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Back to school: A look at the year ahead for all 17 Colorado Springs-area districts

August 6, 2016 Updated: August 10, 2016 at 9:58 am
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Second graders enjoy their lunch at Remington Elementary School on Thursday, August 4, 2016. Photo by Stacie Scott, The Gazette

Ready or not, here school comes.

Two of the Pikes Peak region's 17 public school districts resumed classes last week and many more start during the next few weeks.

"We're definitely excited and looking forward to all of our boys and girls returning. We're really prepared for them," said Andre Spencer, superintendent of Harrison School District 2.

Over the summer, teachers took part in training workshops and school buildings got spiffed up. For the first time in several years, the region has no new superintendents.

Districts continue to develop science, technology, engineering and math curriculum, subjects predicted as critical for the workplace of the future. Many schools are turning toward "personalized learning" and introducing more technical and trades classes.

Still struggling from state budget cuts, the area's three largest districts and two small ones likely will place school finance questions on the November ballot.

Across the state, schools must adopt new graduation guidelines by the end of this school year. The more rigorous requirements intended to demonstrate students are ready for college or a career after high school will impact current eighth-graders. Many officials say it's a matter of fine-tuning what they've been doing.

"We've already had graduation pathways and have been giving out college and career and honors diplomas," Spencer said.

The Colorado Department of Education also is switching from having all high school juniors take the ACT college prep exam to the SAT, and 10th-graders will take the Preliminary SAT.

"That will be nice for consistency," said Cindy Gannon, vice principal at Woodland Park High School. "It's better preparation because students get their eyes on it twice, so we love that the state did that."

The state's accountability system was put on hold last school year due to new curriculum and matching standardized tests in math, English, science and social studies but will resume this school year. That means scores will count toward district and school performance measures.

"We know the changes will require more intense focus on each individual student, which is why our district is going to personalized learning," said D-2's Spencer.

The education department collected input statewide on the federal education law reauthorized in December, the Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, which replaces the No Child Left Behind Act.

The planning phase is underway, said CDE spokesman Jeremy Meyer. A 20-member advisory hub committee appointed by the State Board of Education will hold its first meeting Monday at the CDE in Denver. A plan of how Colorado will meet the new federal requirements will go before the State Board of Education for final approval and be delivered to the U.S. Department of Education by spring, Meyer said.

Some elements, including teacher evaluation and school accountability systems, already are in place by state law. But some of those laws may need to change, said Keith Owen, a former state education deputy commissioner who became superintendent of Fountain-Fort Carson School District 8 last year.

Provisions for ESSA will take effect for the 2017-2018 school year.

Academy School District 20

After assessing projected population growth, D-20 plans to seek voter approval in November of a $230 million bond issue to build four schools: two elementary, one middle and one innovation. Money also would pay for additions and renovations to existing schools.

"We're up by 7,000 students since our last bond issue in 2001, and another 5,000 students are projected to enroll in the next 10 years," said Superintendent Mark Hatchell.

The measure would not raise property taxes but would allow the district to issue bonds to pay for construction projects. Hatchell said D-20 has the land for four schools. D-20 is the region's second-largest district with 35 schools and expects up to 500 more students this school year, bringing the total upwards of 25,500.

A "bring your own device" initiative started last school year with six schools and nine more are joining this year. Teachers are learning how to integrate instruction with digital devices.

D-20 also is adding choices to its career pathways program, which has 8,000 students participating.

"We want to have more opportunities for students to get internships, apprenticeships and industry certifications," Hatchell said.

Partnerships with businesses, the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs and other community entities are in the works. Areas of study include cybersecurity, automotives and construction management.

Calhan School District RJ-1

A new $1.2 million roof on the school building that houses all grades will greet students when they start classes Aug. 16.

RJ-1 received its third BEST (Building Excellent Schools Today) grant, a state program that provides capital construction funds for schools.

For the first year Superintendent Linda Miller can remember, there aren't enough high school football players to field a team, so Calhan students will play on Peyton School District 23's team.

"We're considering this a year of rebuilding the program," she said.

More visitors will roam the hallways, as Calhan Elementary has improved academic performance so much in the past two school years that it's considered a "bright spot" in state education circles.

"Because we've made such great strides, we're going to have people come from all over the state to see what quality instruction looks like and what quality leadership looks like," Miller said. "It's hard for people who are not in the world of education to understand, but it's a big deal."

Two years ago, the elementary school was considered failing. What's been the game changer? Leadership that provides constant support in the classroom, Miller said. Principals observe classrooms several times weekly, give feedback and offer ideas for improving teaching techniques. Follow-up is part of the process.

"It's a cycle that never ends," Miller said. "Principals know what quality instruction looks like, and it's what they expect."

Elementary students are getting new science curriculum and improved math materials, and RJ-1 also has increased Advanced Placement course offerings from four to eight.

Enrollment is projected to "hold steady" at 460 students. New transportation director Amie Waugh is on board, and the district is looking for a location to set up a transportation garage to repair buses.

Cheyenne Mountain School District 12

When students at Cheyenne Mountain High arrive for their first day of class this month, they will see several new facilities constructed during the school's $42.5 million renovation.

The recently completed first phase of the project includes science, math and world language classrooms, media center, commons area, courtyard and administrative offices. The project's second phase - English, social studies and arts classrooms - will likely be finished in January, said Superintendent Walt Cooper.

The renovations, which involved tearing down about one-third of the old school building, will connect what was originally separate buildings.

"This is about providing state-of-the art learning spaces for our kids," Cooper said. "At the end of the day, we wanted to make sure that we had a high school that mirrors the excellence our students demonstrate."

The project was paid for when district voters approved a $45 million bond issue in November. The remaining $2.5 million will be used on energy and security improvements throughout the district, including updating electrical and fire alarm systems and replacing fluorescent lights with more efficient LED technology in elementary schools.

Cheyenne Mountain High also will offer additional science, technology, engineering and math classes through Project Lead the Way, a nonprofit that works with schools across the country. The school sent several staff members who will be teaching the new STEM classes to training this summer.

"Those are critical skills," Cooper said. "If you're not standing up in the world of STEM and meeting kids' needs in that way, all you're really doing is falling behind."

Officials at the middle and high schools are focusing on the social and emotional needs of talented and gifted students, in addition to their academic needs. The district hired two interventionists to provide support and design programming for especially bright kids.

Colorado Springs School District 11

Many students in the region's largest and oldest school district will find new curriculum, including Mars missions, and upgrades such as Raspberry Pi technology - a credit card-sized computer used for programming - when they return to class Aug. 18.

Audubon and Bristol Elementary schools will emphasize science, technology, engineering, art and math, or STEAM, on a foundation of literacy, said D-11 spokeswoman Devra Ashby.

"Teachers are going through training and steps it will take to become a STEAM school and do it right," Ashby said.

Mann, where most students from Audubon and Bristol matriculate for middle school, is adopting a STEM - science, technology, engineering and math - concentration and will add performing, visual and traditional arts classes.

A grant from Digital Promise will enable all 800 students at Mann and Sabin middle schools to receive an iPad for school work. A grant from Promethean will supply eight interactive white boards, curriculum and teacher training for Scott Elementary, Jack Swigert Aerospace Academy Middle School and Palmer High.

North Middle School also will add the technology, which displays computer images on a big board using a digital projector. The instructor can manipulate the elements on the board using a fingertip.

Penrose Elementary will unveil project-based learning, which focuses on student inquiry and working collaboratively on projects to address a community issue. For example, students might be tasked with setting up a business or a nonprofit. Ashby said each teacher will designate a project and include Colorado's academic standards in the work.

John Adams Elementary got an $8 million facelift and is reopening with all new furniture, carpeting, paint, air conditioning and advanced technology including STEM and iPad labs.

Adams was one of several schools D-11 closed in 2009 under a reorganization. The building had been leased to a charter school that is now defunct. The majority of the 400 Adams students will come from Helen Hunt Elementary, which the district closed in May, citing its deteriorating condition and the need for massive renovations.

Both Adams and Hunt are in low-income neighborhoods in southeast Colorado Springs.

"The kids will be so excited to go to school and get to experience things they've never had before," Ashby said.

A public ribbon-cutting ceremony will be held at 2 p.m. Aug. 15.

The need to renovate older buildings is among the reasons D-11's board is considering asking voters to approve a $235 million bond measure and a $32.6 million mill levy override in November.

"Being the oldest school district comes with advantages - more experienced staff, the history, a legacy - but it also comes with disadvantages, such as aging technology and buildings," Ashby said.

D-11 hasn't presented a school financing ballot measure to voters since 2005, she said.

"It's time," Ashby said. "A bond is a way for us to catch up, and a mill levy is a way for us to keep up."

State education cuts have reduced D-11's funding by $183.9 million over the last six years, she said. Money raised through a bond would help improve mechanical systems and technology infrastructure, build a centralized kitchen system and upgrade school cafeterias, athletic fields and other needs.

A mill levy override would cost D-11 property owners about $10 a month initially, for a home valued at $200,000, which is the average in the district. The money also would pay for more security officers, nurses, social workers and other positions, reduce class sizes, help retain and recruit teachers, update technology, maintain school buildings and increase charter school allocation by $1,000 per pupil.

"For two years we've been talking with our community about why we are going for this," Ashby said. "We're looking at what it's going to take to educate our preschoolers, who will be the class of 2030."

The district is working on a program whereby residents on fixed incomes or low-income households could volunteer in schools to offset the increase in property taxes, she added. Homeowners older than 65 who have lived in their homes for 10 or more years also qualify for the Senior Homestead Exemption, which reduces property taxes by 50 percent. Feedback can be given at d11.org/vision2030.

Cripple Creek-Victor School District RE-1

Fiscal integrity, curriculum and instruction, and early childhood education are in the spotlight in this mountain school district, said Superintendent Les Lindauer.

A partnership with Habitat for Humanity of Teller County is expected to yield a program in which high school students can learn construction skills. The district also is offering design manufacturing and family and consumer science classes.

An expanded school-based health center is ready to reopen but is awaiting a nurse practitioner. District staff, students and siblings will be able to use the center for health care.

"We're all set to go, but because of our location, it's hard to get someone to come up here," Lindauer said.

District officials hope voters support a mill levy override in November to address an unexpected budget cut from state lawmakers that created a shortfall for RE-1 and nine other rural districts.

A compromise to the school funding bill lawmakers struck in May resulted in a 12 percent cut in state funding for this school year. That forced RE-1 to withdraw more than $500,000 from reserves to use for operating expenses, which Lindauer said depleted its reserves by 40 percent.

The three-mill override would add $23.88 per year in property taxes on a home with a valuation of $100,000, according to RE-1 calculations, and $435 annually for a commercial business valued at $500,000. The money would allow the district to backfill revenue losses, give teachers raises, improve educational programs and make other changes, according to Lindauer.

Assessed valuations in the district dropped by $41 million last year, Lindauer said, with another $10 million loss projected this year. Production decreases at Newmont Mining Corp.'s Cripple Creek & Victor Mine, which does open-pit gold and silver mining, is the main reason for the decline.

"It's huge thing for us. The state hasn't funded us at all for several years - it's been 100 percent local funding, and when it drops, we suffer."

Enrollment is expected to decrease by 10 students to 320, Lindauer said. Because the area's economy relies on gaming and mining industries, many families are transient.

Edison School District 54-JT

The Pikes Peak region's smallest school district will hold a groundbreaking ceremony Aug. 19 on a $14 million campus addition.

The 38,000-square-foot expansion will connect to the existing secondary and elementary building that opened in 1922. Costs are covered by a BEST grant and matching funds from a mill levy override voters approved in November.

For the first time, students will have a science room with labs.

"That we've been able to even conduct labs without a certified lab is a credit to our science teachers," Superintendent Pat Bershinsky said.

The existing school, located right in the middle of nowhere, as locals say, will be renovated with new auditorium lighting, flooring and contemporary lockers among other updates. The stucco exterior will replicate the building's exterior of nearly 100 years ago.

Two modular buildings will be removed when construction is completed in time for the 2017-2018 year. The district also will purchase another acre-foot of water to accommodate growth, Bershinsky said.

In recent years, enrollment has increased to 220 students. Bershinsky attributes that to the district's academic performance, which has ranked at the top of the state's accreditation scale since 2014. Ninety-eight percent of 54-JT graduates go to college or vocational education programs, he said.

The district will try a new assessment system this school year; eighth-, ninth- and 10th-graders will take the Preliminary SAT college entrance exam. The change was prompted by the high number of students who opted out of state assessments.

"We're trying to come up with a different testing scheme that makes more sense to parents and stops the opt-outs while still letting us prove growth," Bershinsky said.

Scores from new statewide English, math, social studies and science tests haven't been useful, he said, because of the large numbers of students who didn't take the tests. In 2015, up to 85 percent of students refused to do the tests; up to 60 percent of students refused to take the spring tests.

D-22 has administered both the SAT and the ACT to juniors, Bershinsky said, to help students earn more scholarships for college. Many students take college courses while in high school - they're bussed daily to Pikes Peak Community College, a trip that takes nearly 90 minutes each way. The average D-22 student graduates with 45 college credits.

"We do things a little different out here," Bershinsky said.

A new principal, Terry Henderson, who came from nearby Miami-Yoder, has replaced the former principal, who left after 17 years.

Ellicott School District 22

Orientation for 11 new staff members started last week for this eastern plains district. The district has 70 teachers, with enrollment projected to increase slightly, said Superintendent Pat Cullen. The norm in recent years has been about 1,050 pupils.

"There's always a lot going on as we get ready for the kids to come back," he said. "We're excited for the new year to start."

Curriculum improvements to meet Colorado's academic standards have been made for fall, Cullen said. The district also is upgrading its transportation fleet by adding a new bus every year.

"We're trying to get a little ahead with the budget," Cullen said, "but across the state, budgets are still difficult for districts, particularly those in rural areas where we don't have the property valuation to bring in that much money."

While teachers received raises for this school year, based on experience and education, D-22 had to take money out of its reserves to help cover the increases, Cullen said, as state funding cuts for public education continue to sting.

Falcon School District 49

School started for the region's third-largest school district last week, and in coming weeks D-49 will pioneer two early colleges.

Pikes Peak Early College is the state's first online program that will serve students anywhere in the state with online high school and college courses. Students of high school age can earn an associate degree from a college in their community along with their diploma, for free.

"It's a compelling new model," said Superintendent Peter Hilts. "It's a more traditional college prep format."

The program is housed at the Falcon Legacy Campus in Peyton.

The new James Irwin Power Technical Early College will focus on career and technical trades.

Hundreds of students have signed up for each program, said Hilts. Classes are starting later to coincide with college schedules. Pikes Peak Community College, Pueblo Community College and University of Colorado at Colorado Springs are among the local partners.

A five-year, $1.5 million Department of Defense grant will expand a program to use restorative versus punitive discipline practices with students.

"Under the punitive model, students who do something that's not kind will be assigned detention. Under the restorative model, the students talk to each other and take more ownership instead of relying on adults to punish them," Hilts said.

Patriot Learning Center will partner with the Colorado Springs Housing and Building Association for students to build a dozen tiny homes and learn all aspects of the construction trade.

Vista Ridge High will debut a career pathway in commercial pilot licensing. Students can earn a private pilot's license while in school.

"We're developing a relationship with commercial pilot license providers so students can do classroom training and flight time," Hilts said.

D-49 has started the year with more than 1,000 new students, with enrollment nearing 22,000. More than 200 new staff members have joined the district for a total of 1,700.

"We have growth hikes across the board," Hilts said. "They just keep coming."

To help address the growth, D-49 will paying off its general bond debt that was used to fund previous construction projects and ask voters to continue the existing mill levy.

The district wants to generate capital and operational funds to build two elementary schools, remodel existing schools, improve security, increase teacher pay, and enable each high school to offer the same programs in online education, career and technical trades and college enrollment.

The measure would not raise property taxes but would extend the existing mill levy. If measure were to fail, property taxes would decrease by $20 a month on the average home, Hilts said.

The measure would net $8 million annually for the district.

Fountain Fort-Carson School District 8

Construction on a new middle school started over the summer on the site of the existing school at 515 N. Santa Fe Ave. in Fountain. Following utilities work, partial demolition of the old building will start this month. The new 140,000-square-foot building will consolidate classrooms, the gymnasium, and theater and music programs on one campus and will take two to three years to complete, said Superintendent Keith Owen.

The new school will accommodate up to 1,400 students. The current middle school has about 950 students.

A nearly $6 million renovation of Jordahl Elementary is almost finished, with additional classrooms, revamped heating and cooling, new paint and carpet, new bathrooms, a new stage in the auditorium and an expanded cafeteria.

Abrams and Aragon Elementary schools also received makeovers.

"We take pride in our facilities and every summer work on our buildings," Owen said.

An increased emphasis on security and safety means all school entryways have been evaluated and will either be locked or have limited access for visitors. Three additional school resource officers, who are police officers and work at schools, are being added.

A three-day, live active shooter training over the summer brought together police, nearby school districts, first responders and others from the community to prepare for such a situation.

"We're revamping protocols for district safety and security as a whole," Owen said.

D-8 will provide laptops to middle school students for classroom and home use, an expansion of a similar program at the high school. As a result, the district's nine elementary schools will receive leftover computers from the middle school for portable computer labs.

New math textbooks for grades K-5 will be used to adapt to new Colorado academic standards, a process that involved getting feedback from the school community before selecting McGraw-Hill's "My Math" curriculum.

A summer training institute for teachers was narrowed to cover STEM education, classroom culture, safety and a few other topics, with nationally recognized presenters.

With 70 to 75 percent of its 8,000 students having a connection to the military, Owen said D-8 officials are working closely with Col. Ronald Fitch, the new garrison commander at Fort Carson.

"It's a very important relationship, one that we value and are excited about," he said.

Five of the district's 13 schools are on post, and high school students who live at Fort Carson are bussed to the high school in town. A Fort Carson representative is an ex-officio member of the D-8 board of education, and the district has a liaison to the post.

Nearly all of D-8's athletic coaches have been rehired for this school year, after Owen asked in the spring that they all reapply for their jobs. The goal is to start building sports programs at the middle school level, which Owen said began over the summer with camps.

Owen is projecting enrollment to remain stable this academic year, although he said Army reassignments can bring hundreds of students suddenly and at any time.

Hanover School District 28

School started Friday with a new five-year strategic plan that includes improving academic and student achievement and providing options as goals.

"We're already starting to implement some of the plan," said Superintendent Grant Schmidt.

A new renewable energy career track will enable students to graduate from high school with certification in solar power, for example.

To reduce energy use, the district is working toward installing LED lighting, building a solar farm on the grounds of the junior/senior high school and introducing hydroponic gardening to grow fruits and vegetables for the district's meals program as well as the rural community southeast of Colorado Springs.

Schmidt said utilities costs have been reduced by remodeling and re-opening a portion of the old schoolhouse in Hanover to add classroom and gymnasium space. The bus maintenance and transportation programs also are housed there.

Last year's pupil count of 249 students is expected to remain stable, although Schmidt said it could increase by as much as 10 students with new early enrollments.

An unforeseen reduction in per-pupil funding from the state created a budget shortfall and forced D-28 to cut one science teacher, Schmidt said.

The district is one of 13 (of 178 total) in the state that is experiencing a decrease in per-pupil funding.

"We lost $125 per student because in our district enrollment is flat and property values declined," Schmidt said. The average assessed property valuation in Hanover is $10,000, he said.

That, coupled with some $400,000 lost each year for the past seven years due to state cuts to education funding, led D-28's board to approve a mill levy override question for November's ballot. By the end of this school year, D-28 will have lost one year's total budget from state cutbacks to its district, he said.

The district currently assesses property owners 8 mills, which Schmidt said is one of the lowest in the state. The proposal to raise it by 16 mills, still short of the state cap of 27 total mills, would increase property taxes by an estimated $10 per month per $10,000 worth of assessed valuation.

"We need local support to be able to replace and add technology, address $3 million in deferred maintenance and provide salary increases across all employee groups," Schmidt said.

The district also wants to refresh instructional materials.

Voter approval would result in about $485,000 per year to the district.

"The state wants to see more local share going to schools, so we're hoping our community responds," Schmidt said.

Harrison School District 2

A new strategic plan, "Mission Possible II," kicks off this month and runs through June 2021. The focus: "Providing equitable education for every scholar through personalized education," said Superintendent Andre Spencer.

Every student will receive "individual, invested support." For example, high school students will create a portfolio of their work they can carry with them into the workplace or college. Elementary students will be able to work at their level of performance - third-graders may take fifth-grade math, if that's what they're ready for.

"It's an all-encompassing plan that looks at how we're meeting the needs of every single student," Spencer said.

D-2 started a new three-week training program for new staff, which Spencer said received "phenomenal feedback."

"Some teachers come from other districts and said they'd never received this level of professional development," he said.

The institute enables new staff to observe summer school and work with a mentor who will help them navigate their way throughout the school year.

The district has 125 new teachers this year out of a total teacher force of 800. Spencer said retention is improving, following a period of high turnover.

"We still have more work; we're looking at additional ways we can retain teachers," he said.

More advanced placement courses and college-level classes are being offered for high school students, and a grant from Sprint will provide high school students with wireless devices to use at school and at home. All D-2 schools now have wireless internet, Spencer said.

Harrison High will start the first phase toward becoming an International Baccalaureate school. Carmel Middle School and Sand Creek High began the lengthy process last year to become fully fledged with the more challenging curriculum. Spencer said complete implementation of the program takes up to three years.

About 45 students are on track to be the first Harrison cohort to earn both a high school diploma and an associate degree from Pikes Peak Community College in May.

Renovations of more than $3 million are being completed at Panorama Middle School, with HVAC work, fire code compliance and classroom improvements. Stratmoor Hills Elementary has a new roof.

D-2 is projecting an additional 100 students this year, bringing the total to 11,700. New students numbered around 200 for the last two school years.

"We've seen a steady improvement in enrollment" Spencer said, "and expect that will continue."

Lewis-Palmer School District 38

The district was selected in March to host a teacher of Chinese (Mandarin), through a program of the State Department's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs.

Xingping Gao's stay is fully funded. She arrived Friday and will live with a host family while teaching "Introduction to Chinese Language and Culture" to D-38 high school students.

"It helps fill our need for critical languages and will help her with her English, which she teaches in her homeland," said D-38 spokeswoman Julie Stephen. "It feels like this is a big deal."

The Teachers of Critical Languages Program has sponsored 213 native-speaking Arabic and Mandarin teachers in 37 states since 2006.

Over the summer the district repaired buildings, beefed up computer security, struck a deal with the town of Monument to lease two baseball fields for Little League and community use, and added an optional three-day seminar for incoming freshmen called Ranger Roundup. The latter is in addition to two freshmen Link Crew orientation programs to help welcome students.

D-38 also hired a company to chart long-range planning. New construction in Jackson Creek, north of Baptist Road, and in areas west of Interstate I-25 will affect demographics and enrollment.

"We're in the early phases of looking at how that's going to impact our facilities," Stephen said, "and our options to meet the needs of the community."

Enrollment is expected to increase by some 100 students, to more than 6,400.

Manitou Springs School District 14

Two new initiatives will help provide students with a school experience tailored to their needs, said Superintendent Ed Longfield.

The district promoted one teacher to serve as an educational consultant, offering guidance to about 300 kids in grades 6-12. The consultant will help students consider options for college and other career paths and advise them on steps they can take to meet these goals.

"We wanted to have a personalized experience for these families," Longfield said. "We're just trying to make customer service the key - you come here, you get help, you get personal attention."

A high school English teacher was promoted to lead the new Manitou Abound Program, which will serve grades 9-12. The program, nicknamed MAP, is designed for students who find typical high school classes challenging or may not feel the traditional education path is right for them. Students will participate in activities specialized to personal interests, including field trips and internships.

MAP is purposefully broad and loosely structured, Longfield said.

"We wanted to be creative, and say 'What can we do to engage them and hook them, and make it personalized to them as well?'" he said.

The district spent $25,000 on instruments for a new violin program in grades 3-5. A similar program has been available to middle and high school students, Longfield said.

D-14 will also continue to offer extracurricular fine arts and music classes to students at a reasonable cost through its arts14 program.

Miami-Yoder School District JT-60

Friday night lights will shine for the first time in this small plains district.

Modifications to the football field include new stadium lighting, which will allow for evening games. It's been a longtime goal of the rural district, said Superintendent Dwight Barnes, who is starting his second year on the job and also serves as the high school principal.

The football team has grown and is increasing from a six- to eight-man lineup, which necessitated relocating the goal posts. Money left over from construction of the 6-year-old school building paid for the upgrades.

To accommodate students who wish to take classes at Pikes Peak Community College, the high school is switching to a block schedule. Students will take sets of classes Tuesdays and Thursdays and another on Mondays and Wednesdays. Like many small, outlying districts, students attend school four days a week.

Enrollment is expected to increase slightly from last year's 270, Barnes said.

With more than 40 percent of students automatically qualifying for free meals because their families are on other subsidized programs or are homeless or migrant, or the students are in foster care, JT-60 qualifies for the Community Eligibility Provision program. That means all students now will receive free breakfasts and free lunches at school, regardless of household income.

Peyton School District 23-JT

Building partnerships with area schools is a key initiative, said Superintendent Tim Kistler. After last school year's initial success of the Peyton Woods Manufacturing Program, housed in a former middle school building, officials decided to allow students in other districts to learn trades taught there. Widefield School District 3 will bus about 30 kids back and forth every week to participate in the program, and several students from Calhan School District RJ-1 and Elbert School District 200 will attend the classes.

The Career Building Academy charter school will no longer operate alongside the manufacturing program in the old middle school, Kistler said, because classes were too small and did not attract enough students. But the district will begin offering a host of other vocational courses this year, including classes in auto mechanics, computer software, robotics and business.

"It all stems from the Woods Manufacturing Program," Kistler said. "We've had such great support, and since the building is now in function, we might as well use it for more things for students."

More than 200 students are enrolled in the manufacturing program and vocational classes, many of which can count as college credit through Pikes Peak Community College.

The district will also launch an online academy, which will initially enroll 10 to 15 students.

"Online education is becoming more and more of a need to families, and so many students are leaving our program for similar programs in other school districts," Kistler said. "We felt we needed to start up our own program to facilitate the needs of our own families."

Widefield School District 3

Technology is the word in D-3, as initiatives that started last year are expanding. Teachers completed intensive training over the summer in preparation, said Superintendent Scott Campbell.

Some students did, too. Hundreds of kids from King and Talbott Elementary schools went to camp to learn about Project Lead the Way's elementary program, Launch. Project Lead The Way, a national curriculum emphasizing science, technology, engineering and math skills, started in the middle school last year.

Talbott was designated last year as a STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art and math) Innovation School and is implementing the focus this year. Talbott also got a facelift with new landscaping and remodeling for the STEAM classes. A new sign also is in the works.

All 15 schools in D-3 will provide a robotics team for students to join as an extra-curricular activity, and each elementary school will have a computer coding club.

Also, 15 teachers recently were trained in cybersecurity education, and 18 students attended a cybersecurity camp. D-3's two high schools have had competitive CyberPatriot teams for years. A goal is to start a cybersecurity curriculum track for students in grades 8-12, Campbell said.

Technology education is important for students because "that's where the jobs and the opportunities are going to be for the kids," he said.

High school students also can enroll in the Maker Class, a new course that meshes shop skills with digital technology. It will be among the first in the nation, district officials say.

"The idea is that you bring ideas together and create something using 21st-century tools," Campbell said.

Campbell said officials are "cautiously optimistic" about enrollment remaining around last year's count of 9,435, as well as the state of the area's water supply, which in recent months has had problems with contamination.

Woodland Park School District RE-2

All five schools in this mountain district are turning their attention toward two directives: allowing students to discover their passions and building community relationships.

At Summit Elementary in Divide, all students will work together once a week for an hour under a Destination Imagination structure, meaning they will complete a project that involves creative thinking, reasoning, problem-solving and team-building skills.

"We've been doing Destination Imagination with one small group of students, and now we're opening up the concept to all students," said Principal Katie Rexford.

Destination Imagination is a hands-on system of learning that relies on creativity and curiosity through open-ended academic challenges in the fields of science, technology, engineering, arts, math and service. It's been an extracurricular activity with a competitive team.

Last year, students built a hovercraft, then created a storyline in which it traveled across the nation, made scenes and incorporated music.

"We're working on integrating the academic standards in a meaningful way," Rexford said.

Gateway Elementary has a similar initiative called "Think Tank." For 70 minutes a week, all students will individually or in groups pursue a passion, such as studying a language, building a motor, painting or playing an instrument. Curriculum will be adapted to meet the students' directions.

"It has a huge impact on their learning," said Principal Ashley Lawson.

Also, a new literacy program will pair dedicated computer lab time with the craft of writing.

Columbine Elementary offers Master Classes every Friday, in which community volunteers teach students to knit, play the violin, launch rockets, study animals, dance, build a radio or other skills.

"The sky's the limit; we had 50 violinists ages 5 to 11 years old performing at the end of the year," said Principal Veronica Wolken.

A districtwide initiative that takes advantage of RE-2's small size, mountain location and bond with the community, Elevate Environmental Education, or E3, is growing. Outdoor environmental lessons for elementary students are taught at Aspen Valley Ranch, a nonprofit campus, in partnership with the Catamount Institute, a nonprofit that offers ecological education. Middle school students now will get to take the classes.

Also, all fourth-graders will participate in a hands-on course taught by Space Foundation educators.

Woodland Park High School will introduce the Blended Learning Academy, in which students will do online education as well as receive instruction from teachers.

"It challenges students to empower themselves to be active learners," said Vice Principal Cindy Gannon.

The non-traditional program will be conducted in a relaxed environment and woven throughout the school day. About 25 students have signed up for the inaugural year.

"It exposes students to the structure of the workplace or to gain certification," Gannon said.

High school English classes have been expanded to include such choices as mythology and science fiction, to pique student interest.

Yvonne Goings, a 1988 graduate of Woodland Park High, is the new principal at Woodland Park Middle School. She previously worked as an assistant principal in Widefield School District 3 and has been the assistant principal at Woodland Park Middle School since 2007.

Under a new personalized learning focus, every student will have an adult mentor to help them work on goals and expectations, she said.

A new sales tax voters approved in November to benefit RE-2 took effect July 1, so proceeds have not been collected, said spokeswoman Stacy Schubloom. District officials are working on the details of how the money will be spent, she said.

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Gazette reporter Rachel Riley contributed to this report.

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