It’s a good time to be a K-12 student in the Woodland Park School District. Not just because the district’s five schools are a fun place to learn, but also because each of the principals are working together to enhance the continuity of the education experience.
All five principals recently sat down together with The Courier to outline what’s new at their schools this year. The principals are Kevin Burr, Woodland Park High School; Yvonne Goings, Woodland Park Middle School; Ashley Lawson, Gateway Elementary School; Katie Rexford; Summit Elementary School; and Ginger Slocum, Columbine Elementary School.
They are just five in the more total school district staff of more than 350.
Kevin Burr, WPHS
In his second year as high school principal after moving to the area from Kansas last summer, Burr said education is in his blood: “I’m the child of educators and my children are both educators. It runs in the Burr family.”
Burr said the conversation amongst high school leaders last year was about moving toward professional-based learning.
“We call it Real Learning in Real Life,” he said. “We want grades to be based on what kids know and not their behaviors.” He gave the example of the outdated practice of allowing kids to earn extra credit to make up for sub-par grades. Rather than scramble to make up for lost points, students should have a concrete plan to get back on track, such as being able to re-write a paper.
“Then there’s no question what they need to do to get a grade,” he said. “We’re all about giving them the opportunity to improve.”
A new grading system this year takes away the “F” in a typical “A, B, C, D ...” format and changing it to a “Not Yet” in Core Classes, he said.
Burr added, “The kids are responding very well to it. The kids have bought in. It’s a total mindshift.”
Also part of the program this year is allowing students to pursue a passion, or area they want to learn more about, through independent study or internships.l
There are eight new teachers at the high school this year.
Yvonne Goings, WPMS
“The middle school focuses on building strong connections, helping kids change from little humans into real humans. What I want them to know is how to treat each other and how to learn. And how to take advantage of the content we teach,” said Goings, who is a Woodland Park gratuate herself.
When she was an assistant principal, she started the Summit Learning plan, which is now in its fourth year. Part of it is offering mentoring classes to students — time that is dedicated to one-on-one between a student and a teaching mentor — weekly, she explained.
“When I started, it’s what our students and staff needed. We needed to empower our staff so they could empower our kids,” she said. “Gen Z kids are so different from even Millennials. One of the most important pieces for them is the mentoring. The teacher is trained to help kids nail down how they learn best, or if they need help. So each one of our middle school kids can have a trusted adult they can go to.”
Summit Learning was instituted four years ago, with the then-sixth grade class that’s now just starting ninth grade. “Then we expanded to a small group of sixth, seventh and eighth grades. And last year all of sixth and a portion of seventh and eighth. This year all the sixth, seventh- and eighth-grade students are doing this,” she said.
The school moved to a block system, where kids have three classes a day of 90 minutes each. Then at midday they have a self-directed learning period. Fridays are different, with shorter classes, and at the end of the day the kids pursue a passion, which could be disc golf, writing or photography, for example.
“Days felt rushed when they did 50-minute classes. Now they can dig deep into the learning,” Going said.
There are four new teachers at the middle school this year — one Core teacher and three special education teachers.
Goings is happy to report that the school had some cosmetic updates over the summer, including new flooring in areas, carpet cleaning, a new front entry and new colorful furniture in the “pod” areas.
“When you walk into a school it should feel like your grandma’s giving you a big hug. And I think the school is very welcoming,” she said. “I want to say ‘thank you’ to the community for the tax initiative that enabled us to do these things.”
Another change at the school this year is the “Away for the Day Policy,” where students must put their phones in their lockers during the day. There was some resistance to “unplugging” at first, but now the kids “like it,” Goings said. “All the technology we need is in the classroom. Plus it’s amazing watching how they’re communicating with each other, and not looking at their phones.”
Ashley Lawson, Gateway Elementary
A Georgia native who has lived in Woodland Park for 16 years, Lawson has been principal at Gateway for five of those. “I was born a teacher,” she said. “I was the teacher when we played ‘school’ as kids. It never occurred to me to be anything else. My move to administration came through a drive to ‘teach’ adults.”
New at her school this year is an expansion of the Summit Learning method to fourth and fifth grades.
“We’re in our second year of personalized competency-based learning with the second and third grade. And we’re in our third year of ThinkTank, where the kids essentially can choose what they want to learn,” she said. “Then we have a big school showcase in March.”
The school features a Brain Gym with an M&M (“mindful and motivation”) Room, where kids can go when they need quiet time. It’s staffed all day so kids can take a break and “process” when they need to, she said.
“We are bursting at the seams in several grade levels and this year added a third kindergarten class. There are more than 60 new families this year at Gateway,” Lawson said.
The school has several new staff this year, including a preschool director, music teacher, second- and third-grade teachers, a gifted and talented teacher, and two full-time mental health professionals. There are two new mental health workers at each of the three elementary schools in the district, made possible by grant funding, Lawson said.
“I am inspired by the strength and resilience of children today. They deal with so much more than I did at their age,” she said.
Originally from western New York, Rexford has lived in Woodland Park for about 15 years. She’s been principal at Summit for seven years.
“Like every year, we continue to strive to meet the dynamic needs of our students and families. It is a focus to look at our children and fully understand what they need. We are working to fit school to them instead of working to fit them to school,” she said.
As for what’s new this year, Rexford said “We’ve had a lot of continuation from last year, focusing on our Marzano Critical Concepts. They are driving our instruction and we are shifting gears from teaching grade levels to truly teaching students.”
Having combined classrooms allows for students to focus on academic skills as opposed to age-dictated tasks, she said.
Summit Studios is the name for an environmental education program to engage students to learn in different ways. For instance, the school has a garden with more than 20 raised beds, and students learn how to grow and harvest the vegetables there and taste them in a salad on Back to School Night. There are bluebird houses around the garden that sparks interest in wildlife, too.
“This is work that the kids did. It’s not just about our input or just about their output,” Rexford said.
Summit has adopted a middle school idea of being “A Place of Becoming,” she said. Kids can say what they’d like to become, such as a police officer or dancer and learn what that entails.
There are two new classroom teachers at Summit this year.
New to the area and the school district, Slocum moved to Woodland Park last month from Bailey. Originally from Illinois, she’s been a Colorado resident for six years.
“My philosophy of coming into a new building is meeting the students and staff where they are. My biggest goal is to build relationships,” Slocum said. We are continuing with the same programs from last school year.”
Columbine fifth graders have a unique opportunity to work with college students through a program with the Catamount Center. They spend Fridays with student teachers from Colorado College learning about environmental education. Third graders throughout the district take swimming lessons.
In addition to Slocum, other new staff at Columbine are an institutional resource teacher, and new kindergarten, fourth- and fifth-grade teachers. Because of a recent enrollment increase, there are now three kindergarten classes at the school.
“The school really has a strong foundation,” Slocum said. “This is my first year as a principal, and everyone has been very welcoming.”