Back to School — all kinds of schools

Essay by Ed Quillen

Education – September 1996 – Colorado Central Magazine

Every fall, we think about devoting the September edition to “back to school,” with a detailed examination of education in Central Colorado, from pre-schools to Colorado Mountain College and Western State College, along with private endeavors in everything from horse-shoeing and dance to oil-painting and computer programming.

That would take a book, and it would be outdated before we could get it into print, anyway. Education here and elsewhere is changing rapidly, and if there’s anything consistent in all this flux, it’s the growth in the number of options. Traditional public schools, augmented by a few parochial schools, once dominated the picture. Now we see charter schools, widespread home-schooling, on-line schools, and a growing number of religiously oriented schools.

As for public schools, I fantasized about an article that would compare all the school districts hereabouts — student-teacher ratios, graduation rates, percentage of graduates going to college, test scores, spending, range of offerings, etc.

In short, find out which district is doing the best job. We could provide some praise where praise is due, and offer useful information to parents and taxpayers trying to decide on schools.

But such a comparison is impossible. Even if you could get all the numbers, there are so many other variables that render the numbers less than informative.

For instance, the major factor in predicting whether a high-school graduate will go to college is not the nature of the high school, but whether the parents attended college — something that has nothing to do with the local schools. That holds with academic skills in general — parents are most often the deciding factor.

For another, such numeric comparisons don’t cover the social environment of a high school — are only athletes or slackers “cool”? Is it okay to be a “brain” or “alternative” kid there? Or a “gearhead” or a “cowboy”?

How good are the art and music programs, if they’re even offered? (Often these are dismissed as frills, and they are the first to be jettisoned when budgets get pinched, although athletics generally remain. But if school is supposed to prepare children for careers, Central Colorado has many more professional artists and musicians than it does professional athletes.)

Numbers may not tell us much, but they might tell us something. We ordered some statistics from the Colorado Department of Education, and learned that school enrollment growth in Central Colorado (10.57% from 1991 to 1995) is about the same as it has been statewide (10.67%).

But it’s spotty here. Some districts are growing rapidly — Moffat has gone from 95 students to 177, almost doubling across four years. Saguache, just to the west, has actually lost students.

Population growth in general, which seems quite visible in Salida and Buena Vista, hasn’t translated into enrollment growth in those districts. Salida went from 1,300 students to 1,353, and Buena Vista from 867 to 879. Does this mean that mostly retirees without children in school are moving here, or that immigrant parents are keeping their children out of public schools?

Probably some of both. We also got some numbers about graduation rates for the class of ’95 — that is, what percentage of freshmen go on to graduate at the proper time. The smaller the school, the higher the percentage: Custer, Cotopaxi, Fairplay, and Moffat all graduated 100% of the class of 1995, while the larger districts ranged from 75% to 85%. Leadville had only 68.7%.

The drop-out rate is related to the graduation rate, but it isn’t the same thing, since drop-outs are an annual percentage — and the same student can drop out more than once, thereby skewering the stats accordingly. There, too, Leadville had the worst score: 5.4%.

We also received some discipline numbers — suspensions and expulsions in grades 7-12 for 1994-95. These numbers are interesting, but I don’t know how much they tell about order and deportment in a given school district. A very strict and orderly school might have a high rate, on account of its rigorous rules, whereas an anarchic asylum could have a low rate.

Although at times Martha and I were tempted to try something else, our daughters went through public schools in Salida (Columbine was graduated in 1993, and Abby last spring), and they seem to have learned what they should have. Columbine is an honors student at WSC in Gunnison, and Abby earned an excellent scholarship to the University of Denver.

Generally they had good teachers. Some weren’t, but every enterprise of any size has a few incompetents. The only thing distinctive about public schools in that regard is that it’s so hard to fire a teacher for being overtly stupid, oppressively sexist, or just plain mean. Every other employer is held responsible for the actions of employees, but school districts often shrug it off with “well, they’re certified by the state. What can we do?”

For many of my daughters’ school years, I served as half of the “Salida School Board Monitoring Commission.” The other half was Kirby Perschbacher of Cut-No-Slak Construction.

We attended every school board meeting for eight or nine years. One thing we learned was that school boards seldom discuss education; meetings generally concern bus routes, school calendars, leave policies, etc.

We also learned that “local control of education” is a myth. Frequently we heard phrases like “the feds say we must …” or “the state requires us to …” Eventually we decided that the real decisions about Salida schools were not made at monthly meetings of the directors of the R-32 School District, but somewhere else, far removed from Salida, and that there was no point in attending the meetings.

I suspect that it is the “loss of control” issue that has inspired the growth of alternatives in recent years.

A charter school is a public school with public funding. But it operates under a “charter” with its own directors and policies. When Colorado passed a law enabling charter schools, the statehouse theory was that charter schools would take shape in cities and suburbs.

Around here, they pop up where consolidation, with busing to a distant facility, has closed the local schoolhouse: Crestone, Lake George, Guffey. These schools have their ups and downs, and we hope to publish some articles about them in the future.

This time around, we’ve got articles about three alternatives to standard public schools: home-schooling, a private Christian school, and high school on the Internet. And our featured artists this month, Jeff and Amber Shook of Villa Grove, operate an “escuela.”

All over the place, you find people who want to know more today than they knew yesterday, and arrange to make that happen, one way or another.