District 51’s big test
Start of classes this week will have familiar feel, but there's a lot at stake for the 2017-18 session
Heather Reed has loved going back to school for as long as she can remember.
Now in her 10th year teaching first grade at Thunder Mountain Elementary, Reed still remembers how excited she was for her first day of kindergarten.
“I was one of those kids who couldn’t wait to see what I was going to learn. I came home crying on the first day of kindergarten because they didn’t teach me how to read yet,” Reed said, laughing.
Every year, the start of a new school year means a similar routine for Reed — learning new names, repeating directions to the bathroom, explaining classroom rules, as well as the same excitement and nerves about a fresh start.
And for the 22,000 students who start school on Wednesday, it will also be business as usual: seeing old friends and making new ones, meeting new teachers, cracking open fresh notebooks and unearthing planners from their summer slumber.
But there are much larger factors at work this year in School District 51 that make it different from any other.
For the first time in nine years, there’s a new chief executive calling the shots and leading the district. A month into his job as superintendent, Ken Haptonstall is already laying the groundwork to rebuild public trust and revitalize a school district beleaguered by budget cuts and shrinking resources.
The results of two November ballot measures to increase funding and repair schools will chart the course of District 51 for years to come. The last successful ballot initiative for the district was in 2004.
Mesa County voters will be asked to approve a $118.5 million bond measure and a $6.5 million mill levy override for more school days, new curriculum, a new middle school and high-priority repairs to 35 schools.
It’s also the third year of implementing the district’s new learning model, a performance-based system that focuses on teaching kids to be responsible, self-aware students who are in charge of their education. More and more teachers are starting to seek involvement in the new system, which started in seven demonstration schools but is now being implemented to various degrees at all 40 schools in the district.
There’s a clear desire for change in School District 51 this year. But what’s still murky is whether community members, parents and voters will put their trust — and open their wallets — in supporting this new direction.
Heather O’Brien, president of the nearly 900-member Mesa Valley Education Association, said the decisions made this year will be critical to the future of the district.
“We need to be thinking about the future, because every year we have little kids coming through that are going to grow up in our system and we owe them a system that is high quality and high functioning,” she said.
TRUST AND TRANSPARENCY
Haptonstall hit the ground running in his first month as superintendent.
He met with dozens of people — community leaders, local organizations, school principals, district administrators — to get a sense of what those inside and outside of the district see as important to improving education in Mesa County.
“That’s been really beneficial to me and it’s helped frame the conversations I have with our staff,” Haptonstall said. “I met with all the principals last Friday and I said, ‘Right now there’s a little bit of a trust gap in what we’re doing and what people perceive we’re doing.’ Perception is 9/10 of the rule, so what we need to do is be much more deliberate in our conversations with community folks about where we’re going and how we’re doing things.”
Haptonstall is clear on the need to re-establish trust and transparency with a community that is doubtful about how Mesa County’s largest employer — and largest public agency — spends taxpayer funds.
“People need to see that we’re going to be truthful and transparent and do the right thing with their resources, and then when it comes time to do things with Grand Junction High School or other schools we know are seeing issues, they trust we’re going to do the right thing,” he said.
Haptonstall said he’s heard wide-ranging support for the district’s shift to a new learning model, but most folks are hesitant about the long implementation time.
“The thought of waiting five to seven years to get this implemented scares some community people, because they want to see some action now, they want to see kids being impacted now,” Haptonstall said. “Some of the shifts I’m thinking about will make that happen sooner and it will honor the thinking in the community that we’re supportive of this and we want to help our kids, we just can’t wait forever.”
Those shifts are all intended to occur at the top levels of the school district, Haptonstall said — every layer of administration outside of schools needs to be examined and evaluated to see if it’s in line with the district’s performance-based learning system.
“All the people we have doing the old system — do they fit into the new system?” Haptonstall wondered. “It will be a shift for this system, it will probably be a big shift for a lot of folks, but it’s necessary because we just don’t have the resources to run two systems.”
It means that by the end of the school year, some jobs in administration will be eliminated, and those employees would have the chance to apply for new administrative jobs that line up with the district’s new learning system.
The goal is that by streamlining district leadership, performance-based learning will be implemented sooner.
“I really want to start designing this system to make this ship go a little faster, because it’s a big ship,” Haptonstall said. “You’ve got to kick it in the rear end to make it go a little faster.”
CRITICAL FUNDING MEASURES
One of the biggest aids in speeding up change in District 51 would be the financial shot in the arm supporters say would come from the passage of two ballot measures in November.
“Everyone knows that the ballot measures are critical to us being able to move forward,” O’Brien said. “It’s a hard sell to the community because we have to earn back their trust, but I also hope in the end that if you have any kids in school and you know their teachers, you know how hard those teachers are working to serve those kids. So I’m hoping that our community’s love and respect for the job that teachers do will kind of carry the day and help people see that we really do need the funding to move into the next century.”
For more than a year, the five-member Board of Education has discussed the need to ask Mesa County voters for more funding. Board members spent meeting after meeting hearing reports of the district’s most critical needs.
Rebuilding trust between the community and the school district was a recurring discussion among school board members as they weighed when and how to ask voters for more money.
Board President John Williams said there have been several decisions made by district leaders that eroded the public’s trust in District 51.
“There were a couple of highly visible personnel decisions that were made, and I think the public didn’t think they were good decisions, but they were made based upon legal advice and the law and I think that’s a big part of it,” Williams said.
Among recent controversial decisions by the district was the choice in 2015 to withhold information about a school board election error, while votes were being cast; then the resignation and decision to offer a substantial severance package to the communications director who advised withholding the information; and also the reassignment of middle school Principal Hal Templeton, who was cited in a hit-and-run accident.
Williams said that there’s also a community perception that the elementary school early-release schedule on Wednesdays means young students don’t spend enough time in school.
“I think that’s something that the school board and superintendent will address and fix this year,” Williams said. “I think the calendar is going to be fixed, and I think personnel decisions — I think we understand the public thought and perception about some of those decisions and we’re not going to let that happen again.”
The school board voted unanimously in June to place two measures on the ballot in November. The $6.5 million mill levy override would pay for five additional school days, new curriculum, technology support and ongoing school repairs. The $118.5 million bond measure would go toward one-time capital construction and repairs, including a new Orchard Mesa Middle School, new gymnasiums at Dual Immersion Academy and Palisade High School, and high-priority repairs at 35 schools and several administration buildings.
O’Brien said Haptonstall’s performance in his first months as superintendent will be vital to the district’s success.
“He has to bring it, and I think he knows he has to bring it,” O’Brien said. “He has to be the one to earn the trust of the community, and he has to be the one to earn the trust of teachers, too.”
Orchard Mesa Middle School has the most at stake in the outcome of the November bond measure. If approved, a new $40 million school would be built on an adjacent area of the same property.
Principal Cheri Vana is frank about the difficulties in managing teachers, staff and students in a nearly 60-year-old school.
Vana is quick to highlight the safety concerns of young children moving between seven buildings throughout the day, and 39 exterior doors that must be secured by teachers in the event of an emergency.
But it’s also the little things that make it difficult for teachers, students and staff to spend nearly 170 days every year in the current buildings, like the ventilation ducts that hang down from the ceilings in every room, which groan into use at random intervals, interrupting teachers and making it difficult for students to hear. The ventilation couldn’t be put into the ceiling because it would disturb existing asbestos.
The rusting sewer system frequently backs up, filling hallways with the smell of sewer gas.
Vana said the school is still a great place to learn, and that the students are proud of their school.
“But they walk into other buildings that are relatively new, and they identify with this crummy old building,” she said. “They’re proud to be a Knight, but they recognize that their school is not as nice as other schools.”
MEETING STUDENTS ‘WHERE THEY ARE’
Performance-based learning was the education catch phrase in School District 51 before groups of teachers and administrators visited schools in California and Colorado, and before Rebecca Midles, director of performance-based systems, starting guiding local schools through sweeping changes to school culture and the way students learn.
Now Midles wants to call this new way of teaching and learning the “District 51 learning model” — because it’s unique from how other school districts use a performance-based system to teach students.
Haptonstall said it’s easier that way, because there is a variety of acronyms and education-speak to describe the shift to a system that’s focused on social and emotional skills, teaching students based on proficiency instead of time, and making education more customized to individual children.
“Is it performance-based learning or proficiency-based learning or project-based learning? The answer is yes,” Haptonstall said.
This will be the third year of implementing the performance-based learning model, and what started in seven demonstration schools is becoming more common in all of the district’s 40 schools.
Midles said that more teachers are willing to try out the new learning model because it’s a choice, not a mandate.
“I think when people realize it’s not being done to them, it’s being done with them, that’s huge,” she said.
Amanda Belden, a seventh-grade language arts teacher at Orchard Mesa Middle School, said she has shifted from being afraid of more mandates to being excited about adding performance-based learning to her classroom.
“We have really great kids that deserve the best education we can give them,” she said.
Vana said more teachers are understanding the “why” behind the shift to a new learning model.
“I think teachers are starting to understand the necessity to personalize learning in order to meet kids’ needs,” she said. “Every kid is different and has different needs, and it can’t be one size fits all anymore.”
At Thunder Mountain Elementary, Reed said she still sees the school taking “baby steps” toward the new learning model, but she’s excited to use more of the concepts in her first-grade classroom.
“Performance-based learning is exciting because it gives me the opportunity to slow down and to meet a student really where they are,” Reed said. “To push them if they need to be pushed, slow down if they need to slow down. I think it’s really going to give me the opportunity to see the strengths in kids and where kids really need to spend extra time.”
In classrooms, the next phase of implementing the district’s new learning model is teaching students self-awareness and self-management, concepts like what kind of learner they are and what kind of learner they want to become, where they get support and how to advocate for themselves.
Focusing on social and emotional learning is key to building toward a performance-based system, Midles said.
For teachers in kindergarten through eighth grade, new rubrics are being distributed this year that line up with the concept of performance-based learning.
Previously, teachers evaluated students by individual units, or what was being taught at the time. Once that unit was over, there was a new rubric used to pinpoint student success on a new subject, whether the student had mastered the previous concept or not.
By switching to evaluating students based on standards, students and teachers are able to figure out where a student is at in their learning based on their proficiency.
The difference has to do with time, said Leigh Grasso, executive director of academic achievement.
“By defining the rubric by standard, you’re able to have different entry points for learners based on their mastery of that standard,” Grasso said.
Instead of learning a concept because it’s the second quarter of third grade, students and teachers will look at a rubric to see that they’re learning a certain concept because they’ve already shown they are proficient in the concept that came before it.
More than 100 teachers were involved in creating the rubrics, Grasso said, and teachers will be asked to give feedback on the rubrics throughout the year.
Teachers and administrators are still developing rubrics for high schools, Grasso said.
Despite being one of the most prominent parts of District 51’s campaign to secure more school funding, Vana said her focus is the same as it was before Orchard Mesa Middle School became a public face for the November bond measure.
“I can’t focus on the possibility (of getting a new building,)” Vana said. “I like to dream and I like to get excited about it, but my main focus has got to be being ready for 500 kids who walk in the door on August 16, that I’ve done my best to prepare the teachers in the way that they feel ready to greet those kids.”
Reed said the larger factors at work in the school district — a new superintendent, changes to administration, pending ballot questions — don’t affect her day-to-day work as a teacher.
In some ways, it’s because teachers already feel like they’re being closely watched by the community.
“It does feel like we’re under a microscope sometimes, like everything we’re doing is wrong for kids, and I feel the opposite. I think we’re doing really great things for kids,” Reed said. “Teaching is a noble profession. It takes special people to want to come back every year, and it gets harder and harder every year to come back because you don’t know what you’re going to get. Kids come from broken homes and traumatic pasts, and I have to remember that my job is still to love them and grow them. That’s what I hope to do every day, to love them and grow them.”