Schools shaken up by downvalley shift |

Schools shaken up by downvalley shift

Matt Terrell
Vail, CO Colorado
Kristin Anderson/Vail DailyRed Sandstone Elementary School principal Nancy Ricci, center, looks on as first grader Kalia Caradonna works on a reading assignment Monday at school.

VAIL ” Like pioneers on the Oregon trail, Vail families have this overwhelming urge to move west.

Nancy Ricci can see this as principal of Red Sandstone Elementary, a longtime public school in Vail.

Her school used to have more than 550 students ” now, it’s closer to 230. More and more families are moving downvalley for affordable housing, and fewer are moving into Vail, she said.

“That’s why we’ve seen all those new schools downvalley start,” Ricci said.

Ricci is a finalist for principal of the year in Colorado, and her ability to adapt to small school life is a big reason for that, said Carolyn Neff, director of elementary education for the school district.

“She’s one of those people that if you give her a problem, she’ll find a solution for it,” Neff said.

Ricci has worked for Eagle County Schools since 1981. She was a teacher for many years and has been a principal in Gypsum and Edwards, and since 1995, at Red Sandstone.

Talking with Ricci, you realize that’s she’s a pretty good barometer for measuring how Eagle County schools have changed. She’s had to adapt a lot herself, and the population shift is a large part of it. Red Sandstone has to operate much differently now because of its smaller size.

“It’s hard to staff a small school ” you don’t have full-time people to teach music and things like that,” Ricci said.

Ricci had to become pretty creative to fill in a lot of those teaching slots, finding an art teacher who could also handle physical education and a librarian who was also a tech expert.

“The teachers have to recreate themselves to work there, everybody’s got to be flexible,” Neff said. “It’s necessary to have all the things bigger schools have.”

Another trend Ricci has noticed over the years is a rise in single-parent families.

“In order for people to live here, where it’s expensive, single-parent families really have to work a lot, and they aren’t always available to us, to give extra support to the school,” Ricci said. “The need is greater than when we had more full families.”

Ricci said there’s always been difficulties in dealing with language barriers, but the number of non-English speaking children and families have risen over the years. More of these families are staying permanently though, instead of seasonally, meaning it’s easier to keep their children on track school year after school year.

Also, there’s been an overall shift in the past 20 years to customizing lesson plans for each child, Ricci said.

“In the 80s, we gave a child a reading book and we all learned the same thing, ready or not,” Ricci said. “Now we are much more focused on the individual child. You see this in all schools.”

A good example of this is how Ricci handled a group of students a few years ago who weren’t ready to move on to the first grade.

“She created a transitional first grade, had them work in a small group with a teacher for half a day on language arts and math, then she put them in the regular classroom, then they were able to move on,” Neff said.

One good thing about being a principal at a small school is having more time to spend with kids, Ricci said.

“I get to interact more than I used to,” Ricci said. “I like that I’m more aware of everything that goes on. I also know all my parents and all my families, and you don’t always get that in bigger schools.”

Ricci said she’s come to the point in her career where she’s teaching the children of many of her first students, and that can be quite rewarding.

“It’s fun to hear parents come in and say, ‘Oh, that’s Mrs. Ricci! I had her!” Ricci said. “I have tons of successful students, and I like to think that we’ve made a difference.”

Staff writer Matt Terrell can be reached at 748-2955 or

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