Forum gathers thoughts about schools

Photo by Tamie Meck Parents, school staff and Delta County School District administration and board members attend last Wednesday\'s community forum at Paonia High School. The annual forums are used to gain insights from the public on how the district can

What opportunities can the Delta County School District offer its students in the next one to three years? What are the district's greatest assets in terms of opportunity? How can the communities be engaged in student education?

The district wants to hear comments and ideas on these and other questions. For the past three years the district and the school board have reached out to local communities through annual public listening sessions, said district assistant superintendent Kurt Clay last Wednesday at the Paonia forum. "Each year, the focus changes a little, but the goal is always about getting community information."

This year the district put forth five questions ranging from how to increase opportunities for schools and communities; what classes and experiences can be offered, particularly at the high school level, that aren't included in current classes; how to attract more families and businesses into the county; what types of internships and apprenticeship opportunities might be offered; and how businesses and parents can help sustain school programs at all levels.

Participants are asked to respond briefly to each of the questions in writing, then discuss comments in breakout groups. After all of the forums have been held, the district will compile and consider all of the comments.

A lot of comments coming from the North Fork area are on how to provide more options for preparing all students for life, said Clay. One thing influencing education is the mentality that a four-year college is for every student. This year's forum includes a 10-minute video, "Success in the New Economy," which stresses the link between post-secondary education and income levels. The video, which can be found on Youtube, posits that data indicating that salaries rise with education levels encourages a college for all and at any cost philosophy to ensure future job and financial stability. But a changing economy and other factors mean that a college degree doesn't always match up with labor market realities of the new economy.

For some students, four years or more of college is a good fit, said Clay. Others might fit more into the technical skills and training category. In the next 10 years or so, said Clay, as much as 57 percent of jobs will be in that skilled labor market. The challenge, he said, is in finding "the right category" of learning experiences and preparing students for education after high school.

How to prepare students for the path they want to take is the challenge. The district already works with Solar Energy International and Delta-Montrose Technical College and offers Advanced Placement, or AP program, "But we'd really like to expand those opportunities," said district superintendent Caryn Gibson.

Lisa Delaney was one of a handful of parents in attendance. A mother of Crawford Montessori School and at Paonia Junior High students, she came to the meeting out of curiosity and learned how the district is working to connect students with real-world skills and learning opportunities.

Delaney said that in talking with her group about the top three reasons people select a particular school, hearing others' concerns made her realize that some of their concerns, like safety, are what she takes for granted. "We just don't worry about safety," she said. "We know our kids are safe at school."

In asking the public what opportunities they would like the district to provide, and how to approach them, comments included a pooling of resources between schools and communities, tapping into the diversity of the population, partnering with faith-based communities and with local industries, consolidation of traditional schools and expansion of alternative schools and adapting to a changing demographic.

"How can we offer multiple English classes, creative writing classes or certain AP classes so that no matter what our ZIP code is, our students have those same opportunities?" asked Gibson. "How do we make that happen?"

A big portion of the equation is in creating opportunities for kids in the next one to three years, said Gibson. "But we've got to determine what those are and what they look like."

The North Fork School of Integrated Studies is one example of how the district is meeting those demands. NFSIS/Paonia Elementary School principal Sam Cox noted that the culture in the North Fork is changing as more people move from the cities and suburbs to smaller communities. "But they still want the same opportunities available in urban and suburban schools," said Cox.

A decline in energy-based jobs and a switch to more recreation- and agricultural-based economy is also changing the demographic, said Clay. "That that can be a strength, and it can be a challenge." The district "is viewing it from the strength side by looking for opportunities and finding ways to capitalize on that change."

Gibson said district and leadership teams are frequently asked about consolidation. Last summer the district hired a consultant to look into it. She advised the district to exhaust every option before taking that step. Once consolidation occurs, Gibson said she told the district, "There would no longer be a Paonia High School or Hotchkiss High School. You'd be a North Fork school."

While student numbers have declined in recent years, the district didn't see a decline in enrollment, said Gibson. They will watch to see if the trend continues and avoid knee-jerk reactions.

Other considerations surround the issue of consolidation, said school board president Tammy Smith. "As a school board we would like to just find alternatives because we don't want to kill either community. Everybody likes their community, everybody is invested in their community."

In considering internships and apprenticeships, participants support the idea and suggest looking at the logistics and benefits of offering summer programs. Junior high students could be offered job shadowing opportunities, with apprenticeships and internships offered as they progress through high school. Job fairs would also give all students an opportunity to see what the job market is offering.

This year the district received an Individual Career and Academic Plans (ICAP) grant that placed counselors in each of the schools. Counselors are working to provide career classes in high school that would help students choose career paths and pursue careers they are interested in, said Gibson.

Also suggested was offering learning experiences outside of Delta County and even the country. That would help diversity in the workforce and increase academic options. One idea suggests establishing a sister school relationship in another state or country.

In asking how to attract families and business to the area, maintaining a low student/teacher ratio, adding creative options like satellite schools, and ensuring academic excellence by providing a high level of learning options were among the main themes. Ideas included creating hands-on learning opportunities in technology, offering more STEM - Science, technology, engineering and math -- classes, and teaching life skills and trade classes.

The big question, said Clay, is how to implement these ideas. "People have different views... and it's important for us to listen to that and to make sure we're tailoring education to meet that demand."

Community-based fundraising, designating a community liaison to build partnerships, and fostering internships could help increase business and community participation in learning; working with local business and industry to identify shortfalls in skills at the local level could help students determine a career path.

Some good information and ideas have come from past meetings, said Clay. Last year, the subject of how to retain and properly compensate staff led to salary increases. "That was a huge budget issue, and one we really worked hard on," said Clay.

It was a decent turnout, but they would always like to see more parent participation, said Clay. "The board really wants to hear from the community."

Tanya Crawford said she came to the forum for the opportunity to have a say in her three children's education and their future. She saw the evening as a positive experience. "They definitely try to prepare kids for the real world," she said. They also focus on achieving academic excellence, and that's important to her.

The final forum will be held at 6 p.m. tonight at Hotchkiss High School. Childcare is provided, and everyone is encouraged to attend.

The district will hear from North Fork students at meetings scheduled for Dec. 2.

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