Charter school looks past rocky year
Vail, CO Colorado
AVON ” There’s no denying that Stone Creek School had a crazy start last year, says Diana Hearne, who has three kids attending the school.
She’s referring to Stone Creek’s rough first weeks in 2006 as teachers and kids held classes at the Beaver Creek Lodge and Trinity Church in Edwards while construction finished on their building. And that was just the first sign of troubles to come.
Now though, aside from having its own building, things look remarkably different for the charter school as it starts its second year of class.
For one, there are definitely more kids. Enrollment this year will be about 220 students, up from 174 kids. These students spent the first day of school playing games meant to reinforce traits like truthfulness, cooperation and enthusiasm.
You’ll see seventh graders this year as the school expands its middle school. Next year, Stone Creek plans on having an eighth grade as well. Every teacher from its first year has stayed on for round two, and they’ve hired two new teachers.
While the school isn’t out of the financial hole it found itself in last December, big donations and relentless fundraising have bought the school plenty of wiggle room.
The current board of directors made significant progress in paying off debts, and parents say they’re confident in the school’s current leadership.
Absent for day one of year two was school founder Bill Hammer, who Avon police say allegedly stole more than $68,000 from the school to pay off two failing businesses and a lawsuit brought against him by Vail Resorts Development Company.
The news disturbed teachers and parents, but it’s something they don’t want to dwell on during what looks to be a promising second year.
“It was a crazy start, but the academics didn’t suffer,” Hearne said. “It was a testament to the staff and their flexibility as well as the commitment of the parents.”
The seventh grade is starting small ” only 11 students so far.
But there are lots of good things about having a small middle school, Principal Betsy Hill said. In that tight-knit setting, cliques and peer pressure take a back seat. Students instead have opportunities to become leaders.
“Typical adolescent behaviors are lessened here ” nobody slips through the cracks,” Hill said. “You don’t see some of the unpleasant things that can present themselves in a typical middle school environment.”
One new seventh grade teacher has been hired, and teaching duties will be shared with the sixth grade teacher. Many lessons will be tailored to each student’s ability level. Even fifth graders, if they’re able, can participate in middle school reading and math.
Middle schoolers will have a chance for athletics too, Hill said. They’ll be teaming up with The Vail Academy in competitive volleyball, basketball, football, wrestling and track. They’ll also be partnering with Meet the Wilderness on outdoor education, which will include a couple overnight hut trips.
The school will soon install a full computer lab, and parents will have access to a database system called Power School, which will allow them to review their child’s grades and assignments at any time through the Internet.
Stone Creek is also increasing the time devoted to teaching students Spanish, Hill said.
The school has racked up around $150,000 in donations ” more than $90,000 of that handed over by families within a week of learning of the debt.
Fundraising events have brought in thousands of dollars as well ” their Kentucky Derby alone netted $75,000, board president Kevin Kromer said.
So far, 15 debts to vendors have been paid off, an amount adding up to $169,000. A big hurdle was the school paying money it owed for its modular trailer building, which allowed the school to refinance its loan with Wells Fargo.
Still, the school owes about $260,000 to about 26 different groups, an amount they want to cut in half next year and pay off fully by 2009. The school is also paying off a line of credit to Wells Fargo and will make payments on its $1.2 million school building.
The debts come from a few different places. The school overestimated its enrollment numbers, which meant it received more state funding per student than it should have.
The rest of the debt comes from leftover building expenses, teacher salaries and everything else you need to run a school.
There were also unanticipated construction costs and about $400,000 in grants and fundraising that were budgeted for but never came in.
“We’re more organized this year, so I’m confident we’ll be fine,” said Karla Walsh, whose daughter McKella is starting her second year.
Overall, the school year will be a challenge, but it won’t involve the shock and panic that parents felt this year, leaders say.
“We still have a lot of financial problems in terms of debt, but it’s under control and managed,” Hill said. “We won’t have a lot of money, but we aren’t worried about surviving.”
Check out Stone Creek School’s revamped Web site at http://www.stonecreekschool.org.
Staff writer Matt Terrell can be reached at 748-2955 or firstname.lastname@example.org.