While challenges persist, Eagle County Schools looks ahead to new academic year with optimism
As students return to school this year, the district prepares to address staffing, housing and improve student achievement
As the end of August rolls around, so does the inevitable end of summer. And for local kids and educators, while the feeling is associated with some end-of-summer blues, it also brings the mixture of excitement and jitters that come with the return to school.
“We’re excited for a new group of students and to see the growth they make,” said Karen Kolibaba, a local fifth-grade teacher and president of the Education Association of Eagle County.
For local teachers, Kolibaba relayed that they are “excited to see an increase in student voice and belonging; however, that looks at each level” as well as excited for the opportunities to take on new roles and positions and work with new and returning colleagues alike.
As Eagle County school district students returned this week, the start comes without COVID-related distancing and mask protocols that clouded the first days of school the last few years. However, that does not mean that this year will be without its challenges.
Still facing the persisting challenges of a statewide flawed education funding system and a national teacher shortage, the local district is starting the year with some uphill battles already on the horizon.
Support Local Journalism
Staffing challenges persist
Heading into this year, Adele Wilson, the chief human resources officer for the district, said the district’s biggest challenge will continue to be staffing.
“We are diligently working to hire qualified applicants but see ongoing challenges in every department and at every school,” Wilson said. “This has a trickle-down effect to everyone else in the organization that then steps in to help out wherever able.”
Wilson said that the exact number of open positions heading into this year is “difficult to put an exact number on,” due to the “dynamic” nature of the situation in which the number of vacant positions is changing daily. On average, she added, the number of teacher openings is “fluctuating around 25 or so.”
The staffing shortage is not limited to teachers with “a fairly even proportion of early childhood, certified and staff positions remain open,” Wilson said, later adding that this includes a shortage of guest teachers.
“We feel good that the guest teachers we do have in Eagle County School District will continue to help out where needed and we won’t see rooms impacted,” she said.
And teachers are certainly expecting to continue to feel the strain of these open positions.
“Some challenges that we are facing include not having all positions at all schools filled,” Kolibaba said. “We see the challenge at the state level to fully fund education. We cannot begin to retain the best educators until our legislators meet the promises for funding.”
Throughout the last year, amid funding challenges, the district and teacher’s union worked through negotiations to increase the base teacher salary. This included a mid-year increase as well as an increase at the end of the year that came as a result of additional contract days for teachers as well.
“We’re happy that teachers got two additional days to prepare for the new school year,” said Matt Miano, the district’s chief communications officer. “That was part of the Negotiated Agreement that was approved last spring. They have used that time to plan and collaborate and make sure they are ready for day one.”
Miano said that one of the reasons the overall count is hard to track down is because the district is actively sending out job offers — not all of which turn into accepted job positions.
“We are sending out job offers, but then we have to help and hope that people are able to secure housing, so not every offer turns into a teacher actually starting,” Miano said.
This issue of housing remains a challenge the district will have to continue to chip away at to address staffing.
“If we can provide affordable housing we are much more likely to recruit and retain qualified candidates. We’ve also hosted job fairs, recruited internationally and explored creative avenues to reach out to potential applicants,” Wilson said.
In addition to chipping away at the affordable housing challenge with master leases, the construction of 37 rental units in Edwards and 12 for purchase units with Habitat for Humanity in Eagle, the district has begun seeking more creative solutions as well. This includes a letter sent from Superintendent Philip Qualman to local property owners, which urged these individuals to put vacant houses, condos, lock-offs, caretaker units and empty bedrooms to use for district employees.
The district, this letter said, has a waiting list of 50 employees who need employee housing in order to accept their job with the district.
“The community has responded to our request for rental housing, but rates remain quite high,” Wilson said of the letter.
Moving forward this year, Qualman added that “continuing to combat the housing challenges that our staff and the entire community are faced with” remains a goal for the district.
Regardless of the numbers or the situation, Wilson remained optimistic that these shortages wouldn’t have a greater impact to students.
“We feel confident that much like last year schools and staff will work together to fill in any gaps and don’t foresee major impacts on any specific school or classroom,” Wilson said.
As the pandemic’s impacts wane, so do some of the federal funding and programs that came as a result of the pandemic. Among them is the Universal Free Lunch Program, which ensured that all students had a free lunch regardless of their free and reduced lunch status. While the program has been in effect for the last two school years, it will not be returning this year.
There is, however, a statewide ballot measure that will be in front of voters in November to indefinitely cover the costs of school meals for all students.
But until this passes or fails, families and schools will have to re-adjust to how the lunch program was run pre-pandemic. Applications for the free-and-reduced lunch program — also known as More than a Meal because the application qualifies families for a myriad of benefits including the free lunch — are now available for families on EagleSchools.net.
“Outside of making sure all of our students are fed we are trying to communicate to families that applying provides additional benefits such as student fee waivers. We are also working hard to make sure that everyone knows the application process is 100% confidential,” Miano said.
These benefits are not only to families but also to the district and the funding it receives. While families can submit applications and receive the benefits throughout the year, it’s most beneficial for the district for them to be turned in before the end of August.
Seeking to make strides
As the challenges from previous years continue to roll into this school year — and the district continues to make attempts to chip away at them — Eagle County Schools is continuing to look forward. And for this year, this includes setting goals for academic success, equity and more.
One major district-wide change that the administration is looking forward to is its implementation of standards-based grading, according to Qualman.
“A number of our schools will be piloting the program while the others will be taking a slower approach, but we will work collectively to inform students and parents of changes that will occur and what to expect over the course of the next few years. This work will help us to create a grading system that more accurately informs students and parents of academic progress,” he said.
Plus, Qualman added, the district has an overall goal to continue pushing the academic success of its students forward.
“We have set a goal for each school, and for the district, to improve Performance Framework scores by 5%. This will put us on a trajectory to become a ‘District of Distinction’ with the Colorado Department of Education. Currently, Eagle County School District is considered ‘accredited,’ but we would like to be ranked among the best in the state,” Qualman said.
And so, as teachers, students, staff and administrators return for another year of school, the district is looking forward with a myriad of goals and expectations — all of which point toward improving student success.