Eagle County School District welcomes students back for another year of ‘continual improvement’

What initiatives, challenges and goals the district has going into the 2023-24 school year

Teachers attend the Eagle County School District educator academy ahead of students returning on Monday, Aug. 21.
Eagle County School District/Courtesy Photo

Monday, Aug. 21 marks the start of another school year for local students. For the Eagle County School District, the name of the game this year is “continual improvement,” said Superintendent Philip Qualman.

The past few years have brought a myriad of challenges and attention to public education across the country and locally. School districts have had to contend with learning changes amid the pandemic, rises in behavioral health challenges, a nationwide shortage of staff and more, all while forging ahead and providing education to students.

“Eagle County School District is a large district with many schools, each with different strengths and challenges. Therefore, each school sets goals specific to their student needs,” Qualman said, adding that as a whole, the district sets a goal for each school to improve their school performance framework score (ranked by the state) by 5% annually.  

For teachers, the start of the year brings many emotions, said Karen Kolibaba, a teacher at Red Hill Elementary and president of the Eagle County Education Association. 

“Teachers are excited to be back and preparing for the return of students,” Kolibaba said. “All educators are looking forward to building and maintaining relationships with families and students to help our students continue to grow.”

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As it looks ahead to the coming school year, the district will face persistent challenges as well as rollout new programs and initiatives — all while striving for that “continual improvement.”


Heading into the 2023-24 school year, the district is facing staffing vacancies in similar departments to previous years.
Eagle County School District/Courtesy Photo

For the Eagle County School District — as with many others across the country — staffing continues to be its most pressing challenge. According to Adele Wilson, the district’s chief human resources officer, heading into the school year, there are 41 licensed positions (which includes teacher positions) and 53 support staff openings across the district.

“Post-pandemic, there are fewer people interested in working in the education sector,” Qualman said. “That means every school and every support department is understaffed.” 

The result is one that impacts all the organization’s employees.

“Employees are working overtime and picking up extra responsibilities to carry the load for the unfilled positions,” Qualman said.

Wilson noted that, in line with previous school years, bus driver and preschool positions continue to be the hardest to fill.

“We continue to hire in both departments and work with the staffing levels that we have,” Wilson said. “That affects the number of classrooms open and the number of bus routes run, but we continue to work with what we have to the best of our ability.”

While the local trend of staffing follows national trends, it is exacerbated for the district with the high cost of living, pay scale and lack of affordable housing, Wilson said.

“We take those challenges head-on and are doing all that we can to minimize those problems,” Wilson added.

This includes making steady progress on its Housing Master Plan, Qualman noted.

In October, the district is expecting to welcome its first residents to the first 10 units at its Edwards apartment complex, Miller Flats. The remaining 27 units are expected to be ready in April 2024. Additionally, it is forging ahead with plans for employee housing projects in Minturn and Gypsum as well.

ESSER funds

While the impacts of the pandemic are still being felt in many ways, the district is contending with the end of federal and state COVID relief funds. The last of the funds it received throughout the pandemic are budgeted to be spent by this September.

These dollars funded a variety of things including 22.5 full-time positions for intervention, credit recovery, permanent subs and exceptional student services. Although these positions were appreciated greatly at the schools, “a new funding source was not found and therefore these positions will be gone moving forward,” said Sandy Farrell, the district’s chief operating officer.

Free Meals for all

In November 2022, Colorado voters approved a ballot initiative that will provide districts with a consistent funding source for all students to receive free meals.

“Free breakfast and lunch for all is terrific for all students of Colorado, so we are thrilled that voters passed Prop HH last year,” said Melisa Rewold-Thuon, the district’s assistant superintendent of student support services. “Nutrition and access to food should never be a barrier to learning for any child.”

Since the measure was passed last November, the school district has been preparing for the rollout this fall.

“There have been many months of planning the logistics around how to entice our high school students to eat breakfast, including the ordering of food carts that will be placed in the main school entrance and allow the students to grab a meal on the way to class and get to class more quickly,” Rewold-Thuon said. “The ECSD Nutrition Services Department has been menu planning for healthy, hot meals that are quick to pick up and eat for breakfast.”

In the past, even in the pandemic when the National School Lunch Program was expanded federally, the district’s early childhood department was unable to participate in the universal free meals. However, this is also changing this year.

“Now all of our families and students will be able to receive free healthy and hot breakfasts and lunches,” Rewold-Thuon said.

In the local district, only Vail Ski and Snowboard Academy will not participate in the National School Lunch Program. Rather, the high school will “continue serving and selling meals under their own program to meet the nutritional needs of competitive athletes,” Rewold-Thuon said.

One challenge with the program is that while students no longer need to apply to qualify for free meals, the district does still rely on the Free and Reduced Lunch applications.

“The district is still encouraging all families to complete the enrollment paperwork for Free/Reduced lunch,” Rewold-Thuon said.

These applications not only qualify the district for certain funding but also enables families to have fees for student activities and sports waived or reduced. These applications are due before Sept. 22 and are available on

Standards-based grading

Heading into this year, the district is continuing the rollout of standards-based grading and practices.
Eagle County School District/Courtesy Photo

For several years now, the district has had a broad push toward equity across the organization. As part of this, it began rolling out standards-based grading and instruction, which Qualman said is meant to “provide greater consistency and clarity in what is taught and assessed.”

This year, all of its schools — including its two traditional high schools, Battle Mountain and Eagle Valley — will be fully implementing the new practice.

Katie Jarnot, the district’s assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction, commented that this year the focus will be on support and training for standards-based grading during professional learning days and professional learning committee times throughout the year as well as through one-on-one support as needed.

“Of course, there will be changes to this year’s system compared to last year, but many teachers are not jumping into the standards-based grading without support,” Kolibaba remarked.

Teachers have been involved in “identifying priority standards at each grade level” as well as “working on proficiency scales to identify if students are exceeding expectations, meeting expectations, approaching expectations, or not meeting expectations,” Kolibaba added.

Making schools safer

Additionally, the school district is planning to dig deeper into issues of school safety. Qualman noted that the district is currently seeking a third party to conduct a “system-wide safety audit.”

“The Colorado Department of Education provides very little in the way of guidance or support in defining or evaluating what makes schools safe. Over the decade, the district has improved emergency response procedures and committed resources to improve the safety infrastructure at each campus,” Qualman added.

The goal of conducting an audit will be to evaluate the district’s emergency operation policies, emergency response drills and physical infrastructure. In the end, the audit should “provide guidance for how to improve the overall safety for students and staff,” Qualman said.

This year, Qualman is also co-chairing a school safety work group at the state level. At the June 14 Board of Education meeting, he told the board the group would contain around 20 education leaders from across the state all working to collect data and provide a clear statewide definition of what makes a school safe.

Seeking more funding

One of the ongoing challenges for the district is the insufficiency of statewide funding. And so, this November, it is likely that Eagle County voters will be asked to help with that.

“At the Aug. 23 Board of Education meeting, the Board is likely to approve one or more questions on the November ballot,” Qualman said. “A bond question would generate revenue to support the continued development of affordable housing, preschool classroom capacity and general improvements to safety and security at each campus.”

All of which, he added, “would go a long way in helping the Eagle County School District recruit and retain quality educators and support staff in years to come.” 

In addition to potential ballot questions, the district will have four seats on its Board of Education open for election this November.

Kolibaba reiterated the importance of this election in pushing the district forward and in supporting educators; “we can use the support of the community in electing board members who will help us support student education. When the school board brings a bond or mill levy override question to the ballot, increasing our mills will help us as a district better provide for all our students.”

Supporting educators

While students returned Monday, teachers have been back at school preparing their classrooms, attending the annual educator academy and readying for school. 

The schedule this year was shifted a bit for teachers, with three professional development days moved to start the year, Jarnot said.

“Over 100 different sessions were provided to support teacher learning. Sessions were led by Eagle County School District leaders and educators, experts from the field, and professionals from the resource vendors,” she said.

For educators, the year ahead will mean learning new resources to better support student learning needs, while also striving to meet the varied needs of students across the district, Kolibaba said.

“While this is part of our jobs, it does require a lift to help students with the correct support,” she said, adding, “We have a diverse community of learners with a variety of experiences. When those learners come together in the hallways and classrooms at schools; educators will again be meeting the needs of students who didn’t eat breakfast, don’t have the appropriate clothing for the season, or live in a home where they sleep on a couch.”

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