiting could be a potential risk to the school.

— Established teams address safety and security issues: The district-wide Safety Committee and the School Crisis Teams meet regularly to review and recommend updates to the crisis management plans/emergency management plans in order to maintain safety and security throughout our schools and campus.

— It is the goal of the district that all of our staff be trained in first aid and CPR. While that requirement was paused during COVID due to social distancing protocols, we expect to be in full compliance.

— At the recommendation of law enforcement, the district has added security cameras to the campus and schools in order to provide a more protected and safe learning environment.

— School doors are routinely checked, and access to outsiders is restricted to certain entry points.

— Regular ongoing trainings are provided for teachers and staff consistent with standard response protocols to prepare them to deal with a potential crisis situation.

We care deeply about the health and wellness of each of our students, staff, and families — both physically and emotionally. We are cognizant of the need for enhanced mental health services to support our community whether it be to deal with the grief of mass shootings or the struggles and challenges that many of us contend with in our everyday lives. In addition to our experienced in-house counselors and psychologists, multiple community resources are available to us, including but not limited to:

— Aspen Family Connections, https://www.aspenfamilyconnections.org

—Aspen Hope Center, https://www.aspenhopecenter.org

— Aspen Strong, https://aspenstrong.org

— Mind Springs Health, https://www.mindspringshealth.org

Even with the best safety and security protocols in place, we still need to rely on you and our community at large to be observant and watchful. In that regard, we want to remind you of a critical resource already in place: Safe2Tell — https://safe2tell.org.

You can anonymously report anything that concerns or threatens you, your family, or our schools, 24/7, online, or by phone at 877-542-7233. Law enforcement and school officials will be instantly alerted to your report so that they can take appropriate immediate action.

It’s an understatement to say that the past few years have presented us with unprecedented challenges and hardships. Our unique, caring community has bonded together and more than proven its ability to be resilient and mutually supportive. We are asking you to continue this critical partnership with ASD as we remain vigilant and resolute in protecting our most valuable asset — our children.

Please don’t hesitate to reach out to either one of us if you have any questions or suggestions.

Dave Baugh

Superintendent, dbaugh@aspenk12.net

Tharyn Mulberry

Assistant superintendent, tmulberry@aspenk12.net

Inside the Local Child Care Crisis

Dawn Ryan’s Aspen Mountain Tots pre-k students crowd around her outside of the Yellow Brick Building on their playground in Aspen on Tuesday, May 24, 2022. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)

Three classrooms in the Yellow Brick building in Aspen’s West End neighborhood have been filled with the sounds of preschool children playing, laughing and learning for three decades but come early June, they’ll be dark, quiet and void of any activity.

They’ve been occupied by Aspen Playgroup, a locally owned child care provider for 40-plus children. Playgroup will hold its final graduation on June 2 for kids who will attend kindergarten in the fall, followed by a community celebration to recognize all the children and their parents who have been through the program first started by Mary Wolfer — known affectionately as “Miss Mare” — in 1993.

That long tenure and tradition ends on Friday, June 3, when Wolfer’s niece, Kadi Kuhlenberg, who bought the business in 2016, closes the doors.

“This is all very emotional, I’ve been on the verge of a meltdown here for a while,” Kuhlenberg said while sitting outside the Yellow Brick the week before closing. “I’m in utter disbelief that I have seven more days with these kids and that part is really hard … knowing that I have a staff that loves it, the kids are so happy, so content.”

Politics at play

The decision to close is the result of a political impasse between Kuhlenberg and the city of Aspen, which owns the Yellow Brick building.

A citizen advisory board that oversees the city’s taxpayer-funded child care program, known as Kids First, decided last summer that Playgroup Aspen and another provider, Aspen Mountain Tots, must operate five days a week rather than the current four. The mandate is an effort to increase capacity in child care offerings.

The terms of their leases were changed in 2021 and were to take effect in September of 2023.

But after months of explaining to city officials that going to five days would not be financially feasible as more teachers would need to be hired, and it would create staff burnout and erode the quality of care, Kuhlenberg decided earlier this year to hang it up, citing unreasonable lease terms.

Aspen Mountain Tots’ Dawn Ryan sits on the porch in the playground at the Yellow Brick Building on Tuesday, May 24, 2022. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)

Dawn Ryan, owner and director of Aspen Mountain Tots, announced in March that she will close one of her classrooms that serves toddlers effective Sept. 1.

Ryan will still offer 60 preschool slots but will not be increasing capacity as the city envisioned. Aspen Mountain Tots has pre-enrolled the 2023 school year but will not enroll a new child from the community until 2024. She will then wean enrollment over the next four years when she plans to close her doors permanently.

“The last 11 months have been a sad and lonely place,” she said. “When Playgroup closes and moves on it will become even lonelier.”

Both Kuhlenberg and Ryan argued that going to five days a week does not increase capacity, and the Kids First Advisory Board and city officials continue to ignore that fact.

Playgroup Aspen’s Kadi Kuhlenberg outside of the Yellow Brick Building in Aspen on Tuesday, May 24, 2022. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)

“This would have resulted in zero additional families cared for,” Kuhlenberg said. “Our monthly capacity averages were not changing.”

And as noted by Ryan in her March 4 letter to the Kids First Advisory Board, “(Aspen Mountain Tots) currently serves the required 30 toddler and 60 preschool slots per week. Adding another day will not increase capacity. It might lift a burden for one or two of our families, but it will not increase the capacity for the community.”

The Kids First Advisory Board and city officials don’t agree, said Assistant City Manager Diane Foster.

“I believe in a couple of years it will benefit the community to have increased capacity,” she said. “It’s a 20% increase in capacity and in a five-day week, having one day not empty in a facility that’s right in the middle of Aspen is the goal.”

For at least the summer and possibly the fall, the three classrooms occupied by Playgroup Aspen will sit empty as the city continues to look for a new provider.

No bidders, no workers

The city in March issued a request for proposals from licensed child care providers in the Roaring Fork Valley interested in operating the three classrooms at the Yellow Brick occupied by Playgroup Aspen.

No bids came in, which forced city officials to issue a new RFP and post it on BidNet, a national bidding platform for governments.

Proposal packages are due by June 9 and an announcement on a new provider is expected June 16, though no one will be occupying the space until at least the fall, Foster acknowledged.

“It might look bad for a while,” she said. “I thought we would have a provider before this and I was wrong so there may be going back to the drawing board on June 9 if we don’t get any responses.”

Nationally, there is a shortage in the early childhood education workforce with the average wage for a teacher at $20 an hour.

(Chalkbeat Colorado/Aspen Times archive)

Add the lack of housing and the high cost of living in the Roaring Fork Valley and it’s virtually impossible to hire low-paid teachers here.

“Every day I wake up and wonder if I have to shut classrooms down,” said Leslie Bixel, executive director of the nonprofit Early Learning Center, a child care provider in the Yellow Brick that has almost 100 kids from ages 8 weeks old to 6 years old.

Three teachers recently resigned and Bixel has been desperately looking to hire more since November; 17 staff members have left since 2021.

She said if she was in Kuhlenberg and Ryan’s shoes, she would shut down also.

“Those two programs are run by owner-directors who are teachers and they can’t be working 50 and 60 hours a week and then be able to provide high-quality care,” Bixel said.

Aspen Mountain Tots and Playgroup Aspen accept rent subsidies from the city but no cash incentives, according to Kuhlenberg and Ryan.

They said they take issue with the city offering almost $77,000 in incentives for a new provider in the RFP.

Foster said those are start-up costs that wouldn’t be available otherwise to an existing business.

From parents’ lips

The Yellow Brick Building at pick-up time. (Aspen Times archive)

Beyond the differing viewpoints, bureaucracy and politics, there are dozens of children and their families who are being affected by the inability for the city and the current child care providers to find common ground.

Playgroup’s closure displaces over 40 children and their families that will have to readjust their lives and routines.

Chelsea Dillon, a mother of a 2-year-old and a 4-year-old, said it was stressful when she learned she’d have to find a new child care provider.

She landed her older child at Wildwood School, but said her children will miss their friends at Playgroup, along with their teachers who they have bonded with.

“It’s just crazy to us to get rid of two successful programs that our kids loved without anything being put in there,” Dillon said, adding she will keep her 2-year-old at home this summer. “We’re very excited but I think it’s how the city went about it. … They wanted to fix a crisis and they made a bigger crisis.”

Playgroup Aspen’s previous graduating classes hang in the hallway of the Yellow Brick Building on Tuesday, May 24, 2022. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)

Aspen resident Anna Zane, whose 4-year-old daughter attends Playgroup — as did all of her siblings and Zane herself under Miss Mare — said it’s an emotional move to put her youngest child at the Little Red School House in Snowmass, where she will now have to drive every day rather than riding her bike to the Yellow Brick.

“It’s a devastating blow to lose this asset for so many years due to a bureaucratic squabble,” she said. “It’s so insulting to really the entire community of Aspen and the short-sightedness of this is so infuriating and their vision is so grandiose that they know better.”

Child care providers within the Yellow Brick said they wished those on the Kids First board and in City Hall had understood the industry better before making such big decisions affecting their livelihoods and so many parents and kids’ lives.

“People who don’t know anything about early childhood education need to be more open” to ideas and suggestions, Bixel said. “I don’t know how they are going to dig themselves out of this, they’ve gone down such a dark path and what they’ve done is irreversible.”

She, along with Kuhlenberg and Ryan, as well as dozens of parents have spoken at Kids First Advisory board meetings since last July in an attempt to convince its members to reconsider their position.

“I think what has been most upsetting is that it didn’t have to happen, and for anyone who was operating in good faith and with an open mind, it became clear early on in the discussions that it didn’t have to happen,” said Playgroup parent Victoria Stevenson. “In my mind, the upside of adding a fifth day was about two additional spots per class, but the downside was shutting two long-standing businesses down and starting from scratch.”

A little bear carries his pumpkin bucket to different parent volunteers during a Trick-or-Treat parade held by the Early Learning Center and Playgroup Aspen around the Yellow Brick Building block in Aspen on Friday, October 29, 2021. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)

Stevenson added: ”Kids First made it clear though, by the second conversation, that they weren’t really interested in the conversation we were trying to have and it wasn’t going to be a back and forth and they weren’t going to be answering those questions. I never got an answer on how many new spots they thought they were adding.”

Dillon said she applied to be on the Kids First Advisory Board and was interviewed by Aspen City Council but never heard back from anyone.

Samantha Daniels, co-director at Playgroup Aspen and a mother who has two children enrolled there, said she will be placing them at the Little Red School House.

Daniels said there was enough room at the Little Red School House that her kids’ friends in Playgroup also will attend there.

All three mothers said they’ll miss having that long-time local presence and reputation that only a provider of three decades can offer.

Kuhlenberg said she feels strongly about that as well.

“It just feels like we are being treated as entirely disposable,” she said. “They are not considering what this is doing to us individually, to our families, to these kids and they’ve ignored the personal aspect of this decision when the basis of this business and this industry is relationships and people and supporting families and that’s the failure.”

Filling capacity?

The decision by the Kids First Advisory Board to maximize the rooms at the Yellow Brick is following direction of City Council, which in 2021 made increasing child care capacity one of its priorities.

City officials recognize that without access to affordable child care, parents cannot contribute to the local workforce and economy.

But the fact that nearly all the kids in Playgroup Aspen have been placed, the capacity issue seems to a be red herring, according to Kuhlenberg.

The RFP for a new child care provider, which was amended to add a fourth classroom in anticipation of Ryan closing the toddler room, requires a year-round schedule, five days a week and a minimum of eight hours a day, as well as a plan for additional services for working families on Saturday, Sunday or holidays.

Children with Aspen Mountain Tots play on the Yellow Brick Childcare Playground in Aspen on a cold morning on Tuesday, Dec. 21, 2021. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)

The city’s estimate — based on a recent update of the waitlists of Aspen-area providers — is that parents of over 400 children in the valley are unable to enroll in an early childhood education program.

In response, the city is planning to build an eight-classroom facility in the third phase of Burlingame Ranch, a municipal government-built subdivision of deed-restricted housing across from Buttermilk Mountain.

The facility would serve roughly 100 children ranging from infants to preschool and is estimated to cost between $10 million and $15 million.

City Manager Sara Ott was in Washington D.C. last month lobbying U.S. Sens. Michael Bennet and John Hickenlooper (D-Colorado) for $2 million in federal funding toward the Burlingame facility.

“We are optimistic since there is only one other (child care facility) request in the state,” Ott said.

Ott estimates with just under $6 million in funding from Kids First revenue, there is a $3.25 million gap, if she’s projecting on the lower end of the final price tag.

The city is also considering private partners, like area employers who might want to contribute toward their employees’ benefits.

Warren Klug reading to pre-k children at the Yellow Brick in Aspen on May 30, 2018, for the "Read With Me" event put on by Kids First. (Aspen Times archive)

The current schedule calls for construction drawings to be completed by the spring of 2023 and site preparation would begin in the fall of next year.

“We are working on a capital campaign and that very much includes partners,” Foster said.

The city also plans to set aside up to four affordable housing units adjacent to the facility for early childhood educators.

The city in January hired a Denver-based consultant, Kate Kalstein, for $35,000 to help it plan for the Burlingame facility, as well as assess capacity and build support for child care in the upper valley with potential partners.

She is expected to present a report to the Kids First Advisory Board at the end of June.

There are other child care facilities being planned in the midvalley as hundreds of more residential development are being built.

Some who work in the industry question why a regional approach isn’t being taken to assess how much brick and mortar is needed and how those facilities will be staffed.

CMC facility still in its infancy

The city has been trying to find a licensed childcare provider to run an infant childcare business with space for eight children at Colorado Mountain College’s Aspen campus for more than a year.

And while the city already has spent tens of thousands of dollars to build a room to accommodate such a business, officials have realized that it’s going to take more investment.

Earlier this year, City Council approved a $250,000 expenditure to contract with someone willing to run the infant care center, as well as pay for furniture, fixtures and equipment.

“Because it’s a single infant room, which is a harder business model, the city has allocated some funding that we can go above and beyond what we would normally do,” Foster said. “It’s a venture capital model in which we provide funding that we wouldn’t normally provide.”

Costumed children from the Early Learning Center and Playgroup Aspen participate in a Trick or Treat parade around the Yellow Brick block collecting candy from parent volunteers to celebrate Halloween in Aspen on Friday, October 29, 2021. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)

A taxing proposition for the community

City voters in 1989 passed a 0.45% sales tax, of which 55% goes to the Kids First program and the remaining amount toward affordable housing.

The tax, which was renewed by voters in 2008 and runs through 2040, has generated $34.9 million since 1994, which is as far back as the city’s financial system tracks.

Generating just under $2 million a year, most of the revenue is spent on financial aid for families, tuition buydowns and other subsidies, as well as support for the program like quality improvement efforts and resource teachers.

Current providers in the Yellow Brick said more money should be invested into the retention and recruitment of early childhood educators.

“We are missing the entire next generation of providers,” Kuhlenberg said. “We don’t have them to step in and fill these programs because there hasn’t been the support to get there and the young providers that have watched it don’t want to step into it because of the stress and difficulty that we’ve faced and instead of being supported by our local support agency it’s been almost the opposite.”

Genevieve Crowley and Zachory Beaudette walk across the balance beam together during outside time at Little Blue Preschool in Carbondale. (Chelsea Self/Post Independent)

Ryan said when she signed her lease in 2010 to operate Mountain Tots in the Yellow Brick it basically read, “care for children and pay your rent.”

“Now with multiple pages of the RFP reading like a novel, I am no longer able to meet the city’s needs,” she said. “Even people with the best intentions are influenced by their own desires.

“The city has good intentions influenced by their own ideas and they are entitled to that,” Ryan continued. “I just don’t have to be the one to carry that burden of their dream so I am getting out of their way, phasing out my program so that they can bring in their new providers that they are confident are waiting in the wings and together they can fulfill the next phase of that dream.”

Aspen School District, Education Association approve agreement for new pay schedules

The Aspen School District Board of Education unanimously approved an agreement with the Aspen Education Association teachers union on Wednesday night that will introduce new salary schedules aimed at increasing salaries for many staff and leveling the scales of pay equity.

“I think it just changes a lot of lives, and we’ve heard from a lot of teachers who really appreciate it,” said Aspen Education Association President Stephanie Nixon.

Aspen Education Association membership ratified the agreement at 6 p.m. Tuesday with 105 yes votes and three no votes, Nixon told the board. The association has about 165 members, Nixon said. The ratified agreement is effective July 1.

The agreement includes four new salary schedules with the following starting pay: one for certified staff like teachers at $50,000, one for support services providers at $54,000, one for salaried education support professionals at $40,000 (with most starting salaries for positions on that scale starting at $55,000 or $57,000) and one for hourly education support professionals at $21 per hour. Substitute pay will also increase.

“In total, we’re probably spending around $2 million, including benefits” to accommodate for the pay increases in the new salary schedules, Chief Financial Officer Linda Warhoe said.

The salary schedules for certified staff and support services providers are based on the years of service as well as education attained. The salary schedules for education support professionals are based only on years of service, but those staff are eligible for annual stipends based on the highest degree earned.

The agreement also includes a detailed supplemental pay schedule of stipends and additional compensation staff can earn for certifications and extra service to the district, like mentoring another teacher or coaching a school team.

Much of that supplemental pay used to be baked into a district employee’s base pay but will now be itemized. That change will not affect how the earned income factors into retirement savings, according to Nixon and district human resources director Amy Littlejohn.

District officials emphasized that the goal was equitable pay raises to level the scales (rather than equal, across-the-board ones).

The district worked with a human resources firm to conduct a salary study that found that about half of district staff were making more than the market rate and half of them were making below it, with significant variance in that range, according to Littlejohn and Superintendent David Baugh.

Roughly seven employees in the entire district had pay on par with market rate, Littlejohn said.

“I think every single employee was on a different pay rate,” Nixon said.

The new salary schedule is universal, meaning the base pay won’t change based on favoritism or other arbitrary factors, according to Baugh.

According to Nixon, the district shifted away from a standardized pay scale in the 2017-18 school year. Baugh said he believed that was “one of the worst things that ever happened to this district.”

“Nobody knew where they were,” Baugh said. “You had a pay scale replacement, sort of, but there’s huge variation in there.”

Littlejohn described the new schedule as a “level playing field.” The focus on implementing pay equity now means that the new salary schedules won’t impact all employees in the same way, and some staff won’t see much of a pay increase at all because of how variable the pay rates were before.

Some staff are receiving a pay increase of less than $1,500; they will receive a one-time bonus equal to the difference between their raise and $1,500.

But other staffers could see pay raises in the thousands or tens of thousands of dollars based on their degree and the “step” they are at on the schedule, as well as how close their base pay has been to the existing 2021-22 salary schedule the district posted online. (Steps represent “one full year of service equivalent to 10 or more months of full-time employment in a comparable role,” according to the proposed schedule.)

For instance, a teacher entering at step zero on the schedule with a bachelor’s degree would make a base pay of $50,000 according to the proposed 2022-23 salary schedule, up about 8.7% from the $46,000 they would have made according to a 2021-22 schedule. A teacher with a Ph.D. at step 10 on the salary schedule would make a base pay of $82,887 in the 2022-23 school year, up about 20.3% from $66,028 in 2021-22.

The proposed salary schedule also includes higher base pays for teachers who have a bachelor’s degree and up to 24 additional credits or a master’s degree plus up to 60 additional credits. Teachers with more than those maximum amounts of additional credits will not receive additional pay unless they get an additional degree.

That means a teacher with a master’s degree and, say, 100 additional credits, would be at the same base pay as a teacher with a master’s degree and 60 additional credits at the same step on the schedule.

That teacher with lots of extra educational credits would only move to the next column with higher pay scales if they got their Ph.D., Littlejohn said.

Also, moving forward, teachers must secure approval for additional credits earned beyond their degrees to ensure those credits are aligned with educational outcomes and what teachers are doing in the classroom, according to Baugh and Assistant Superintendent Tharyn Mulberry.

That extra-credit cap was a source of frustration for some staff like kindergarten teacher Lisa McGuire and first grade teacher Jill Pisani, who spoke during the public comment section of Wednesday’s Board of Education meeting.

Both teachers said they have poured time and energy into earning well over that 60-credit cap and would like to see compensation increases that reflect that work they put in. Pisani said that by her calculation, she would be getting a 1% raise and McGuire said she believed she would be “not even at the 1% — I’m at the 0%” based on what she currently makes compared with the new schedule.

Nixon acknowledged that frustration while also noting that the aim of this work was to level the scales, not put the existing scale on a new shelf.

“We had to make it right,” Nixon said. “And you know, it is difficult because you are seeing people that are not going to get as much as other people. … It’s not that you’re not valued, it’s just that we had to make it right for so many other people.”


The new agreement was the result of “extensive negotiations over many hours and many days,” Baugh said.

“I will say it was a very collaborative process,” he added. “Each team pushed the other.”

Those teams included representation from both the district offices and the Aspen Education association.

Aspen Education Association

Stephanie Nixon (president), Marnie White (vice president), Josh Anderson, Dana Berro, Bente Doolan, Ada Friedman, Malia Kelly, Tonie Richards and SkiCountry UniServ Director Eric Hansen.

Aspen School District

David Baugh (superintendent), Tharyn Mulberry (assistant superintendent), Amy Littlejohn, (human resources director), Amy Kendziorski (Aspen Middle School principal) and Linda Warhoe (chief financial officer).

Departing Aspen Middle School teacher: ‘It’s not just about the money’

The Aspen School District administrative offices and entrance to Aspen High School.
Kaya Williams/The Aspen Times

After months of negotiations, the Aspen School District and the Aspen Education Association teachers union came together to approve a new salary schedule this week that aims to help with pay equity and attracting and retaining new staff.

Though some staff will see marginal pay increases, others could see their paychecks grow by 20% or more; all staff members in the same positions with the same qualifications will be on the same salary playing field.

But pay increases alone won’t guarantee that staff stick around at the district, according to departing seventh grade math teacher Sarah Beesley.

“While I appreciate all the time and effort that went into negotiations this year, I hope the district realizes it’s not just about the money,” Beesley said during public comment at Wednesday’s Board of Education meeting. “It is how we are being treated. If you really want to retain teachers, please treat us like the well-educated professionals that we are.”

Beesley is one of the dozens of district employees who have decided to resign this year, and she spoke at the board meeting this week to share an excerpt from the exit questionnaire she completed as part of the departure process.

“For a very long time, Aspen Middle School had been the perfect fit for the following reasons: Number one, I was treated as a professional. Number two, my leadership potential was valued and encouraged. And number three, Aspen School District was a really fun place to work and learn,” Beesley said.

“Unfortunately, none of these things are true today,” she added. “Aspen School District is not treating us teachers as professionals. Decisions have been made about programming that directly contradict what the teachers have proposed/advocated for. None of the leadership opportunities I’ve been offered in the years past have been offered this year. There’s no time for fun.”

Beesley cited pressure from the district and parents, a slew of new curriculum initiatives, limited substitute coverage, schedule changes and challenges with “deteriorating” student behavior as factors that have contributed to the lack of time.

“Any one of these factors would have been enough for me to consider leaving my career of 21 years at the Aspen School District, but all of them together leaves me no doubt about my choice to resign,” Beesley said.

Beesley’s public comments based on her own response to the district’s exit questionnaire come at a time when some are wondering just why so many staff are leaving the Aspen School District this year.

District human resources director Amy Littlejohn said later in the board meeting that the district sends out exit questionnaires rather than conducting in-person interviews and follows up with some people who didn’t fill out questionnaires to see if they’d like to sit down for an interview instead. The district has waited to send some out until this week, she said.

Aspen Education Association’s Stephanie Nixon requested later in the board meeting that the district share some insights from the exit questionnaires to help shine a light on the reason behind the departures.

“In an attempt to understand the turnover, a synopsis of the interviews is requested,” Nixon said during an Aspen Education Association update. “We’d like to kind of look at the data as well and sharing the summary … just a summary of the interviews with us, with admin and AEA exec council, would allow us to change the way we look at turnover data.”


School safety and security the ‘number one priority’ with summer work at Aspen School District

School resource officer Cam Daniel walks past a bus on the Aspen School District Campus on Thursday, May 26, 2022.
Kaya Williams/The Aspen Times

A public trail runs right through the middle of Aspen School District’s campus. The elementary school shares an entrance with the District Theater, which regularly hosts community events open to the public. It’s easy for anyone to pop into the five classroom buildings onsite, each of which has multiple access points but only one front desk; students and staff and community members alike mill outside the buildings and throughout the campus.

That free-flowing, open layout has long been part of the “culture of a small town school and community,” according to Cam Daniel, a school resource officer from the Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office who works in the district.

It’s also a security risk that most schools these days don’t want to take, given the vulnerabilities it creates in the potential event of an active shooter or other hostile situation.

“I can tell you that the days of an open campus like this are coming to an end,” Daniel said. “That’s not how the majority of campuses operate throughout the country.”


Current district officials are aware of the vulnerabilities that come from an open campus, and they now have their eyes on hardening up security soft spots using a portion of the funding from a $114 million bond voters approved in 2020 for facilities work and staff housing.

As of February, the suggested target budget for safety and security work was $4.5 million, but the bulk of that work is yet to come; as of April, the district had spent about $123,000 in bond funding on safety and security, according to bond updates presented to the Board of Education earlier this year.

“Security tends to be prioritized from people that have security at the forefront of their mind, right?” Daniel said. “When you take a school, everyone’s going to have in their mind an idea as to where they’d like to see some of those funds go, and all of those reasons are valid. … It’s hard, because we’re asking to use a huge chunk of that (bond) for something that we hope never happens.”

District officials knew about security needs in 2018, too, when the district worked with a firm to identify the district’s safety and security vulnerabilities in what current Assistant Superintendent Tharyn Mulberry called a “very exhaustive” analysis.

And in early 2020, then-interim superintendent Tom Heald told a reporter from Aspen High School’s Skier Scribbler student newspaper that the district was working on a facilities plan that could straddle the “fine line” between implementing security measures and maintaining the “welcoming” feel of an open campus.

Heald and several other public safety officials also indicated at the time that Aspen schools could soon implement “Stop the Bleed” education and bleeding control training for staff and some students.


In early 2019, the Pitkin County Public Safety Council allocated $30,000 toward local “Stop the Bleed” training, which is a crash course in “controlling life-threatening bleeding” through direct pressure, tourniquets and wound packing, according to Richard Cornelius, the deputy chief of operations for the Roaring Fork Fire Rescue Authority.

The council-funded programming would be primarily targeted at nine schools in Pitkin County, offering the training to teachers, staff and administrators as well as high school students and then installing bleeding-control kits in the schools, said Cornelius, who has spearheaded the local initiative.

Basalt High School completed the training for staff and students in January 2020, but scheduling challenges and the COVID-19 pandemic punted sessions down the line at Basalt Elementary and Basalt Middle School.

The Aspen schools — Aspen Elementary School, Aspen Middle School, Aspen High School, Aspen Community School, Aspen Country Day School and the Wildwood School — have not yet completed the training; public safety partners are now targeting a launch this fall, Cornelius said.

“I think collectively between Aspen Ambulance District, Aspen Fire Protection District, Aspen Valley Hospital and Roaring Fork Fire Rescue Authority, we can really target those schools and see the projects to completion,” Cornelius said. The Pitkin County Public Safety Council also will offer a training to its members at an upcoming meeting in June.

The training teaches life-saving skills that Cornelius said can be valuable in other situations, too, like ski accidents.

“The more people you get trained in the community, the higher chance you’re going to have somebody who is appropriately trained to deal with serious bleeding issues should it occur from really any type of an event,” he said.

Many of the recommendations for physical facilities improvements from the analysis four years ago are just now taking shape.

Mulberry said there are ”probably well over a couple hundred items” from that review that will be addressed by the bond. The main focus is on securing building access with updates that include improved locks, doors and a potential buzz-in system paired with video- and audio-linked intercom. A significant portion of the work will take place this summer, with safety and security as the “number one priority,” Mulberry said.

“As far as implementation, I don’t know what the rationale was that the previous administration did not act on it more quickly,” Mulberry said. Mulberry was the high school principal in 2018 and said he wasn’t privy to the response from district administration at the time; since then, nearly every leadership position has turned over in the district offices at least once.

Alex Burchetta, a Pitkin County undersheriff and public information officer, said that local law enforcement is now working with the district to do a “deep dive” into the safety and security analysis from 2018 and “address any of the outstanding needs.” Daniel has taken a particularly active role in that work, Burchetta said.

A district safety team meets once a month and includes administrators, school resource officers and other district officials, according to Mulberry, and safety drills also take place every month so officials can identify what needs to be improved.

And the district is having an “ongoing conversation” with the city of Aspen about rerouting the trail that runs through the middle of campus to go around it instead, Mulberry said.


Aspen School District has two law enforcement officials onsite: Cam Daniel, the school resource officer from the Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office, and Alyse Vollmer, a youth services officer from the Aspen Police Department.

Both Daniel and Vollmer participate in specialized training for school resource officers that covers what Vollmer referred to as “break glass moments” — emergency situations like an active shooter on campus, for instance.

Law enforcement and other emergency responders in the valley are also trained in responding to those situations, and agencies have partnered on drills in the past. (Richard Cornelius, the deputy chief of operations for the Roaring Fork Fire Rescue Authority, said another immersive drill could happen this fall.)

The nature of those larger-scope trainings has expanded over time, according to Burchetta from the Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office. When Burchetta was a new deputy 14 years ago, active shooter and active threat training was very specifically focused on schools, he said. But since then, “the landscape of that training has changed significantly” and sessions now also cover other locations, like the airport and courthouse, he said.

For Daniel and Vollmer, preparing for the “worst case scenario” is just one part of the job at the far, far end of their spectrum of involvement in the schools.

“It’s tackling the every day (of) kids lives, kids and their parents lives,” Vollmer said — whether that’s celebrating wins or working through losses and challenges.

Daniel and Vollmer said that the vast majority of their work is centered around building trust with students and intervening with support long before an emergency arises.

“The violence is symptomatic of something bigger, and being a part of proactive engagement with kids is so valuable, but so hard to measure,” Daniel said.

When tragedies happen like the school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, last week, it would be hard for it not to weigh on school resource officers like Daniel and Vollmer, they said.

“I think, for me, because I’m also a mother, it heightens my wanting to be here, from start to finish, at my best, every day. … These kids, they’re all kind of our kids, right, and being here is the most important thing,” Vollmer said.

The Aspen School District uses the Save2Tell tip line and anyone can submit any concerns they have. Reports are anonymous and go to both administrators and law enforcement. To submit a tip, visit safe2tell.org or call 1-877-542-7233.

Teen Spotlight: Considering short-term solutions for teacher turnover

Beau Toepfer.
Courtesy photo

Aspen School District is not the only district in the country facing teacher shortages as schools across the nation are struggling to find available staff to fill gaps in teacher positions.

Still, the district has faced challenges with teacher retention and replacement this year, and some educators have expressed concerns about the impact of that turnover and staffing shortages throughout this year. The challenge lies in part in hiring replacement teachers and finding substitutes.

As of the morning of May 24, the middle school had a total of 14 open positions, the high school had 13 open positions and the elementary school had two open positions including classified, certified and athletic coaching positions. Across the district there were 49 unique listings for different positions; numbers are subject to change as the district fills positions.

According to Aspen High School principal Sarah Strassburger, a possible solution to the problem, at least in the short term, could be reallocation and hiring one teacher for multiple positions.

At the end of the 2022 school year, Aspen High School lost two world language teachers. One Spanish teacher, Joseph Dziedzic, got his dream job with a baseball team in Arizona, and a French teacher, Eric Lamb, said he is moving to Roaring Fork High School to help his community and teach in the same district as his son, who is just starting kindergarten.

Lamb was partially involved in hiring his own replacement and reorganizing teachers to fill his position. One option that Lamb suggested was that instead of hiring a replacement for Lamb, Aspen High School could shift other world language teachers to fill that position and reallocate some of their duties to another new Spanish teacher so everyone gets a little more work, but no one teacher has to fill in. Both positions could then be filled by only one teacher.

“Jane (Larsen), for example, who teaches French and also teaches our English language learners support classes and instruction classes,” could be a fit for that concept, Lamb said. “So we’re looking to hire a Spanish teacher who can do both Spanish and teach English, which would mean that Jane could do more French and less of the teaching English, so there won’t be another full-time French teacher hired.”

With the entire job market for professional educators struggling, being able to fill more positions with fewer people can be a solution in the short term. Lamb also heads the Advanced Learning Plan Program at the high school. The program helps gifted students further their education and make sure they are sufficiently challenged. Lamb has been helping students in that program create learning plans that made sure they would be getting the best educational experience they could. Another teacher also leads the program at the middle school, but they seemed to be already quite busy with their other classes, according to Lamb.

“The woman who is doing it at the middle school, she seemed overloaded and I thought, well, why don’t they just make it (a) full-time position and spread it over the high school and middle school and we’ll have some continuity?” Lamb said.

The high school actually lost fewer teachers this year than in years prior, according to Strassburger, but the district has a harder time hiring than many other districts because of several factors. There is a smaller applicant pool and housing is a larger problem because of the sheer cost of living in this valley, among other things.

The district has put out marketing videos and even put an ad in Outside Magazine with the aim of attracting teachers to live in Aspen as well as work at Aspen High School. Housing is likely a significant limiting factor for teachers as rent in the Roaring Fork Valley is too high for a teacher salary. However, the Aspen School District owns a lot of property and continues to acquire more as part of a $114 million bond initiative.

“The idea is to offer people housing with a subsidized rent so it is below the free market. The free market is out of control for teacher salaries,” Strassburger said. “We have some homes in Snowmass, we have some in Woody Creek, we have some in old Snowmass and Basalt, so there’s kind of a variety and there are a variety of sizes. And we’re hopeful that that will help bring people here.”

The need for more substitute teachers is another beast to tackle.

Currently a main focus for the district is to ensure that the schools keep functioning. Having one teacher checking in between multiple classes or having regular teachers substitute if they don’t have a class during that period is a short-term solution to the problem. Students still need a teacher in class, and having regular teachers sub is one of the only solutions right now. What really needs to be done is make pay better for substitute teachers and increase benefits to encourage more people to join the field of education.

Beau Toepfer is a sophomore at Aspen High School and news editor for the Skier Scribbler student newspaper. This is his first year with the paper.

In Aspen School District, numbers are only part of the staff retention story

The Aspen School District administrative offices on Wednesday, May 18, 2022.
Kaya Williams/The Aspen Times

Aspen School District’s staff retention data is clear enough on employee departures this year: At least 35 employees plan to leave at the end of the school year, including 22 teachers and other certified staff, three administrators and 10 paraprofessionals as of May 10, according to data Human Resources Director Amy Littlejohn provided via email at the time.

But data — even for those who love to crunch the numbers — is only one part of the story.

The statistics represent people, all of whom have left a lasting impact on the district in their commitment to education, according to Lori Anderson, a longtime district educator, parent and community member who spoke during public comment at a Board of Education meeting Wednesday night.

“Those who work with me know that I’m a data-oriented person and I love to analyze it,” said Anderson, who has spent 16 years in roles at Aspen Elementary and Aspen Middle schools as a teacher, special education coordinator and early literacy coordinator. “Today, I’m not here to discuss data. I’m here to shine a spotlight on people.

“I’ve had the privilege of working with many of them,” she added. “I would like to thank each and every one of these individuals for their professional contribution and dedication.”

Anderson acknowledged dozens of educators by name; their years in the district together account for nearly three centuries of departing staff experience, she said.

“For those moving on, I know that I represent many who wish you all the best,” she said. “You have been our children’s educators, our colleagues and our friends.”

Aspen Middle School has been impacted by the most departures so far.

Data from an April 29 email from Littlejohn indicated that the middle school had 14 departures across both certified and classified positions, including nine resignations, two leaves of absence and three retirements at the time.

The elementary school totaled six departures (three resignations, one leave of absence and two retirements) and the high school totaled seven departures (five resignations, one leave of absence and one retirement) at the time. The Cottage preschool had two resignations at the time.

Anderson, who is the parent of a fifth grader entering Aspen Middle School in the fall, expressed the emotional weight of the departures that signify the exit of more than just experience in education.

“The vacancies created leave our middle school threadbare,” she said. “The individuals that are leaving were part of the fabric of a strong and collegial professional culture at AMS. Collaboration, support, a willingness to go above and beyond for any child and humor are longstanding norms. … As a parent, I am grieving.”

Her sentiments echoed one of many takeaways from the results of this year’s climate and culture pulse-check survey that consultant Liz Wilson presented to the Board of Education in March.

Some staff “are angry, grieving and/or fearful about losing friends and colleagues who’ve left the district in recent years,” that presentation noted.

Now, with her son entering Aspen Middle School, Anderson said she felt both “wonder and uncertainty” about staff retention efforts, onboarding, district supports and burnout.

Anderson asked the district to conduct exit conversations with every departing staffer to “listen and learn from the individuals who can resolve the speculation around the departures and help us understand what could we have done, how can we do better?”

The district does conduct exit interviews, Board of Education President Katy Frisch said after Anderson’s comments, but those interviews happen around the time of the departure rather than months in advance.

“The essential next step would be to share the results transparently,” Anderson said during her comments. “Our entire staff and community is wondering: ‘What happened, and what can we do now?’”

This story is part of ongoing coverage of staff retention, climate and culture in Aspen School District. For more stories, visit aspentimes.com/education.


More Aspen School District educators considered leaving the field in 2022 than 2020

Students travel to the Aspen School District campus on Wednesday, April 27, 2022.
Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times

In the 2022 iteration of the statewide Teaching and Learning Conditions Colorado survey, 19 educators from Aspen public schools reported that they were considering leaving the field of education altogether at the end of this school year.

That accounts for almost 13% of the Aspen School District staff members who completed the survey this year, a rate that’s almost double the state average of 6.8% this year and quadruple Aspen’s rate from two years ago of 2.9%. The state rate in 2020 was 3.7%.

Another 8.2% of Aspen survey-takers said they planned to work in the same role in a different district this year, compared to 3.6% in 2020. The state rate was 3.6% in 2022, down slightly from 4.2% in 2020.

The statistic comes from the survey’s “general reflection” section, which “gauges staff’s overall impressions of the school, as well as future employment plans,” according to survey data and reports that were released May 11. (For a primer on Aspen School District’s results, which showed an overall decline in favorable responses, go to https://bit.ly/3LbJUxL.)

In response to a question about what “best describes your plans after the end of this school year,” 71.9% of respondents reported they planned to stick around in their current position at the district after the 2021-22 school year. The percentage accounts for 105 of the 146 Aspen educators who answered the question.

Statewide, 78.3% reported they planned to stay in the same role, accounting for 34,549 of the 44,152 Colorado educators who answered the question.

Other survey answers included retiring, changing positions within the district and taking the same position at a different district or school.

The survey was administered from late January to early March this year, just as it was in 2018 and 2020; the results can be considered a “snapshot in time of faculty perceptions,” according to a chart of do’s and don’ts for interpreting the data.

The rates also aren’t a direct reflection of the latest retention rates. As of May 10, Aspen School District had recorded at least 35 departures, including 22 teachers and other certified staff, 10 support staff and three administrators, according to data sent in an email from district human resources director Amy Littlejohn.

Both the Aspen and state sticking-around rates for next-year plans were lower in 2022 than they were in 2020, when the survey was administered just before the COVID-19 pandemic hit.

In 2020, 85% of Aspen respondents reported that they planned to stay in their current role, which was higher than the state rate of 82.2% that year.

The survey did not ask respondents why they had chosen what they did for next year’s plans, but it did include other questions about overall impressions in the district in the same section.

In the 2022 survey, around 61.6% of Aspen respondents agreed or strongly agreed that they’d recommend their school in Aspen as a good place to work, compared to about 82.3% in 2020.

The overall “favorable response rate” for that question was 64% this year and 87% in 2020; survey administrators didn’t include “I don’t know” responses in that percentage calculation. In Colorado, the favorable response rate was 85.1% this year, down around a percentage point from 86.2% in 2020.

The score was a lot higher in the assessment of whether Aspen was a good place to learn, though. This year, 80.3% of Aspen respondents agreed or strongly agreed with the statement, down 10 percentage points from 90.8% in 2020.

The favorable response rate for that question (disregarding “I don’t know answers” from the calculation) was 87.4% this year, down five points from 92.7% in 2020. The statewide rate this year was 88.6%, up slightly from 88.2% in 2020.

In response to the question “Which of the following most affects your decision about whether to continue working at this school?,” the answer “school staff” garnered 23.8% of the responses from Aspen educators in 2022. Salary was the second most popular answer with 22.4% of responses; district leadership and school leadership each collected 17.7% of the responses this year.

In 2020, the order was slightly different: salary was the top answer (29.8% of responses), school leadership was second (23.4%) and school staff was third (19.9%). District leadership got 9.2% of the responses that year, a tie with community support and engagement.

The top three factors in state responses this year were school leadership (30.9%), school staff (27.8%) and salary (16.2%). Those factors were in the same order in 2020, though weighted differently: school leadership accounted for 35.8% of responses, school staff accounted for 31.6% and salary accounted for 12.8%.

Who’s who

The 2020 survey had 144 responses from Aspen School District, including 123 teachers, seven school leaders and 14 support and services staff who “don’t typically provide academic instruction,” according to the survey results from that year. In the 2020-21 school year, the district employed around 255 “full time equivalent” staff, including about 139 teachers, according to the National Center for Education Statistics database.

Among the 2020 survey respondents, 83.6% had worked in the district for more than half a decade: 24.3% had worked there for 6 to 10 years, 35.4% had worked there for 11-20 years and 22.9% had worked there for 20-plus years.

The 2022 survey had 149 responses from Aspen School District, including 111 teachers, nine school leaders, 12 special service providers and 17 education support professionals, according to this year’s survey results.

Among the respondents, 65.7% had worked in the district for more than half a decade: 20.8% had worked there for 6-10 years, 22.1% had worked there 11-15 years and 22.8% had worked there for 20 years or more, accounting for 65.7% of the responses.

In the 2021-22 school year, the district employed around 260 staff, including 150 teachers and certified staff, district human resources director Littlejohn has previously said.

This story is one of a series exploring the data of the 2022 Teaching and Learning Conditions Colorado survey; for more reporting on the climate and culture at Aspen School District, visit aspentimes.com/education.


Aspen High athletes come together for college signing ceremony for 10 students

With her mom watching, Aspen High School senior Kayla Tehrani, right, is hugged by AHS girls swim coach Katherine Keel during a signing ceremony for 10 AHS athletes on Wednesday, April 27, 2022, inside the AHS gymnasium. Tehrani will attend Denison University for swimming.
Austin Colbert/The Aspen Times

Aspen High School usually has a handful of students sign on to play college athletics each year, but the 2022 graduating class may have reset the bar in terms of quantity.

In one of the largest ceremonies of its kind in recent memory, the Skiers recognized 10 student-athletes on Wednesday inside the AHS gymnasium, students who will keep on competing in one sport or another after graduation.

“It’s pretty special because I feel like not a lot of people go on to play at the next level from Aspen,” AHS senior Shae Korpela said. “So, I feel like having this many people here really means a lot to the school.”

Shae and his twin brother Braden were among the headliners, as both are headed to Washington State University in the Pac-12 Conference to play basketball. AHS boys basketball coach Cory Parker considered it the sport’s biggest signing since Robert Tomaszek went on to play for Bob Knight and Texas Tech two decades ago.

The Korpelas were key pieces in the Skiers winning the Class 3A state championship this winter, a first for the program, part of a magical 27-0 season. The twins were both named first team all-state in 3A, while Parker was the 3A coach of the year in his first season in charge.

Parker, a 2008 AHS graduate, played collegiately for Drake out of the Missouri Valley Conference.

“It’s unique that they are brothers. It’s unique that they are twins. It’s just a beautiful part of our narrative this year,” Parker said of having the pair sign to the same school. “So excited to see what they make of their opportunity at Washington State and I wish them the best of luck.”

Aspen High School senior Shae Korpela, left, sitting next to his brother, Braden, talks during an athlete signing ceremony on Wednesday, April 27, 2022, inside the AHS gymnasium. Both of the Korpela twins will attend Washington State University for basketball.
Austin Colbert/The Aspen Times

When it came to earning all-state recognition, Kayla Tehrani might have the Korpelas beat. A future swimmer at Denison University in Ohio, Tehrani was named the Class 3A girls swimmer of the year each of the past two seasons.

“I’ve been working at this for the past 11 years and there was a little bit where I thought this wouldn’t happen for me,” Tehrani said during Wednesday’s ceremony. “So, I’m really excited to see it all come together.”

Tehrani will leave AHS as a record holder in four events, two of them individual swims, and continues a strong tradition of sending swimmers from the Roaring Fork Valley onto the college ranks.

“She’s been a great leader and representative for the school as well as helping me coach,” AHS girls swim coach Katherine Keel said. “She’s been a co-captain this year and really supported her teammates and myself and my assistant coaches throughout the last couple of years.”

Other signings included Jenny Ellis to Pacific Lutheran University for soccer; Brenon Reed to Beloit College for lacrosse; Sadie Bayko to Frostburg State University for volleyball; and Riley Rushing to Tusculum University for volleyball.

“Brenon is the type of guy that would come up to you at the end of every practice and say, ‘What can I do better?’ and actually do it the next practice,” said AHS boys lacrosse coach Tommy Cox, only hours before the Skiers hosted Resurrection Christian, playing to an easy 16-3 victory. “He’s one of the best guys on the team in terms of being part of the brotherhood. He takes any role he is asked. If I asked him to play goalie, he’d step in there. He’s a great young man and there couldn’t be a more deserving kid to go play at the next level.”

Ellis, who also is currently in the midst of her final season with the Skiers, has the unique opportunity of being coached by her father, Chris Ellis, who is the head coach of the AHS girls soccer team. Jenny Ellis has been one of the team’s more prolific offensive threats ever since her freshman season on varsity.

“A lot of people say it’s not that good of a position, but I think it’s really fun to get to work and grow alongside my biggest supporter, so I think I’m actually really lucky to be coached by my dad,” Jenny said.

Bayko and Rushing were both key pieces in the AHS volleyball team having one of its best seasons in recent memory this past fall.

No AHS signing class would be complete without a pair of future college skiers. Anders Weiss is headed to Montana State University for Nordic skiing, while Mica Bodkins finds herself bound for Middlebury College, also for Nordic skiing.

Austin Weiss, Anders’ father and a longtime Nordic coach with the Aspen Valley Ski and Snowboard Club, spoke about both skiers during Wednesday’s ceremony.

“It’s been a true pleasure to watch a kid like Anders come up through the program, in a ski town, and work so endlessly. As I’m sure you are all aware, Nordic skiing is not an easy sport, and those that participate work very, very hard on a daily basis,” Austin Weiss said.

“When we found out last summer that we had a new athlete joining us from the East Coast, we were very thrilled,” Austin Weiss said a short while later about Bodkins, who is also a member of the AHS girls soccer team this spring. ”Little did we know what an amazing young lady and athlete we were getting in Mica. She has been an amazing addition to the team. A true leader amongst the entire team and she is following in big footsteps to Middlebury.”

Aspen High School hosted a signing ceremony for athletes on Wednesday, April 27, 2022.
Austin Colbert/The Aspen Times

Among the many big names to have skied at Middlebury is Aspen’s own Simi Hamilton, a three-time Olympian who retired last year.

Elijah Goldman was the 10th athlete to be recognized on Wednesday. In one of the more unique AHS signings, Goldman will head to Hobart and William Smith Colleges where he will join a powerhouse sailing team. Goldman spent much of his time in high school couch surfing along the East Coast to compete in regattas.

This athlete list is far from complete, as it only includes those athletes who chose to take part in Wednesday’s ceremony. For example, a separate ceremony was held back in November for senior Nic Pevny, who signed to play golf for the University of Denver.

“This is so vital, this is so important to support their lives. They couldn’t be successful without you, so thank you. Thank you to all of your parents, as well, for constantly being supportive for the past four years. And probably for a lot longer than four years, probably since you were all little,” first-year AHS athletic director John Castrese told the crowd through an ASL interpreter, an audience that included a mix of parents, coaches, teachers and students.

“I would like to thank all of the student-athletes we have here. They set a great example for our younger generations.”