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Students open minds, hearts during school district forum

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Photo by Tamie Meck Seniors Skylar Hoage from Hotchkiss High School, left, and Andrew Davis from Vision Charter Academy listen to Delta County School District 50J district superintendent Caryn Gibson on Dec. 2 during a meeting with North Fork area high sc

When it comes to their education, North Fork area high school students have a lot to say.

About 30 students from Paonia and Hotchkiss high schools and Vision Charter Academy shared some of their thoughts and ideas with Delta County School District 50J administrators, school board and leadership team representatives last week at the Energy Tech Center in Paonia.

Board member Jan Tuin, who taught in the district for 27 years, asked students to open their hearts and minds in considering comments. "We've heard from parents that were interested enough to come to the meetings," said Tuin. "We hope to gain some insights from what you people think, as students that are actually in the trenches right now."

A wide range of students from each class, and not just the top students, were selected by their schools to attend the meeting, said district superintendent Caryn Gibson. "You are the ones using our products," said Gibson. "We want to make sure that you're receiving the very best, so that no matter what you want to do after high school, you have the skills and the abilities to do that and be successful."

Within the district, 40 percent of students attend college after graduation, and 60 percent either go into the military or directly into the workforce, said Gibson. Regardless of their choices, the district wants to know what they believe it can do to prepare them for the postsecondary education world. "We're only successful if you're successful," said Gibson.

Students also watched a short video, "Success in the New Economy."

The meeting format mirrored that of recent public meetings held to gather comments and ideas from parents and teachers. Students watched "Success in the New Economy," a short video which makes a case for students to begin exploring career choices early and to educate themselves on all postsecondary education opportunities.

Students then broke off into groups to consider five key questions, including what programs and classes they would like to see if the district had the funding, and what they would cut if funding levels dropped; what apprenticeship and internship opportunities they are interested in; the challenges and threats to their education and how to address them; how the district can better prepare them for life in the postsecondary world; and the best things about being a student in Delta County.

Following comment-gathering, representatives from each group gave a brief presentation on the highlights of their findings. When it comes to class choices, students at both high schools would like to have more language options. Paonia offers two years of Spanish and Hotchkiss offers three years of Spanish and a college-level class. "I feel like I'm going to want more when I get to that level," said PHS freshman Katya Schwieterman. Students also said they would like to have another language option and options for students already fluent in Spanish.

They want more elective and Advanced Placement (college-level) classes, especially in the fields of math and sciences; more career courses in health care and business; more hands-on classes like shop; and more time to study at school.

Several students said they would like to have fewer homework assignments.

They also want soft skills and basic life skills classes to learn skills like financial planning, how to balance a checkbook, how to manage time, write a resume and conduct a job interview.

Some students are studying nursing, massage therapy and drafting at Delta-Montrose Technical College, which is part of the school district. If funding allows, HHS senior Conner Collins, who lives in Paonia and attends school at Hotchkiss, said he would like to see technology added that would allow students to study DMTC courses at their home school rather than having to drive every day to Delta. Making the drive every morning is painful and costs money, said Collins.

On the question of potential funding cuts, one student expressed concern about band, choir and art classes being cut.

Having more internship and apprenticeship opportunities was one of the suggestions expressed by parents during the recent public meetings, said district business manager Jim Ventrello. The district kind of agrees, he said. "We need to focus on it more." Since ideas of students and adults differ, "We need your ideas."

He got a lot of them. Students said they would like more opportunities to shadow professionals including doctors and EMTs. They and other students they know are considering careers as linemen, police officers, wildlife officers, electricians, plumbers, gunsmiths, blacksmiths and glass-blowers. Solar Energy International, which already has programs in Delta County schools, and the North Fork Valley Airport were among resources they would like to tap into.

They also suggested more real-life and applicable experiences in fields like mathematics and science.

Hotchkiss and Paonia are longtime rivals on the sports field, but students said they can put competitiveness aside and share classrooms. With sharing of AP classes between the schools, "This year we've seen more of that, actually," said Conner Collins.

To better prepare for after high school they would like to have the district bring in professionals to give speeches, and want more exposing to workplace environments, more science class options, hands-on classes, and personal finance classes. They would also like more time with counselors and for work studies.

The three seniors from Vision, a personalized K-12 alternative educational program with campuses in Cedaredge, Delta and Paonia, said they found it interesting to hear from traditional students about their concerns and aspirations.

When asked to describe their education in one word, students said it's been "challenging," "rewarding," "successful" and "difficult."

There are about 600 positions within the school district, said Gibson. She told students considering careers in education that the district would love to have them return after college and work for the district.

To get to know students a little better, Gibson asked students what they have to celebrate. One Vision student said she's happy the district received a $25,000 "Food for Thought" grant. Making Honors Jazz Band, the upcoming "Elf the Musical" performances at PHS and band concerts in Hotchkiss and Delta, winning the Humor category in Speech and Debate, and hosting a fall festival for children were among the reasons students said they have to celebrate.

District board president Tammy Smith said it's helpful to hear from the students on what works, what doesn't work, and what changes they'd like to see. "We really like getting your input so that we have some idea where you're coming from," she said.

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