Derek Franz

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April 18, 2012
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Back to middle school

Middle school ain't what it used to be, particularly at Eagle Valley Middle School, as Principal Katie Jarnot can attest.

Jarnot attended EVMS in the early 1980s and returned to take the helm as principal last summer. She invited a reporter from the Enterprise to come spend half a day in various classes with students for a first-hand experience of what EVMS looks like today.

I attended middle school in the mid-90s in New Castle, and I can say a lot has changed ... and a lot has stayed the same.

Folders with the "AC/DC" logo are still on desks. (Is that band the next Rolling Stones? Will it ever die?) Classrooms still have baskets labeled "Late Work" and "No Names," and social groups appear much the same.

New to me, however, was a laminated sign that said, "No cell phones." When I was in seventh grade, my mom's cell phone was the size of a brick and I never imagined owning or taking anything like it to school.

Obviously, technology has become increasingly common, cascading down into the hands of students, and with it has come higher learning expectations.

"Our math curriculum has changed a lot in the last year," said eighth-grade math teacher Amy Marsh, who has taught at EVMS for 11 years. "My regular eighth-grade math classes are tackling what used to be covered in ninth and 10th grade."

Marsh said there is more emphasis on analytical thinking. Other EVMS teachers agreed that analysis is a big part of the school's new curriculum, which started last fall. Marsh said teachers aren't being asked to cover as much, going more in-depth instead.

"The way teachers work and present content is different," Jarnot said. "State standards started coming in around 1995. How a teacher teaches is still up to him or her but now there are specific things they need to cover - it's not just teachers making up tests for their classes anymore. It's much more rigorous."

"How do environmental conditions affect the survival of an individual organism?" The question on sixth-grade science teacher Nick Cataldo's test review seems to frame a variety of contexts well.

The environmental conditions for EVMS staff members have apparently been a bit stressful this year as they adapted to the latest curriculum. The word "rigorous" came up repeatedly during my tour.

"The teachers here have done an awesome job adapting to the new standards - they work their tails off for these kids," said Deborah Ramsay, who is a "mentor master" (more on that later) and teaches sixth- and eighth-grade social studies. She also coaches track and has been at EVMS for 27 years.

"Eagle County Schools is obviously leading in the U.S.," she said, attributing that to what she learned at a meeting with other mentor masters from all over the country.

Supporting the claim is the fact that nine Eagle County Schools, including EVMS, received the Governor's Distinguished Improvement Award in February. The award recognizes Colorado schools with the highest rate of student longitudinal growth on statewide assessments. That translates as consistent high scores and growth in scores.

"This district is light years ahead as far as having a curriculum that doesn't have gaps and builds on itself through each grade level," Jarot said.

Judging by the award-winning test scores and Ramsay's comments about the teachers' adaptiveness, the EVMS staff has created a pretty good educational environment, setting its 262 students up well for individual success.

"Everything an organism does affects something else," Cataldo explained to his class.

EVMS has two mentor teachers and one mentor master (Ramsay) who oversees them. That number is less than previous years due to budget cuts. Overall, the EVMS staff of 34 includes 20 teachers.

The position of a mentor teacher is intended to help other teachers with a variety of self-improvement and teamwork matters. When the program first started about 10 years ago, mentors were selected by their colleagues. These days, aspiring mentors must apply for the position.

"We come in about 10 days early at the start of the school year," said Marsh, who has been a mentor teacher for about nine years. "We (the mentors) meet once a week and once every two weeks with mentees."

Marsh said mentors are compensated for the 10 days they come in early and they get an extra period during the school day to meet with other teachers and observe classes.

"It's definitely not a free period," she said.

Ramsay said she believes the mentor program has helped test scores.

"A teacher used to have to find classes for professional development and now the district provides it," she said.

Also new at the school this year is a seventh-grade leadership class, which has 13 students. The average class size at the school is 20 to 25 students.

"We noticed we had a lot of seventh-graders who stood out as natural leaders in their classes," said leadership teacher Erika Redlin.

The class recently drafted a vision statement that will be used to update the school's vision statement, Jarnot said.

"Our vision is that all students will work together with a positive attitude, try harder to do new things and pay attention so we can learn more, therefore be successful, and carry these lessons throughout our lives," reads part of the statement, which was presented to parents last week before spring break.

"It's been a cool experiment," Jarnot said of the class. "We've had a lot of good things come out of it but it's not part of the curriculum."

The class is currently brainstorming fund-raising ideas for a community service project.

"They are good at directing themselves," Redlin said. "They have good social skills and are good at group stuff."

Indeed, the students had more mature interactions with me than a class of ninth-graders I once visited.

A big part of EVMS's latest mission is bridging the gap between the home and school.

"When I started, I got a lot of feedback from parents that there wasn't great communication with the school," Jarnot said. "School is a team sport, we need parents to help us out."

Ramsay said communication with parents is much better these days, thanks to modern technology.

Of course physical changes are expected in a school that deals with pubescent kids. Though that topic was part of a class I was lucky enough to miss during my visit, the physical changes to the building have the EVMS community talking.

"I hadn't seen the school until after I accepted the job," Jarnot said laughing. "And then I knew why - the carpet and hallways were all pink or green."

That's been fixed. Over the summer, new carpet went in, along with a more reasonable color scheme. Lockers were fixed, brick walls were scrubbed and the sixth-, seventh- and eighth-grade hallways were re-arranged to be more efficient.

"The sixth-graders don't have to walk through the eighth-grade hallway to get to their classes anymore," said seventh-grader Rose Sandell, one of my tour guides and a leadership student.

Man, if only I could have had a guide like her when I was a middle school student ... Then again, that age probably would've had a degree of personal awkwardness no matter how great the people around me were. Even the memory of it sent me happily off to my car by lunch hour. In that, middle school is definitely still the same.

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The VailDaily Updated Apr 18, 2012 12:17PM Published Apr 18, 2012 12:08PM Copyright 2012 The VailDaily. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.