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CCHS Supporters Raise Concerns for Students’ Futures

The Buena Vista Board of Education met for a work session ahead of their regular meeting on Monday, January 10, their first meeting of the year. The work session focused on the district’s actions with their surplus properties. Most attendees in the packed conference room were there to learn the future of Chaffee County High School (CCHS) and the impacts on the students it serves.

President Suzette Hachmann gave a brief summary of the current status of the various properties (covered here in their regular meeting ). The campus has been sold to the owner of the Colorado Autism Center. “Since the CCHS building has been sold, we are leasing it back from the Colorado Autism Center through the current school year,” Hachmann explained. “And for next year, we’re looking into some options.”

Much of the community in attendance came to discuss the impacts on CCHS. People were not afraid to speak their minds and most were greatly concerned about the school’s future.

Susan Shampine of the Mini Blessings equine program, has had a relationship with CCHS for ten years. She said they rely on assistance from the CCHS students. They have also offered a CCHS mentoring program to mentor some of the elementary students going through Mini Blessing’s programming.

“You say you’re interested in students,” said Shampine. “But it sounds like the decisions were made and the property sold before a good plan or even key players were brought into this process. So, that makes me think that you’re more money-driven than you are caring-for-the-students-driven, and I hope that this board would take to heart some of that and really work and listen to these kids. One trip by the superintendent to the school to get some feedback, I think you need to get feedback, especially with these kids that think a little differently than your Average Joe. You’re going to have to approach them several ways to dig down and really get to what they want.”

“We’re not getting rid of the school, we’re moving it,” said Hachmann. The board had to clarify a number of times that CCHS wasn’t closing, just relocating. However, the relocation was also a major point of contention for those in attendance.

One CCHS graduate said she would never have graduated without CCHS.

“They welcomed me with open arms, they made sure I had a safe place to go. I had a one-on-one connection, which many of the students today have, and they need…the stability that the teachers give, more so than Buena Vista High School (BVHS) does. I’m sorry, but it’s true.”

“It would be a disaster [to blend the schools],” she added. “How do you know the teachers aren’t going to second-guess and misjudge? ‘You’re just here because you can’t do it with everybody else. You don’t fit in this circle, you’re a square.’ That’s not what education is supposed to be. It’s supposed to be fit for every student, and every student learns differently. They don’t need to be made fun of or left out. They do need to learn life skills.”

Another community member and CCHS teacher said that they are taking disenfranchised children and putting them in a more marginalized space by putting them back in BVHS.

Chaffee County High School.

“That’s not gonna accomplish anything,” he said. “That kind of stirs up the question, was the goal to reduce and eliminate the entirety of CCHS over time? Because if it’s not, why are we having this discussion of eliminating that space and how to build programming without those resources?”

Hachmann said that the board wants to expand opportunities for the kids and that one way they can expand opportunities efficiently is by putting CCHS in closer proximity to the BVHS campus.

“I’m really sorry, I’m going to disagree with you,” said one parent. “You talk to all the different staff, they’re gonna tell you that by putting them back into the environment where they were not successful, you’re insulting them, hurting them. They feel further disenfranchised.”

Board Member Brett Mitchell voiced his appreciation for what had been shared, and he added that CCHS has had a lot of question marks thrown at it over the years.

“As we move forward, we’re at a point now where we’re looking at how we can maximize it for the kids, and I know you don’t agree,” he said. “But unfortunately sitting up here you have to make decisions that people don’t agree with. And it’s gonna suck sometimes….We’re trying to get input so we can align a solution that’s as appropriate as possible.”

A few community members, including a parent of a current CCHS student, emphasized that CCHS is there for a reason, particularly for students who need more one-on-one attention.

“When the teacher makes a child feel like they don’t have time for them, they shouldn’t be teaching,” the parent said. “My kid has his crap together more than half the kids in the public school, and it’s because of the staff at CCHS.”

Hachmann responded, saying that better pathways and connection between BVHS and CCHS has been part of the board’s plans since she has been on the board.

“I’ve been on the board six years, and as long as I’ve been on the board it was one of the district’s priorities to strengthen the relationship between BVHS and CCHS and to remove the stigma that you’ve talked about,” she said.

“I, unfortunately, haven’t seen it,” the parent replied. “I see it getting worse rather than better.”

Lisa Connell Ledwith, a former CCHS teacher who now teaches at Horizons in Salida, pointed out that relationships between teachers and students at CCHS are the key.

“It sounds like you want the secret sauce, what makes this curriculum work for these kids. It’s the relationships between the teachers and the students, that is 100 percent of what makes this work. Unfortunately, the choices you’ve made that we can’t have any input on, is because they’ve already been made, and from my understanding, the staff is cut, is that correct?

“Well, not exactly,” said Hachmann, causing the audience to chuckle. “We would like to…it’s an expensive school to run, and that’s why it’s so successful. We would like it to run a little more efficiently,” she said. “That means yes and no [whether the staff has been cut]. It’s not like we took a list of staff and tore it in half. That’s between the superintendent and Christine [Bailey] to discuss what it will look like with a smaller budget.”

No clarification of the extent of the budget cut was given.

“Every employee at CCHS will have a position in our district,” Yates clarified, which did not answer the question of the impacts on CCHS students. “Christine [Bailey]and I have been meeting over the last six to eight weeks about different options, about what that could look like. She knows what her operating budget is. There are ways, knowing that there’s a reduced staff, that a portion of that staff could be at CCHS while they’re serving other duties in the district.”

When one community member asked how much of the budget for CCHS is left, Superintendent Yates said that the budget and where it would be used would be up to Bailey. Another former CCHS teacher, Anna Winger, said that one of the biggest concerns is that there are still a lot of unknowns about how CCHS will be impacted.

“There’s no answer right now of where it’s gonna be or how many teachers are gonna be there,” Winger said. “I’ve taught at CCHS and in a traditional school system, and they’re drastically different, and I do not think it will be successful to meld them.”

“Your decision was clearly super financial, and we are working backward…If you put this school at the high school, another thing that makes [CCHS] work is that you have a space to call your own,” Ledwith says. She highlighted that CCHS used to have its own mascot. “This school started between Salida and BV coming together and saying, ‘let’s make a school for kids that need something different.

“If you make it feel like ‘oh, we’re just a side note next to the high school,’ it’s going to impact the mentality,” she continued. “I don’t think I have to tell any of the people on this board that half of success is believing that you are valuable. If you make the kids feel marginalized by just being a side classroom at the high school, I believe that your intentions are gonna be great, and Christine is amazing and she’s gonna do what she can, and the teachers you put in this program are going to have their best interests at heart. But if you put them in that position you’re asking them to climb a hill that is unclimbable. You’re taking away their resources.”

“It’s such a different experience,” added Winger. “When you have 25 to 30 students in your classroom you can’t give that same individualized attention. I don’t want it to be ‘us vs. them’ in that sense of education. The bottom line is they’re both important and they both need to exist.”

One community member asked what would happen differently if money followed the students, pointing out that dropouts will happen if students lose CCHS.

“You have to think how you’re going to keep this student going, not how you’re going to pay the bills,” she said.

Hachmann called on Mike “Diesel” Post, former principal at CCHS and current Director of Parks and Recreation in Salida.

“It is what it is, the building sold,” he said. “We probably could have planned and prepared for it had we SEEN it coming. I say ‘we,’ I have nothing to do with it anymore. That said, I did have something to do with it for 15 years. I spent a lot of time protecting Chaffee County High School because I felt like I had to.”

Post said that a little conflict is realistic, as the two high schools are separated. “But we spent my entire career building that school to be exactly what it was,” he explained. “I hear the term, ‘we’re not gonna pull the rug out from under the students,’ but, holy moly, you cut that staff in half? I don’t know what to tell you. It’s gone. You need a certain amount to function, to have a climate, to have a culture. You can’t have a culture with 20 kids in a room. That’s not what Chaffee County High School was built to become.”

Post said they would regularly host visitors from the Front Range to tour the school who would ask how they did it and how it worked.

“It’s really expensive,” he said. “I get it. And it’s worth it. This district, this community has said that it is worth it….You have very talented staff that can figure these things out. But you have to give them the resources. If they have nothing to work with, they’re not gonna be able to do anything. I’ve sat there, I’ve been in that position, been handed a budget that is unrealistic…What do you expect Christine to do? As you’re moving forward, try to consider some transitions. Give them time to figure it out.”

He also emphasized that CCHS isn’t just about location. “Chaffee County High School is not that building, it is something else,” he concluded. “But what it is, you need some resources. As you’re moving forward, just consider that. It’s going to be very difficult to build and maintain momentum.

“We knew this was coming…It’s a building on Main Street. We looked at CMC, we looked at Centerville, we looked all over the place. We always had it in our back pocket,” he said. “It could survive anywhere else given the same commitment, support, resources. But it’s gonna be really hard to make it work with dramatically less. And you can do less. But carefully, and over time.”

Karl Robison, who graduated from CCHS after spending three years at BVHS, said that CCHS’s programming allowed him to succeed on his own terms.

“For me, personally, it allowed me to succeed more than I ever thought I could and get through classes I never thought I could get through,” he said. “Having that small environment, teachers that actually care, it is a family and a more personal atmosphere to go through.”

Erin Johnke, a former counselor from CCHS who now works with Salida Middle School, emphasized the importance of CCHS students having their own counselor as mental health grows as an issue among students. “It is a full-time gig at CCHS, and it’s the most important work I’ve ever done,” she said. “Mental health is of the utmost concern to me after 20 years…I urge you to be careful.”

“Don’t share the staff. If you share the staff, you kill the program,” she said. “It wouldn’t have worked if that’s what we had been doing…because it wouldn’t have mattered to us in the way that it matters.”

“It’s pretty clear that there are a few things that must be preserved for the school to remain as effective as it’s been and unfortunately how expensive that’s been, and one issue that’s been contentious is its independence from BVHS,” said one CCHS teacher. “That was a humongous piece of what gave us pride…It’s really hard to look at a couple of bullet points on a PowerPoint and say ‘this is the culture of the school that we’re trying to preserve.’

“People are scared, given the fact that there wasn’t even a plan for them when moves were made. I think that speaks volumes to people who care about this program,” he said. “As problematic as it seems, independence from BVHS is a humongous part of what preserves the culture of CCHS.”

As the meeting wrapped up, Hachmann clarified that “it wasn’t true” that the board didn’t think of a plan ahead of selling the property. “We’ve considered a lot of options. We need to take this and find the best one … It has been really great to hear from all of you, to hear the high praise for CCHS.”

The work session adjourned around 7:05 p.m., and the board prepared to move into their regular meeting. The board’s next regular meeting will be on January 24, 2022, at 6:00 p.m. The school board meetings do include time for public comment on the agenda.