The recent award of a nearly $1.5 million grant from the RISE — Response, Innovation and Student Equity — fund has unfolded a world of possibilities for the Cripple Creek-Victor School District.

The $32.7 million grant program funded by the federal CARES Act passed by Congress in December supports high-needs schools address learning challenges stemming from the pandemic, with a goal of closing equity gaps. The district’s award came as part of a second wave of recipients that included nearly $3 million to Colorado Mountain College, the wave’s largest recipient of funds, and $2 million to Pueblo Community College.

“It’s about hope,” said Miriam Mondragon, the district’s superintendent, who got the word about winning the $1,491,200 grant in a phone call from Polis Jan. 22.

“It’s big deal, a positive recognition that people care about what’s happening in the district, that when we raise our voice and ask eloquently for assistance, the state is willing to help and support us,” said Dan Cummings, principal of the Cripple Creek-Victor Junior/Senior High School. “Because they know how valuable what we have up here is.”

The funders were touched by the application that included a narrative written by Jim and Marilyn Morford, residents of Cripple Creek. They wrote of the community’s generational poverty, government dependency, lack of opportunities, family dysfunction and transiency. But they also highlighted the community’s dedication to improving the lives of the youth.

“Their story is so compelling,” said Mary Seawell, senior vice president of education for the Gates Family Foundation, which partnered with with the Governor’s Office and Gary Community Investments to provide resources and design support to grant applications. “The foundation helped bring funding together to provide support by connecting the district with resources and design support.”

The grant application fit the theme behind RISE “to address the learning challenges related to the economic, social and health impacts of COVID-19,” according to Gov. Polis.

“We want to ensure that rural counties were included, to level the playing field,” Seawell said. “It was a slam dunk.”

The RISE funds are a response to the negative impacts of the coronavirus on education in Colorado. “We were a district that was struggling to provide equitable and equal education, anyway; COVID exacerbated that,” Cummings said.

Mondragon and Cummings, along with the CC-V school board, were already redesigning the educational system in the attempt to decrease the dropout rate. “The shift toward competency-based education was going to happen anyway, maybe in three to five years,” Cummings said. “The RISE grant has allowed us to address the immediate needs of the students.”

Among the goals are internships, perhaps with construction companies or in service shops at auto dealers in Colorado Springs, or by helping to build small container homes to increase housing inventory.

“It’s not rocket science,” Cummings said. “Other schools have successfully tried this, but I don’t think there’s another school that has tried this shift in nine months.”

Grant impact on teachers

For the teachers, the educational shift offers a sense of freedom to be reach students, many of whom dropped out to work minimum-wage jobs, some to help out at home.

For Sierra Olmsted, a young adult working as the food and beverage manager at the Double Eagle Casino, the program might have intervened before she was at risk of dropping out of high school. Olmsted’s experiences reflect the sense of community that has always been a part of the remote city, the aspect that caught the governor’s attention.

“The Community of Caring (a nonprofit organization which operates the Aspen Mine Center) supported me and helped me get my grades up,” she said. “What they’re doing with the grant is a wonderful thing.”

Helping students get real work experience while finishing high school is part of the district’s plan for the RISE money.

“The grant will give us the opportunity to hit more of the kids’ individual educational needs than what the program is currently giving them,” Kristen Riley, who teaches math to middle schoolers. “I think we are going to rock our education system for our students. Because, at the end of the day, it’s about them.”

In line with the competency-based learning, the district, with 350 students, introduced an agriculture class taught by Amanda Kuykendall. The curriculum focuses on natural resources as a tie-in to forestry, land issues and tourism; students can achieve certification in each.

The secondary part of the agriculture class is animal science as a pathway to careers as veterinary technicians or, with additional education, as veterinarians. “My job is to get them into the industries, prepare them for life through agriculture education,” Kuykendall said.

With the RISE grant, agriculture will be among several technical programs designed to help students select careers in industries based in Teller County.

“Even though we’re a small town, just look around at what we have here, really big types of jobs, mining, the park service, tourism, the arts, ranching, hospitality, the schools and casinos, for instance,” Riley said.

The grant will have a ripple effect that will boost the economy as well as the students, Kuykendall said. “And it starts with us,” she said. “I think the RISE grant will give us the ability to shake up the education system and to do what is right by these students.”

Mary Bielz, a member of the school board and chair of the Community of Caring Foundation board, noted that Gov. Polis remarked on the community aspect of CC-V’s application. “Before gaming, the school was the center of the community and we want to reclaim that position,” she said. “We are grateful for everyone coming forward to do whatever they could do to make this a reality. And we are grateful to the Morfords.

“The grant is going to help us rise; we’re looking at eradicating poverty and closing the gap between the haves and the have-nots by building resources that are equitable and acceptable for all in the community.”

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