Cheering for school possibilities at C’dale visioning meeting
By Debbie Bruell
Sopris Sun Correspondent
“It was sort of like a pep rally,” said Re-1’s Chief Academic Officer Rob Stein, describing the school district’s visioning meeting in Carbondale on Oct. 3. “I’ve never before seen crowds of people cheering for academic choices,” Stein told The Sopris Sun.
The meeting drew about 150 community members, approximately 80 percent of whom were parents of current students. In rotating groups of about six people, attendees were asked to discuss a series of questions, including: What are your hopes for your school? What would you like to change about your school? What are the most important “outcomes” that students should gain from a school? What are the most important characteristics of a school?
The volume in the room quickly rose each time the groups began discussing the questions. And the facilitator’s voice could barely be heard above the crowd when it was time for each discussion to come to a close.
Stein told The Sun he was “psyched about all the positive and collaborative energy” he felt at the meeting. He acknowledged Carbondale’s history of discontent with the school district, yet he noted, “I didn’t feel any of that history (at Thursday’s meeting). I felt an optimism for the future.”
Three key themes emerged from participants’ responses to the question, “What are your hopes for your school?”:
• More real-world, interdisciplinary, relevant, experiential, project-based learning;
• Attract and retain top quality teachers;
• Inspire a life-long love of learning.
When participants were asked to select the most important “outcome” that students should gain from school, the top choice out of 10 was “Resilience, determination, and a belief that they can succeed” with “Strong critical thinking skills” as a close second. The third highest ranked priority was “Learn how to work collaboratively with people from diverse backgrounds.”
True to their Carbondale spirit, many participants balked at being boxed into the given list of options (which were derived from a study by the Thomas Fordham Institute, “What Parents Want”). For example, one participant suggested that “Develop strong critical thinking skills” should be changed to “Develop strong critical and creative thinking skills.”
Other participants criticized the absence of any options regarding the importance of support for teachers and providing teachers with adequate time for planning and collaboration.
Also of note was the fact that the option, “Emphasizes basic skills in reading, writing and math” received very few votes. This result drew numerous comments, including the following: “Why aren’t people recognizing the importance of kids learning their basic skills? I was a teacher. It was very hard to do my job because so many kids didn’t have a strong foundation in basic skills.”
When it was announced that one of the options “Has high ranking in the state performance framework (high test scores)” received zero votes as an important school characteristic, the room erupted into applause.
“Standardized testing needs to go away so teachers can do what they are trained and able to do,” one person commented.
Thursday’s meeting was part of the first phase of the district’s visioning process, which includes five meetings in each of the district communities (Basalt, Carbondale and Glenwood Springs). The groups targeted for the five meetings were teachers/staff, business leaders, high school students, Spanish-speaking community members and English-speaking community members.
Carbondale’s meetings included a total of about 335 people: approximately 50 teachers/staff, 30 business leaders, 50 students, 55 people at the Spanish-run meeting and the 150 at the community meeting run in English last Thursday.
The five Basalt meetings took place Sept. 25 and 26. The Glenwood meetings are scheduled for Oct. 9-10.
The district administrators have emphasized that these meetings are just the first step toward defining a new vision for the school district. However, the next steps in this process have yet to be determined.
Both Stein and Superintendent Diana Sirko suggested in their closing comments Thursday evening that the next steps will include evaluating how well the district schools are currently addressing community members’ highest priorities. After summarizing the key findings from Thursday’s meeting, Stein stated, “We need to be asking ourselves, ‘Are we doing a good job of these things now?’”
Similarly, Superintendent Sirko pointed out, “We have to look carefully at what this data means. If something ranked very high, does that simply mean it’s something we highly value, or does it mean there’s currently a gap in our schools?”
Thursday’s meeting closed with a call to action from 12-year veteran teacher Adam Carballeira: “Teachers are excited about all these kinds of possibilities too,” he said. For example, every year Carbondale Middle School takes eighth graders on a trip to climb Mt. Elbert. He recalled one year, however, when they almost had to cancel the trip because they couldn’t find a bus driver.
“I’m looking out here at all of you,” Carballeira told the crowd. “We don’t have to wait for them (the district administrators and school board members) to make changes happen … Bring it on! Come on into the schools. Go get your bus driver’s license. Help us make these things happen.”