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From Left to right Board of Education President Jessica Crites, Finance Director Janice Martin, High School Teacher Robin Fritsch, Superintendent Lisa Yates, and CCHS Principal Kelly Chandler speak at the LWVCC Drinks and Dialogue event, answering questions from the audience as read by the League of Women Voters of Chaffee County (LWVCC) Barb Brady (far right). Photo by Carly Winchell.

The League of Women Voters of Chaffee County (LWVCC) and the Buena Vista School District (BVSD) held a “Drinks and Dialogue” event to allow members of the community to ask questions about the schools.

Featured speakers were Superintendent Lisa Yates, Chaffee County High School (CCHS) Principal Kelly Chandler, High School English Language Arts (ELA) Teacher Robin Fritsch, Finance Director Janice Martin, and Board of Education President Jessica Crites.

School Board members Paula Dylan and George Richardson and Buena Vista Trustees Gina Lucrezi and Sue Cobb also attended the event. First Grade Teacher Melissa St. John provided context and feedback to some questions, at Yates’ request. The room was full with about 60 in attendance.

Participants gathered at tables and filled out a sheet indicating what topics they wanted to hear about. Members of the audience could also write more specific questions on index cards as things came up during the conversation.

Superintendent Lisa Yates helps direct traffic at Avery Parsons while students head back for their first day of school. Photo by Carly Winchell

A handout was distributed to every table outlining some key points about the BVSD, specifically emphasizing a philosophy of “to be here now.” This philosophy emphasizes that “kindergarten is for kindergarten” and “senior year is for senior year.”

During the discussion, Yates highlighted her perspective that students and schools face too much pressure to bring post-secondary school earlier and earlier, and that rushing students through adolescence means they miss out on their four short years of high school.

“I think we just have to be careful what we’re asking, not just of schools, but of our students. . . We are putting a new kind of pressure on students to both be successful as a post-secondary student and have this amazing high school experience,” said Yates. “I feel very strongly about it, and it’s not a popular opinion to have right now. Everywhere we’re reading about concurrent enrollment (CE), students being in college, and students achieving all kinds of industry certificates.”

Yates explained that BVSD students have plenty of access to these options if they desire them but wants the ability to “preserve this very short time they get to be a kid.”

Questions were broken out into specific topic areas after the tables submitted their sheets, covering:

  • CCHS: What is the district doing to help kids not going to college and specifically to help kids in CCHS?
  • Censorship in Schools: Have there been problems with books in libraries and classrooms and are there controversial materials in the library?
  • Finance: What is the per pupil rate the school receives? How much does the school get from state and federal funding, and how can the district handle being able to provide a living income for high level teachers in this community?
  • Test Scores: What are they looking like, why are they lower here than in Salida, and is phonics being taught in reading?
  • Counseling: What is the funding for guidance counseling, how well staffed is the school, and how are concerns about children feeling teased being handled by the schools?
  • English Language Learners (ELL): How many second language students are there and what is the school doing to ensure these students will be successful in an English-speaking school?
  • Trade School: What is being provided to kids who aren’t going to college and want to develop trade skills?
  • Volunteerism: What can the community do to assist and support kids and the district?
  • School Lunches: Is there anything being done to improve the quality and nutrition and availability of school lunches?
  • Sex Ed: When will the school offer a health education course including all elements of what kids are struggling with, such as sex education, pregnancy prevention, etc.?
  • Computer Usage: What amount of time are kids on computers, does the school teach typing, and why are kids spending time on computers rather than in text books?
  • Writing Skills: Do kids learn cursive?

Some of these questions had simple answers; yes students are taught cursive, typing, and phonics in school, but other topics required much lengthier discussions.

When asked about censorship, Yates reported no challenges to any materials available in the school since she began her tenure about eight years ago. Along with Fritsch, Yates described the in-depth process to review potential teaching materials. They emphasized a focus on teaching with intentionality material that is relevant, current, relatable, and represents a wide range of perspectives.

Regarding test scores, Teacher Melissa St. John explained how the elementary school was in the third year of a new curriculum. She praised the program’s scope and sequence, but Fritsch highlighted that research indicates proper data about results of this curriculum change won’t be available until year four or five.

This is why responding too reactively to things that fluctuate, like test results, can actually have a negative impact. Essentially, changes and updates need time to really make a difference.

Staff identified the S-CAP (Student Centered Accountability Program) as a good tool for measuring progress in a rural school district like Buena Vista. S-CAP data is publicly available on the district’s website here.

Regarding ELL students, Yates said they were not a new phenomena in the district, with about fifteen to twenty students in a typical year. The numbers have been rising, with Yates guessing about thirty to thirty-five students this year.

The primary difference is that the number of newcomers who speak no English has risen. The newcomers are from a variety of countries but primarily speak Spanish. Among those students with limited English, there are thirteen different languages.

The schools have hired a proficient speaker from the community to help out part-time and reallocated a teacher assistant who is certified in ELL to assist these students.

Martin provided an overview of how funding comes into the school district from local, state, and federal entities. While the schools used to be funded with about 60 percent from local sources and about 40 percent by the state of Colorado, this ratio shifted significantly with recent changes. Now only about 12.5 percent is funded from the state according to Martin.

Since the majority of funding now comes from property tax dollars, this has also shifted when the funds are delivered to the school, requiring the finance department to adjust drastically to the new flow of dollars.

When asked about computer time, Chandler said, “Initially that was one of my concerns too.”

However, she said the small population of students at CCHS prohibits having individual teachers for subjects. She also said that this allowed for greater flexibility and tailoring of course loads to specific student needs and allowed CCHS students to take electives at BVHS.

“Best practices now know that textbooks cannot keep up with curriculum, and they’re so expensive we can no longer afford them,” said Fritsch. “I think the real issue is, ‘Are we raising digital citizens?’ Those who know how to use technology and [have] basic computer skills, whether it’s to take a test or apply for a job online or request a doctor’s appointment. That we have ready citizens that we are graduating, but also a balance between those interpersonal skills.”

At the end of the meeting, Yates passed around sheets collecting contact information from the attendees to assess interest and availability for volunteering. Yates and staff said they welcomed greater community involvement.

Chandler specifically plugged CCHS’ Share a Story, Teach a Lesson, which invites community members to share a story with the students to show how life can be a journey.

Those with stories they are interested to share can reach out to Chandler by email. Her contact information is available on the BVSD website.

Those interested in volunteering or helping out in other ways can reach out to the school to find out more about opportunities.

The full video of the meeting is posted online by the LWVCC. All videos of LWVCC events like this one are posted to the League’s website here.