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Community has a say at 50J listening sessions

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The community meetings hosted by Delta County Joint School District #50 provided a "snapshot" of the district's strengths and challenges, but facilitator Randy Black cautioned the school board against identifying outcomes without broader input.

Black, the director of member relations for the Colorado Association of School Boards, facilitated community meetings in Delta, Cedaredge, Hotchkiss and Paonia, worked with a representative group of high school students, and met with the school board late last week to wrap up the listening sessions.

"Everyone had a voice," superintendent Caryn Gibson told the board members. There is still an opportunity to weigh in, by completing the survey on the school district website, www.deltaschools.com.

"People connected," Black said. "That's the wealth of what you did."

But it's important for the board to continue listening, Black said, observing staff made up about 75 percent of the participants overall -- although many of them are also parents. How do you reach those who are "disconnected," who probably don't have children in school? That's the challenge -- to find where people are gathering and connect to them, Black said.

At each listening session, participants were asked to identify the school district's strengths, challenges, fiscal priorities and communication issues. In groups of three or four, the participants then pulled the "main thing" from the four key topics.

The "main thing" at nearly every meeting was people. Delta County has a very "connected culture," Black said, with dedicated employees, supportive families and caring communities. There's a massive root system here that affirms the school district's mission statement -- "Caring, challenging, learning -- every student, every day!"

Adult participants voiced a strong desire to support the staff with competitive salaries, resources and opportunities for professional development. Teacher turnover/retention is another concern. At Paonia, a "brain drain" has been observed, where teachers transfer to the district's larger schools where they can teach -- and prepare -- for several sections of the same class, as opposed to seven preps for seven class periods.

The economy was another hot topic. Per-pupil funding is the district's largest source of revenue, so when enrollment drops, the budget gets tighter. Participants realize it's difficult to increase staff salaries when student enrollment is declining, but also recognize salaries are not competitive with neighboring school districts.

The need to provide options for a diverse student population was voiced frequently, particularly at the student meeting. In the smaller high schools, distance learning is one way for students to access higher level math and science classes, while maintaining the district's class size guidelines. But students said the technology does not always work perfectly, and when it doesn't the teacher's face is frozen on the video screen and several minutes of lecture are lost. Students said they value the face-to-face contact with their teachers, and discussed a block schedule that would allow teachers to travel from school to school.

The high schoolers also addressed funding priorities. They said laptops are a better investment than iPads; they even prefer their own iPhones over iPads. One student suggested selling the iPads and using the funds for specific maintenance/facility issues at individual high schools, or for more teachers and counselors. The need to fund -- and acknowledge -- extracurricular activities fairly and equitably was another issue. Some clubs/teams seem to have to do more fundraising than others, students observed.

Among the students were two who participated in last year's listening sessions, and both said they appreciated the opportunity that was provided this year to interact, in small groups, with students from other schools. One Delta High School senior said the discussion in his group opened his eyes to the needs in smaller schools. He unselfishly suggested yielding some of Delta High's per-capita student funding to schools in greater need.

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