Vail Valley Voices: The secret sauce to Avon Elementary’s success |

Vail Valley Voices: The secret sauce to Avon Elementary’s success

Steve Coyer
Vail, CO, Colorado

As many of you know, Avon Elementary School won a Blue Ribbon Award, our nation’s highest honor for a school. It was one of only four schools in Colorado to receive the honor.

The school was selected because it was able to close its achievement gap so remarkably. In a few years’ time, its student body went from being 25 percent proficient to 68 percent – which is the state average. The goal is now 100 percent proficiency, and they will make it!

A good friend of mine, having read Avon Elementary’s story, asked me, “What is the ‘special sauce’?” Meaning, how did the school accomplish this feat? His implication: let’s identify what worked there and take that strategy to other low-performing schools.

I believe there are three key ingredients to this “special sauce.”

By far the most important is a gifted and dedicated principal, and a staff of equally-committed teachers. Avon’s principal, Melisa Rewold-Thuon, knows the name of each of her students, and often the names of the students’ parents, as well as the names of older siblings who have graduated and now attend middle school.

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The principal and teachers spend extra hours after school, on Saturdays and during summer school in the classroom, well beyond the expected demands of their job descriptions.

If a student is missing in class, his or her home might get a visit from a teacher or the principal to be sure all is OK and to address or head off any potential problems. The principal, as well as many on staff, is bilingual, and able to communicate with the many parents whose native (and sometimes only) language is Spanish.

All of these things are indicative of a compassionate, intelligent and dedicated staff.

Secondly, the school system has implemented a state-of-the-art, technology-based metric system that is able to pinpoint every student’s strengths and weaknesses in the curriculum being taught.

This is updated weekly, and is a real-time report card of sorts. Teachers, parents and students can look at a student’s progress as often as they like, and easily identify where the student needs extra help to become proficient. This ability will become standard in all of our schools in the future, I believe, and is a component of how our education system is changing.

Rather than “one size fits all,” teachers and tutors work with students individually and much more frequently, addressing areas of weakness.

Sal Khan, of the Khan Academy, is a big supporter of this change in education. I highly recommend visiting his website ( or reading his new book, if you haven’t already. What he is proposing may well be the wave of the future in education.

Lastly is where the Vail Valley Foundation’s Youth Foundation comes in. In our program Power Hours, we provide funds to pay teachers to work after school in small groups. A 6-to-1 student-teacher ratio is common in elementary schools. Using the aforementioned metric system, teachers work closely with each student on his or her weak areas.

Our staff works in parallel with the teachers after school, providing art, technology, athletic and other types of enrichment programs for students. In addition, we fund four-week summer school programs throughout the valley for children needing extra help.

This extended learning that occurs throughout the year costs about $1,200 per student. On average, students receive an extra 10 weeks of schooling by participating in our Power Hours programs.

Other schools in our district are demonstrating the same kind of improvements in proficiency, as we have a very talented group of principals and teaching staffs throughout the system. Many thanks go to Dr. Sandra Smyser, our school superintendent, for her leadership. To no one’s surprise who works with her, Sandra was recently selected as Superintendent of the Year for Colorado.

If you’d like to help keep these programs working, perhaps by sponsoring a student for $1,200, please contact Vail Valley Foundation’s Youth Foundation at 970-748-5980 to make a donation today. Every dollar you donate will go directly to our programming and benefit the children in our valley. You can help make their future bright!

Steve Coyer is the outgoing chair of the Vail Valley Foundation’s Youth Foundation.

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