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CRES hopes to land on feet after enrollment hurdle

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By Will Grandbois
Sopris Sun Staff Writer

February 21 was a rough day at Crystal River Elementary School.
That’s when Principal Matt Koenigsknecht had to break the news to certain teachers that their current jobs won’t exist next year. It’s a counterintuitive conundrum for a school that has otherwise made tremendous strides with significantly improved test scores and a new sense of identity around “project-based” learning. 
“I think we have seen this really positive trajectory,” Koenigsknecht said. “We have such great people and that’s what makes this enrollment situation even more painful.”
The harsh reality at an open enrollment public school, however, is that fewer students means fewer staff members. It wasn’t entirely unexpected, with a kindergarten class of 83 students, compared to 86 first graders.
RFSD Superintendent Rob Stein sees several factors that contributed to a smaller student body. First, there’s a general “baby bust” in the area, with a particularly pronounced birth rate reduction in Carbondale that is expected to continue. There’s also increased capacity at Ross Montessori school, a state charter that recently completed a new building off Highway 133 (The Sopris Sun was unable to connect with Ross for information on demographic trends there). 
Finally, there’s Riverview school, a preK-8 under construction just across the Roaring Fork River from Westbank and slated to open in the fall. Intended to alleviate overcrowding in Glenwood Springs, it officially draws from areas traditionally assigned to Sopris Elementary and Glenwood Springs Middle schools – which will also see a reduction in teachers. 
While some students who previously opted for Carbondale schools despite being in the Glenwood bus region are now reconsidering, Riverview doesn’t appear to be drawing Carbondale residents so far, nor has there been the same attrition in higher grades. Even so, it means that 21 full-time equivalent positions are being cut around the district (not counting 11 staff members who gave early notice of resignation or retirement) with no guarantee that all the jobs will be replaced. With 10 positions already filled at Riverview, 18 remain up for grabs. To support the school’s dual-language program, eight or nine staff members will have to be bilingual, but it’s unclear whether that requirement has already been filled. 
Teachers with at least three years in the district are officially guaranteed a job — or at least a paycheck — for a year after being “displaced.” Staff members under that threshold — which accounts for about half of those affected —  are considered “probationary” and have no such assurances.’
Nevertheless, Stein said, “we feel loyalty to both categories, so we’re creating a priority hiring pool and working aggressively to find them a place in the district.”
Besides those at Riverview, other positions are expected to open up around the district as usual. Additionally, teachers who may want to find a place in another district will be provided with letters of recommendation that make it clear that their dismissal was due to circumstance, not performance. 
“As much as we’d hate to lose talent, we want to help everyone land on their feet,” Stein said.
Meanwhile, Koenigsknecht believes CRES can weather the reduction in staff and keep on a positive path. 
After contemplating joining the “expeditionary learning” program two years ago, the school opted to pursue “project-based learning,” a model that shares many of the same ideas. The core shift in philosophy, as Koenigsknecht explains it, is to view projects as the “main entree” instead of “dessert, with students building them over the course of a unit, adding layers as they go. 
“We think it’s a more authentic, deeper way to engage with the content, and it gets kids really excited about the work they’re doing,” he said. “We don’t want to just blow up our programming. It’s really more about adjusting the way we institute it.”
The approach doesn’t really require more teachers to implement than a more traditional approach, just some professional development and commitment from the staff. With cuts distributed fairly equally between grades and programs at Crystal River Elementary School, Koenigsknecht hopes the remaining faculty can overcome the setback. 
“It’s never going to be easy, but the culture that we’ve built and the way we came together as a staff has really carried us through,” he said. 

Editor’s note: The Sopris Sun has so far been unsuccessful in finding displaced staff who are willing to speak on the record. Those with a story to tell are welcome to contact Will Grandbois at 510-0540 or 

Published in The Sopris Sun on March 2, 2017.