If money were no object, Hotchkiss High School students would update technology, bring more options into the classroom, buy new shop tools, and build a path connecting their school to their community. They'd also build a recreation center.
Those were just a few of the dozens of comments made by freshman-to-senior members of the student body during a two-hour, student-led "Student Conversation Meeting" hosted last Tuesday by the Delta County School District and Delta County.
Delta County is updating its master plan and felt it is missing an opportunity to connect with youth in the community, said Delta County community and economic director Elyse Ackerman-Casselberry. She approached district superintendent Caryn Gibson about the possibility of meeting with students.
At the time the district was planning its annual school meetings and decided to use those meetings to listen to students, rather than tell students what's what, said Gibson.
Students were given a series of questions, half focusing on school and half on community. Principal Paul Rodriguez told students that the meeting provided a "rare opportunity," since teenagers aren't often asked by school and community leaders for their opinions. He urged students to use the opportunity to say what's on their minds.
Overall, student comments were positive. They value their school and community, and feel supported.
Students have strong opinions about their teachers, said student facilitator Ashley Ziemer. "They are very supportive and helpful ... They're going to be there for you. They challenge us. And it's really nice to have teachers who further your education."
Comments also reflected a desire for more opportunities in the classroom and the community.
Regarding class options, students support Advanced Placement and concurrent enrollment programs, and a job shadowing program that was initiated this year. But they would like to have more resources that can prepare them for life after graduation. They also want more job opportunities. There just aren't a lot of opportunities for kids to work in fields they're interested in, said student body president, Nolan Egging, one of four student council members to facilitate the meeting.
One student who works at Paonia Care and Rehabilitation plans to study nursing. He would like to see more classes related to his field. "I want to become a trauma nurse, eventually," he said.
Some classes are boring, students told Egging. They want more options, like astronomy, more hands-on learning and fewer lectures. They also want greater flexibility in their schedules.
Like most small schools, HHS lacks extracurricular activities. "If you want to be on swim team you have to go all the way to Delta," said Egging.
Students like that the community supports extracurricular activities through donations and sponsorships and comes to their sports events. The Hotchkiss Library provides a space to study after school and explore new things through books.
When asked what would make the community a better place to live, students said that they want more fast food options, a bowling alley or movie theatre or somewhere to go at night.
"By far," the biggest wish is for a recreation center, said facilitator and student council treasurer, Sam Rodriguez. There isn't much to do in Hotchkiss and the nearest rec center is in Delta.
Transportation is also a big issue. Delta County is very rural, and Highway 92 to Bulldog Street is narrow and lacks a connector trail. Students can't walk or bike safely to school. Getting anywhere is difficult, especially for students who don't drive or don't have a vehicle, said Rodriguez.
Students also want more public parks and more events like art openings and parades that connect the community.
Senior facilitator Morgan Miller asked students what it would take to bring them home after they graduate and see the world. When asked who plans on returning, only three or four said yes, said Miller. Others would return if more job opportunities become available.
When asked what they love about their community and what its strengths are, some said they like the small-town atmosphere, and believe people care about each other. They named hometown events like Farm to Fiddle and the Delta County Fair as making the community unique.
Students like that the community is looking to create new trails and more outdoor opportunities through organizations like The Nature Connection, a Delta County School District-supported nonprofit creating outdoor opportunities for students in Delta County and Olathe.
"We live in this really special place that a lot of kids that live in big cities don't get to experience," said Miller."It would be nice to see the school utilizing all of those things that make it special."
If money was no object, students said they would buy new sports and weight room equipment and team uniforms and build a second gymnasium so both girls and boys teams can practice at the same time. They would replace the 1980s-era shop tools, and put locks on the bathroom stalls.
That the school is considering upgrading its technology and purchasing Chromebooks is supported by students. "If technology is not useful, it's not worth it," said Miller. Since students currently do most of their learning through textbooks, they would update those. They also want more hands-on experiences and field trips.
Egging and Rodriguez were both surprised by the level of participation from and thoughtful comments made by their fellow students.
Rodriguez said he had some ideas about what students would say, but was surprised by the thought that went into the answers. The event, he said, also allowed students to open up about the issues that concern them. Rodriguez also likes the concept of including students in public comment sessions, because they will have different ideas than the older generations. "You have to think of everybody," he said.
Delta County community and economic director Elyse Ackerman-Casselberry said she's pleased with the way the meetings went. "I've heard so much crossover from students with what the adults in the community are saying. But I also heard some really wonderful, unique and specific things today."
Casselberry said she doesn't know if this is a first for the district and county. "But if it's happened in the past, it's been many years. So hopefully there will be more of this."