Raising the bar | VailDaily.com

Raising the bar

Scott N. Miller/Special to the Daily
Enterprise/ Melinda Kruse

Earlier this year, when former Eagle County School District Superintendent Mel Preusser retired, he left a voice-mail message ending with: “If you have complaints, please call John Brendza.”

Brendza, the district’s new superintendent, is now the point man for several new initiatives, most of which are focused on one goal – improving student achievement.

The state-mandated Colorado Student Assessment Program, or CSAP, is driving the changes locally and throughout the state. The local school district, though, is trying something few others in the state are – improving student performance by improving teacher performance, otherwise known as the Teacher Advancement Program, or TAP.

A 20-year veteran of the district, Brendza is an enthusiastic example of another change in district policy – a school board mandate to “home-grow” people for top administrative jobs. A former middle-school teacher and principal, Brendza spent two years as assistant superintendent, learning the job from Preusser, then slid into the district’s top post after Preusser’s retirement in June.

Grooming principals

Taking the idea of grooming future administrators a step farther, Brendza launched a district leadership academy to groom new principals.

“We’re going to need new principals in a couple of years,” says School Board President Barb Schierkolk. “We have good people here, let’s use them.”

People who have lived and worked in the district for a few years are more likely to stick around than people brought in from other areas, adds

Schierkolk, who she has worked with three different superintendents in her four years on the board. She says eliminating nationwide administrator searches in favor of grooming people already working for the district is one of the more important policy directions the board has taken during her term.

The biggest change, though, is the continuing effort to implement TAP throughout the district’s 16 schools, and the way that furthers the goals of improved student performance.

The plan – which Brendza says changes a “100-year-old methodology” – was launched last year at Gypsum, Red Hill and Avon elementary schools, as well as Minturn Middle School and Red Canyon High School. This year, Gypsum Creek Middle, Eagle Valley Middle, Edwards Elementary, Meadow Mountain Elementary and Red Sandstone Elementary schools are participating.

Mixed reception

The plan received a mixed reception at the schools that started it last year. Several teachers balked at the peer-review element of the plan, saying the numerous meetings and evaluations took time away from students – and in some cases, increased class sizes. Some teachers also chafed at the concept that standard annual raises are now a thing of the past, with future earning potential now tied to how their students perform on standardized tests.

Brendza has acknowledged those complaints. However, he says, TAP is the new reality for the district – and will be for the foreseeable future.

With the kind of systemic change TAP represents, people will miss the old ways, some more vocally than others, Brendza says. However, he adds, the system will be in place this year at 10 of the district’s 16 schools. Participation isn’t mandatory until the 2004-05 school year.

“(TAP) is about good teaching and being compensated for that,” said Brendza, adding that at least some teachers have bought into the district’s position – and results from studies that indicate – TAP can lead to better student performance.

“Quite an undertaking’

In an era of state-mandated testing – and with districts’ reputations and funding dependent on results from those tests – the school board and the administration have set a lofty goal of having 80 percent of local students testing at the “proficient” level in reading, writing and math.

“That’s going to be quite an undertaking,” says Brendza.

“We believe we can do better,” adds Schierkolk “We’re raising the bar because we think kids can do that.”

While state standards drive much of the emphasis on student achievement, Brendza and Schierkolk acknowledge local competition for students is more heated than ever. For example, more than 500 students of all ages now attend local “schools of choice,” private schools ranging from Vail Mountain School to the Eagle County Charter Academy to Vail Christian High School.

“That’s another school in this district and 30 to 40 teaching jobs,” says Brendza of the number of kids in private schools.

That’s significant, he says, because in education funding and operation scenarios, more students equals more resources for more programs.

Schierkolk, meanwhile, welcomes the competition for students.

“It really makes us look at what we’re doing,” she says.

Emphasis on achievement

But better student achievement means parents will have fewer reasons to enroll their kids in private schools, says Brendza, and while there’s still plenty of room for improvement, local public schools already fare well in comparison with private schools.

“When I look at schools of choice, the biggest difference I see is “God,'” he says.

Parochial schools, he says, provide an emphasis on spiritual education that public schools will never match.

“In terms of other (academic) reasons, though, I want us to be the school of choice,” he says.

Part of that emphasis is personal as well. Brendza says he has heard many claims the Eagle County School District doesn’t measure up to expectations. A vocal advocate of public education, he discounts those claims.

An avid skier, Brendza recalls a lift ride he took at Bachelor Gulch a few years ago. Riding in a chair behind a trio of apparently well-heeled women, Brendza says, he overheard a conversation that indicated Eagle County would be a great place to live – with the exception of the substandard public schools. After listening for a while, Brendza says, he did his best to dispel that impression.

“I’m tired of public education being ridiculed,” he says. “I think TAP is going to provide us with tools to become a school of choice.”

“No Child Left Behind’

Noting that TAP fits in with guidelines of the federal No Child Left Behind Act, Schierkolk says teacher accountability and student achievement are the ways to keep as much local control as possible over the district. While TAP is still viewed as something of an experiment nationwide, Schierkolk says the system is a good basis for meeting the new federal mandates.

“There’s so much we can’t control in a student’s life,” says Brendza. “But we can control the quality of the teachers standing in front of them.”

While much of the district’s attention is focused on student achievement, Schierkolk says, other issues are involved in the board’s longer-range planning.

Eye on growth

This year’s student population is estimated at 4,915 students, virtually unchanged from last year. While the numbers are static for now, Schierkolk says, the board is looking at growth driven by the big retail stores and new residential growth in Avon. Administrators are also keeping an eye on new homes being built at Buckhorn Valley and Chatfield Corners in Gypsum, as well as the Two Rivers Village project at Dotsero.

Still, some district schools are losing students, and the board is looking at ways to keep kids in those schools. Schierkolk says any changes in school boundaries would involve community participation.

The subject of community involvement came to the forefront last spring, when a group of parents voiced their displeasure over the change in school start times this year.

“We really didn’t see that one coming,” says Schierkolk. “When all the buildings decided on consistent start times, that was just a normal thing. It was a staff decision. … It was never our intention to create such a disruption.”

Responding to the outcry, Schierkolk says the district now has a calendar committee comprised of staff and parents from each school to provide guidance on future decisions.

“We’ve identified a lot of issues. Now we have to refine them,” says Schierkolk.

This story first appeared in the Eagle Valley Enterprise.

Not as much staff turnover this year

By Scott N. Miller

The Eagle County School District has historically had to replace bus drivers and teachers on a fairly regular basis. This year is a little different.

Superintendent John Brendza says teacher turnover, which in past years has run between 20 percent or more per year, is down this year. Of the 45 people who participated in new teacher training, he says, about 10 have already had some experience in the district as aides, permanent substitutes or in other roles. That leaves about 35 teachers brand-new to the district this year. Last year’s number was closer to 80, Brenda says.

“We’re at 10 or 12 percent turnover this year,” he says. “That’s great news.”

Turnover is also usually fairly high among the district’s bus drivers. District Transportation Supervisor Melanie McMichael says more of last year’s drivers have returned this year.

We’re better off this year than most,” she says.

Schierkolk won’t seek another term

By Scott N. Miller

While staff turnover is a chronic problem at the Eagle County School District, Barb Schierkolk says she has seen more than her share of turnover at the top, too.

After serving with three superintendents and three different boards, Schierkolk says she won’t seek a second term on the Eagle County School District Board of Education.

“I’ve been here four years, and I’m a firm believer that, unless no one’s out there, we need new blood and new ideas,” she says. “It’s nice to have fresh people.”

Schierkolk acknowledges serving on a school board is often difficult.

“It can be very emotional,” she says.

“You’re dealing with people’s flesh and blood, as well as their tax dollars. People have a very vested interest in what happens,” adds the district’s superintendent, John Brendza.

Schierkolk says she came to the board with no preconceived notions. Her two children were already essentially through the school system.

“I honestly didn’t have an agenda when I ran. I was open to everything,” she says.

That made her different than many board members, adds Brendza.

“Once people get in, they realize the complexity, the bureaucracy of the district,” he says. “It’s remarkable to watch the transformation of their thinking, what the impact is on their beliefs.”

Schierkolk says she’s leaving the board, and the district, in good hands, and is confident of the direction this board has set.

“I’ve enjoyed the last four years, but it’s time to let someone else do it,” she says.

Nomination petitions for the Nov. 4 general election are due at the district office by Friday. For more information about running for the school board, call 328-6321.

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