IGNACIO – The clock was ticking on the Ignacio School District as the Colorado Department of Education told it to improve results or face sanctions such as a takeover by the state, a shift to management by a charter school or even closure.
But when the spring 2015 test results were released this fall, the district became one of only two in the state to come off the accountability clock after six years. “We all worked as a team. Our first hurdle was a June meeting in 2010,” Superintendent Rocco Fuschetto said. “It was not a very good meeting. But everyone, from the bus drivers to the superintendent, knew we needed to improve, so we had buy-in. At the same time we were doing curriculum work, we built all new schools.”The state gave the district $500,000 to support the improvements. The money brought in consultants, data-support services and, in large part, stipends and bonuses for staff who were working on their own time after hours, during breaks and over summer vacation. The district also established an early release every Wednesday, when teachers would meet across grades and within and between buildings.
The district also knew immediately that it could not improve alone, involving the community early in the process.
The district has established about 17 partnerships with organizations dealing with youth, including with the Ignacio Community Library, the Southern Ute Indian Tribe, the Boys and Girls Club, Southern Ute Community Action Programs and the Ignacio Chamber of Commerce.
“Our first huge success was the Veterans Dinner we held, and about 300 people came,” said LaTitia Taylor, the Southern Ute Indian Tribe’s director of education.
“We developed placemats with three questions to help us identify the needs of the community, like a mini-survey.”
The survey was key, Fuschetto said.
“We developed our whole action plan from those placemats,” he said. “This is what our community feels is important.”
Facilities were one of the community’s priorities, which district residents showed they meant by approving a $50 million bond.
The tribal-district partnership has proved particularly effective.
“We weren’t getting along so well when this started,” Taylor said. “We created an Intergovernmental Agreement to work together, help each other, be transparent, and it has really helped.”
In addition to Taylor serving on the administration committee, the tribe provides four teachers, one counselor and pays 50 percent of a social worker/attendance officer. It offers a Ute language course that counts as a modern language credit, provides space at the Sun Ute Recreation Center for some classes, holds regular meetings between the district and the Tribal Council and sponsors Native American parents’ conferences and a curriculum called “Linking Generations by Strengthening Relationships.”
One of the first creations was the High Expectations District Improvement Committee, which laid down some common expectations for teachers and staff members, giving the administration guidelines to follow.
Veteran teachers mentor new teachers, helping them improve and hoping to retain them in the profession and the district.
CurriculumKathy Pokorney, curriculum and assessment director, spearheaded the central and most massive effort of the improvement, aligning the curriculum from preschool through 12th grade.
“We are blatantly honest,” she said. “It doesn’t make every meeting hunky dory, ‘Kumbayaish,’ but we’re not afraid to face issues, and we don’t sweep things under the rug.”
The alignment is making a difference at all levels in the district.
“Before, everyone was kind of teaching what they wanted. It was so discombobulated, teaching some things here, some things there,” said Barb Fjerstad, a long-time social studies teacher at the high school. “Now, I’m seeing kids arrive in my classroom who have the knowledge needed, the skills needed. There aren’t huge gaps like there used to be.”
Aligning curriculum may sound bureaucratic, and much of it is, translating state standards to language easily understood by students and parents and creating scoring rubrics and assessments to measure learning. It required new levels of cooperation.
“Second-grade teachers needed students able to tell time coming out of first grade, and if they couldn’t, it took away from second-grade time,” said Marcia Christensen, a second-grade teacher who has been with the district 19 years. “We had to do a lot of negotiating, but now we’re seeing rewards. Just recently, we had a module we thought we would finish by the holiday break, but we know what they need in third and fourth grade. Students need to be solid on the material, so we extended it. We’re making child-based decisions instead of curriculum-based.”
Nothing was sacred. Schedules changed, providing larger blocks of time for planning and teamwork, new classes and electives were added, and online courses allow students to learn German, French or other subjects the district is too small to offer. An alternative program for students in grades six to 12 now keeps at-risk students in school instead of expelling them. After school science clubs were created, advanced placement courses are offered at the high school for the first time, and each building now has a gifted and talented teacher.
Two students are almost full-time freshmen at Fort Lewis College in concurrent enrollment, Ignacio students can now study at energy, oil and gas or medical terminology classes in collaboration with San Juan College in Farmington, and the vocational program and math department collaborated on a geometry-in-construction class, one of several new multi-disciplinary offerings.
Everyone is on the team, said Trae Siebel, a 2010 IHS graduate who works with Taylor at the tribe’s Education Department but taught at the high school last year.
“When I was teaching last year, they were being challenged with more rigor than I was, and this generation is for the most part succeeding in meeting it,” he said. “I had to meet my standards as a business-electives teacher, but I also had to provide support to the core subjects like math and language arts.”
Younger students have access to Kindle Fires and laptops, and students grades three through 12 each have a computer, with older students allowed to take theirs home for homework. Those who graduate with a GPA of 2.0 or higher are given the computer.
At Ignacio Middle School, a variety of electives are offered, but they’re only available to students who are making a designated grade point average. Those below the threshold spend the time in intervention classes on core subjects such as reading and math.
Character, communication and community“One thing we did right was take on character development,” said Rocky Cundiff, who started the process as a math teacher aligning curriculum and is now the Ignacio High School assistant principal and athletic director.
“It’s proven very effective.”
A visit to any Ignacio School District facility, whether it’s transportation, administration or one of the three schools, will include a view of “Character Counts!” posters. The program focuses on six pillars: trustworthiness, fairness, responsibility, citizenship, respect and caring. Students are evaluated on the characteristics, with kids – and adults – who do something significant in one of the areas receiving Bobcat coins that will be honored at five Ignacio businesses, for items such as a piece of pie at El Patio or a burrito from Farm Fresh.
They gave out between 500 and 700 in the 2015-2016 school year, said Chris deKay, principal of the middle school who manages the coin program.
“I just visited all the businesses who participate,” he said. “They said they were happy to see the kids and honor their work. The kids value those five businesses; they’re places they want to go.”
The Ignacio School District is one of the most distinctive in the state. The three schools educate about 1,000 students annually, with an ethnic split almost even between Native American, Hispanic and Caucasian. About 47 percent of the student population qualifies for free or reduced lunch.
Improving learning across those different cultures required better communication, so the district and the tribe invested in process-communications training for staff, hoping to eventually have all staff and students trained in the concept.
“We identified different types of communication styles and how to get along with other styles,” Pokorney said.
“Rocco and I are both thinker-persisters, which means we can butt heads, but there are also harmonizers, imaginers, realizers.”
‘Efforts are worth it’In addition to seeing improved growth by students, teachers are enjoying the change on many levels.
“We have always had hardworking teachers,” Christensen said. “But now we have better direction, and our efforts are worth it. I’ve worked a lot of places. Now that we have more of a guide, I wouldn’t trade these teachers for anyone.”
While the district has met state average growth levels, there is still room for improvement on academics, Fuschetto said.
“We just have to make sure everyone is improving,” he said, “and keep the momentum going. It is possible to be put back on the accountability clock.”