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October 16, 2012
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Gateses in Gypsum for 'learning visit'

GYPSUM - Bill and Melinda Gates visit one school a year and Monday it was Eagle Valley High School.

Yeah, our Eagle Valley High School.

Bill and Melinda Gates, among the world's richest people, are serious about education reform and followed some of their money to Gypsum.

The Colorado Legacy Foundation was awarded a $900,000 grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The money is helping fund changes in curriculum, as well as the way students, teachers and principals are evaluated in 13 school districts across Colorado. The Eagle County school district is one of those pilot programs.

Monday, they spent the day in Eagle Valley High School taking a first-hand look.

"This is a huge point of pride for our school," said Greg Doan, Eagle Valley principal.

This wasn't a walk-through. They arrived around 8 a.m. and left just before the final bell - around 3 p.m.

No one knew they were coming because, well, almost no one knew they were coming. Security was tight and police officers were easier to spot Monday around Eagle Valley than a teacher's pet.

"We were asked to keep it a secret and we did," Doan said.

The news started popping up on Eagle Valley students' Facebook pages and in text messages Monday afternoon. Some knew they were there, but when they left they sent their best wishes to the entire school.

Before they headed out the door, Melinda politely asked for a microphone in the main office and announced to the entire school that they were there; introduced Bill told everyone how much they enjoyed their day Eagle Valley High School.

Bill followed with his own announcement and when he finished the two were on their way, leaving amazement in their wake.

The pair visits one school in the country each year. At one point during the day, Melinda rattled off five names in five cities. Now there are six.

She and Bill repeatedly referred to them as "learning visits," teachers said.

A plan for Bill and Melinda?

They asked questions, they listened to the answers, they absorbed ideas.

They wanted it relaxed, and that's what they got.

They sat in on Mary Ann Stavney's language arts class. Eagle Valley students are used to official-looking folks visiting classrooms to check out the new curriculum and how it's being taught.

A few weeks ago Stavney had eight people in suits lined up in the back of her classroom, all from the Gates Foundation.

"We get observed so much that people don't think much about it. People here are comfortable with it," Stavney said.

On Monday her classroom was set up like it always is - small groups around tables.

Students didn't know who was coming, just someone important, they were told.

"How do you prepare a lesson plan for Bill Gates?" Stavney asked.

Like she for everyone else, it turns out, using teaching tools the Gates foundations are helping create. But more on that in a minute.

She started with a common core standard - what she wanted the kids to learn. In this case it was Standard 3.2A1, argumentative and persuasive thinking, writing and speaking - in that order if possible.

"It builds strong brains," Stavney said.

The students had read a couple essays about the Middle East by Bob Ghosh, as you should also, and showed up with their rhetoric ready, Stavney said.

Bill and Melinda jumped right in, exchanging ideas and insights with the students, even though some still didn't know who they were.

One student mistook Bill for Brian Childress, the school district's human resources director, who's also pretty important.

Another student had an eight-minute discussion on the subject with Bill, and didn't know who he was talking with until a classmate leaned over and whispered, "That's Bill Gates!"

His face pretty much went apoplectic.

At the end of the class, Stavney thanked their guests and, modern technology being what it is, word began to filter out immediately.

Why they were here

It's all part of the Colorado's efforts to implement a teaching and curriculum model aimed at making high school graduates more college and career-ready. Eagle County is one of 13 Colorado school districts piloting that project.

The entire state will jump in during the next couple years.

Reform is not cheap and Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is helping the Colorado Legacy Foundation pick up some of the tab for that.

"They're taking the lessons we learned and applying them all the other districts," said Dan Dougherty, the school district's communications director. "As a major funder of that work, they're interested in how to help."

The system measures how well teachers are presenting curriculum and how well students are absorbing it, measured through data from standardized testing.

Bill and Melinda Gates questioned students, faculty and staff about everything: curriculum, instruction, teaching, the mentor/master program and how teachers, students and principals are evaluated, Doan said.

"When a visionary like Bill Gates is asking to be read into the system being implemented, it's a great honor," Dougherty said. "They understand that we need to be preparing today's kids for tomorrow's jobs," Dougherty said. "The world needs people who can think and write."

Staff Writer Randy Wyrick can be reached at 970-748-2935 or rwyrick@vaildaily.com.


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The VailDaily Updated Oct 16, 2012 05:44PM Published Oct 16, 2012 12:26AM Copyright 2012 The VailDaily. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.