Troubled school wins parents’ praise |

Troubled school wins parents’ praise

Matt Terrell
Vail, CO Colorado
Kira Horvath/Vail DailyStone Creek Elementary school fourth graders Aspen Hammer, 9, left, and Alyssa Nudell, 9, work on a vocabulary lesson on terms from medieval times in history class on Thursday afternoon.

AVON ” Stone Creek Elementary is facing a dire financial crisis, but parents and teachers say they aren’t even close to bailing.

Instead, they’ve gone into overdrive soliciting donations, setting up elaborate fundraisers, and, in the case of the parent-run board of directors, spending hours dealing with creditors, state officials and long town council meetings. Volunteer positions have turned into nearly full-time jobs.

Stone Creek families have donated more than $90,000 to the school in just a week, much of that money unflinchingly handed over within hours of learning the urgency of the situation. And the teachers ” some scared, some not, but all optimistic ” say they would go through it all again if they had to.

So, this unwavering commitment to saving the charter school begs the question: “What’s so special about Stone Creek?”

Inside, Stone Creek looks, smells and sounds like any other elementary. It’s a world of colored construction paper, glue sticks and high, cackling laughter from the cafeteria.

But then you meet someone like fourth grader Ramsey Baden, who can tell you more than you’d ever need to know about a medieval knight.

He spouts information off the top of his head about the “coup de grace,” squires, shields and the unfortunate and shameful fate of disgraced knights. Soon, he’ll be donning a coat of aluminum foil armor in a living medieval museum being put on by his class.

Parents say they notice that kind of enthusiasm in their homes where there was none before. Kids are teaching parents now about how Rome was founded, Viking conquests, the Lilliputians from “Gulliver’s Travels” and the origins of common phrases like, “Haste makes waste.”

They’re memorizing poems by Langston Hughes and Carl Sandburg and reading books like “Don Quixote” and “The Iliad.” They’re building cars to learn how a wheel and axle work and learning the most practical applications possible for elementary math.

Really, it’s hard to find a set of parents more enamored with a particular curriculum.

“To me, it’s an old-fashioned education, kind of like what people don’t know in Jay Leno,” parent Michele Nichols said. “In some ways, I’m envious of what they’re learning.”

At Stone Creek, about 50 percent of the class time revolves around a progressive program called Core Knowledge, which is what attracted a great number of the families. Principal Betsy Hill said the curriculum includes so much of the history, culture and geography that are typically not included in elementary school educations. The separate programs for math, writing and reading are just as fulfilling, she said.

“There’s a core of knowledge that democratic society needs to survive, and this teaches it,” Hill said. “It gets their brain cells stimulated, and they’ll have the tools they need to learn more in the future.”

Parents are also impressed by its difficulty. The lessons are demanding, the homework is plentiful and kids are really pushing themselves. Cathy Thompson said her fifth grade son Michael got into lots of trouble at his old school because he was bored and restless.

“Now he’s working at his grade level, and at an appropriate difficulty,” Thompson said. “They’re keeping every kid challenged.”

Brains are good and all, but Hill wants her students to do more than just fill their buckets. She wants them to contribute. She encourages what she calls “academic risks” ” children stepping out of their comfort zone and sharing ideas with their peers.

“They need to learn early on how to make contributions, because if you can’t apply and use that knowledge you have, it’s basically worthless,” Hill said. “We’re developing people.”

Teaching children how to take academic risks it just part of a larger character and virtues program taught at the school. Teachers focus on key words like “integrity” and “compassion” and incorporate them in lessons throughout the week. When kids are sent to Hill for discipline problems, they talk about those virtues and how they apply to real life.

Stone Creek’s problems become meaningless when third grade teacher Alison Hainline walks into her classroom. “The only choice we have is to block it out,” Hainline said. “We just focus on the teaching.”

At home though, sure, there’s a lot of worry. Hainline said she’s had some sleepless nights thinking about the school’s future, and it takes a lot of yoga and exercise with her colleagues to stay calm and relaxed.

“We’re positive, but definitely scared,” Hainline said. “But I feel confident in the new board. I don’t doubt we’ll be here next year.”

At the last school board meeting, board members said they were worried about having enough money for payroll in a month. First grade teacher LJ Bredeson said she’s not worried at all about it.

“They said that’s their top priority, and I feel like it’s going to be accomplished,” Bredeson said.

The parents overwhelmingly trust these teachers, who they say haven’t let Stone Creek’s turmoil affect life in the classroom. And the teachers believe in their principal, who they say has been a roll model during a nerve-wracking tough time.

Second grade teacher Kate Smith said she followed Hill from a school district in Medina, Wash., to teach at Stone Creek.

“She’s a great leader and we believe in her,” Smith said.

Stone Creek Elementary knows it can’t erase its debt by the end of the school year. It just wants enough to get through the next four months.

The immediate goal is $260,000. The four-month goal is around $700,000.

First, Stone Creek has to pay off their modular trailers and an outstanding balance with Wells Fargo. After that, they’ll go deeper into survival mode, hoping to raise up to $500,000 more to cover operating expenses for the rest of the year, including teacher salaries.

The total debt is about $1.8 million, but about $1.2 million of that is their building mortgage. Board treasurer Kevin Randel said if you take that away, the remaining deficit is pretty normal for a startup school.

They have around 150 new students planning to enroll next year. The anticipated growth will bring in more state money, and board members say a string of fundraisers, including what they call a “Kentucky Derby,” should pull them through.

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

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