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Vail Valley Voices: School district makes progress, has challenges

Sandra Smyser
Vail, CO, Colorado

Eagle County Schools has made a lot of progress since its inception in the mid 1950s, ranging from our efforts of increasing student achievement while closing the achievement gap to gaining national attention for our pay-for-performance system and rigorous curriculum redesign.

Amidst the progress we’ve made, there are challenges that still remain. Let’s dive into our professional development model, the formative assessment process and student achievement results to show just how far our district has come in terms of innovation and reform in public education today.

Professional development of educators at Eagle County Schools focuses on the science of teaching to enhance the art of teaching. The professional development model in Eagle County Schools began in 2002 and was enhanced by a federal five-year teacher incentive fund grant that the district received in 2006. This model has undoubtedly increased teacher performance and student success in Eagle County Schools. Individualized instruction, based on formative assessment student data, helps students achieve their highest potential.



The professional development model works in conjunction with a pay-for-performance model of teacher compensation. Teachers’ pay is adjusted according to the performance of students in their schools, along with individual rigorous evaluation scores. Performance pay is believed to incentivize and recognize excellent teachers.

Eagle County Schools has been recognized statewide and nationally for its professional development and pay-for-performance systems, and has been invited to participate in state-level and national discussions about education reform.

Participate in The Longevity Project

The Longevity Project is an annual campaign to help educate readers about what it takes to live a long, fulfilling life in our valley. This year Kevin shares his story of hope and celebration of life with his presentation Cracked, Not Broken as we explore the critical and relevant topic of mental health.



Eagle County Schools also utilizes a process of continuous improvement to advance student achievement. This “formative assessment” process is similar to that used in business models. Teachers routinely assess each student’s progress in relation to key learning targets and provide specific instructional strategies to move the student closer to his or her goals. The routine assessment provides additional key leverage points for enhancing student understanding of key concepts and for engaging students in their own learning. Traditional summative assessment still occurs, but is less useful in helping teachers identify a student’s gaps in understanding.

Overall, the increase in CSAP scores across the district indicates that current strategies are impacting teacher proficiency and student learning, while at the same time the district continues to create strategies to work with the lowest-performing students in order to improve their academic performance.

Because of these innovations, all students in Eagle County Schools have demonstrated remarkable progress in standardized tests in the last few years. Additionally, Eagle County Schools students are being exposed to instructional strategies and new technologies designed to prepare them for future careers.



Developed as part of Gov. John Hickenlooper’s 2011 statewide bottom-up economic development initiative, the Economic Council of Eagle County created a development plan that defines the three pillars of the future economic development initiatives: recreation and tourism; health and wellness; and learning and education.

“Restoring our local economy requires a strong educational system and community investment to attract new business and jobs and retain and grow existing businesses,” states Don Cohen, executive director of the Economic Council of Eagle County.

Not only is Eagle County Schools on the cutting edge of school reform, but we have made a significant impact on student performance despite the fact that the prevalence of students with learning challenges has increased over this same time frame.

The district’s 2011 CSAP results show an increase in the percentage of students in grades 3 through 10 scoring proficient or advanced in the areas of reading, writing and math when comparing scores with last year.

Additionally, while student achievement continues to be on an upward trend, the achievement gap is slowly closing between our minority and non-minority students.

Lastly, Eagle County Schools has exceeded state graduation rates since 2003.

Amidst this progress, Colorado lags far behind in public funding for education. Between 1992 and 2001, Colorado declined precipitously from 35th to 49th in the nation in K-12 spending as a percentage of personal income. As of 2006, the state maintained its low ranking among the states at 48th (Education News Colorado).

While the escalated value of real estate in Eagle County provides Eagle County Schools with a significant property tax base, the state constitutional amendment TABOR and the Colorado School Finance Act significantly limit Eagle County Schools’ ability to collect local revenues.

Additionally, the Gallagher Amendment reduces the residential property tax rate each year. This diminished ability to collect revenues to fund critical education programs is compounded by the local high cost of living for teachers, causing increased turnover among Eagle County Schools staff.

In addition, the challenging economic climate of the last few years has reduced funds available for public schools. While cutbacks were made in the Eagle County Schools budget for the 2010-11 and 2011-12 school years, additional cuts are anticipated for the 2012-13 school year and beyond.

Sandra Smyser, Ph.D., is the superintendent of Eagle County Schools.

diminished ability to collect revenues to fund critical education programs is compounded by the local high cost of living for teachers, causing increased turnover among Eagle County Schools staff.

In addition, the challenging economic climate of the past few years has reduced funds available for public schools. While cutbacks were made in the Eagle County Schools budget for the 2010-11 and 2011-12 school years, additional cuts are anticipated for the 2012-13 school year and beyond.

Sandra Smyser, Ph.D., is the superintendent of Eagle County Schools.


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