Eagle County School District’s accountability committee: Proactive measures needed for top challenges like teacher retention, student behavior | VailDaily.com

Eagle County School District’s accountability committee: Proactive measures needed for top challenges like teacher retention, student behavior

In 2023, the Eagle County School District's accountability committee highlighted four priorities for the district looking ahead: replacing ESSER funds, retaining teachers and guest teachers, addressing student behavior and mental health, and increasing education on the new grading policy.
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The Eagle County School District each year is required by the state to convene an accountability committee to evaluate its top challenges and give recommendations for creative solutions.

Last week, the committee — which is comprised of parents, teachers, students, board members and school administrators — presented its recommendations to the Board of Education.

Since October, the committee has heard presentations from each district department and school principal on what they were seeing and experiencing.

The committee’s presentation on Wednesday, March 22, focused on four main priorities that it gleaned from these presentations: continuing services provided by Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund dollars, addressing student behavior (including mental health and truancy), retaining educators, and increasing education around standards-based grading.

In addition to presenting possible solutions and actions the district can take, Marcie Laidman, the Red Sandstone High School principal and committee chair, said this year’s recommendations were meant to be more proactive than reactive.

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“That was the lens that we tackled our issues through … we really wanted to try to be thinking proactively,” Laidman said. “We thought that through transparent communication to all stakeholders and taking maybe not one step, but actually two, that perhaps — as a community, as parents, and as a school district — we might be able to shift to that proactive side.”

While Superintendent Philip Qualman said that the district was “on the same page” on a lot of the recommendations and already working on many of the issues, he added that the committee’s suggestions are taken into account both through the annual budgeting process and negotiations with the local teacher’s union, both of which kick off in the spring.

Replacing ESSER

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, the federal and state government deployed relief funds for K-12 institutions, the majority of which were from the Department of Education’s Elementary and Secondary Emergency Relief Fund (also known as ESSER). The Eagle County School District received just over $10 million in emergency relief through three rounds of ESSER funding from the federal government (and two ESSER supplementals) and one batch from the statewide Coronavirus Relief fund.

As these were deployed as temporary funds, the funds came with various expiration dates, the last of which is September 2024. However, the local district has budgeted for the remaining funds to be expended by Sept. 30, 2023, according to Sandy Farrell, its chief operating officer.

These funds allowed the district to deploy various resources and support to its schools, including numerous additional positions. Farrell previously told the Vail Daily that the remaining funds — totaling $1,667,607.40 — are related to 22.55 full-time positions “for intervention, credit recovery and permanent subs for the remainder of the fiscal year and extended school year for exceptional student services.”

According to the District Accountability Committee, retaining these positions is top of mind for all school leaders, and was also part of their recommendations last year.

“One thing that came up at every single principal presentation was the ESSER funding, and that it’s going away and that’s heavily going to impact each school in a different way when it does go away,” said Joanna Beall, a parent member of the accountability committee. “We really think it’s necessary to retain those positions that have been funded through that money. It’s been proven successful and when that goes away, we need to figure out how we’re going to keep those positions.”

The committee’s report stated that the district will lose 23 full-time positions with the loss of funding, which, it added, are “crucial for buildings to continue the MTSS (multi-tiered systems of support) work.”

“The percentage of students with disabilities is increasing, and READ plans have multiplied from 400 to 1,200 across the district. The predicted loss to student achievement and the added pressure put on the classroom teacher to meet the needs of all students without interventionists cannot be underestimated,” the report adds.

The committee’s main recommendation was to “prioritize any budget surplus toward ESSER programs and positions, “including the reallocation of funding from unfilled or hard-to-fill positions, Beall said.

However, it also suggested a few other opportunities where the district could capitalize on funding.

The first was implementing a grant writer position. According to Beall, principals and departments are currently required to identify and apply for their grants on their own. Sometimes, she added, the Education Foundation of Eagle County provides support but takes 10% of the funding if that grant is received. In hiring a district-level grant writer, it was the committee’s feeling that the district could tap into more funding opportunities and be more cost-effective.

Additionally, the committee recommended tapping into community wealth where possible and beginning to explore its mill levy options.

Addressing student behaviors

The second most heard-about area from teachers and schools was around student mental health, truancy and behavioral stability.

In addressing the mental health of students, the committee recommended maintaining — and where possible, strengthening — its relationship with Your Hope Center as well as looking for other opportunities to be proactive in this realm.

On truancy, Jay Oyler, another parent member of the committee, said that it was “apparent to the committee that the pandemic has created and magnified truancy issues at all levels, but most significantly at the high schools.”

Additionally, the committee reported that it heard there were inconsistencies in how attendance policies were being followed at each school and thus recommended a board and district review of its attendance policies to address the rise in truancy. It also recommended increased education for parents and teachers on these policies and the subsequent consequences of not following them.

It was also a recommendation to reinstate closed campuses at both Eagle Valley and Battle Mountain high schools for ninth- and tenth-grade students.

The final topic the committee addressed under behavior was difficulties regulating emotional and behavioral disruptions from students, particularly at the elementary school level.

“These issues are disrupting the learning environment and exhausting staff; teachers not trained to address these issues, nor do they have time or resources to deal with them in the classroom,” Oyler said.

To this extent, the committee recommended adding “more resources and training for all staff on working with emotionally disregulated students and increasing the number of behavior intervention specialists is recommended.”

Retaining teachers

Perhaps unsurprisingly, addressing the shortage of teachers and guest teachers fell upon the committee’s list of recommendations.

While continuing to push district housing projects forward — including fast-tracking the planning at Maloit Park in Minturn, prioritizing housing in Gypsum and more — landed at the top of the committee’s recommendations, it also identified other areas to address these challenges.

These included implementing a permanent substitute position at all elementary schools and increasing specials hours, both with the idea of giving teachers more time flexibility for planning.

Second, swapping the late start Wednesday for an early release Friday to give more dedicated time to teacher professional development. This, Cealy Fellman, a parent member of the committee, said, is because it’s not proving to be an effective planning time for teachers, and “learning time on Wednesday morning is more effective than a Friday afternoon.”

Additionally, the committee pointed to more community opportunities to address the guest teacher shortage.

“We think there’s more we could do to lean on the community,” Fellman said, later adding that, “we don’t believe that the community knows that this is an issue in which they could help.”

Standards-based grading

The final area the committee gave recommendations on was around standards-based grading, the new grading policy the district is piloting this year in an effort to build equity in its schools.

When the accountability committee first convened, Laidman said it looked like this grading policy was going to be a “really hot topic.”

“And then we had Tia Luck (the district’s equity coordinator) and Maryann Stavney (its learning and instruction specialist) come in and present to the committee,” Laidman added. “When that happened, a lot of nerves calmed down, and a lot of people began to understand the reasoning why standards-based grading is important to student achievement.”

Ultimately, based on experience, the committee’s primary recommendation was to increase education about the new grading policy. Already, the district has rolled out a video series answering the frequently-asked questions around standards-based grading works, but the committee saw an opportunity for further education.

“We feel like the videos that the district has produced has really made a significant impact on the reasoning, why we need to do standards-based grading, but there’s still a lack or a need to know the how and the why,” Laidman said.

Also, based on the comments of the high school students on the committee, Laidman said the committee saw an opportunity to speak more directly to students, as they are the most impacted by the changes.

“We understand the importance of this work to succeed and we think that there will be less hurdles if we do more upfront education with our high school students,” Laidman said.

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