Rural schools continue fight

Study to assess graduation requirement effect on small classes

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— A local education official soon will find out whether data supports her claim about a possible threat to rural schools.

Paula Stephenson, executive director of the Colorado Rural Schools Caucus, has been working for the past eight months to persuade the Colorado Commission on Higher Education to postpone an upcoming hike in graduation requirements that Stephenson says will place a burden on small high schools with limited funding for staff.

After meetings and ongoing discussions with Stephenson and caucus members, the CCHE asked last week for an impact study to gather specific information about staffing, finances and curriculum in Colorado's 140 rural school districts.

"We at CCHE have heard many anecdotes from parents, teachers, school board members, superintendents and others about the negative impact of the CCHE Higher Education Admission Requirements on rural schools in Colorado," wrote Matt Gianneschi, chief academic officer with the commission, in a March 28 letter to caucus members. "However, we have not seen any evidence to support these.

"CCHE staff and the commissioners eagerly await the results of this study, as we need robust, verifiable information -- not anecdotes -- to inform any possible adjustments to the admission policy," Gianneschi continued.

The requirements are part of a program designed by the commission in 2003 to increase the number of foreign language, math and science courses needed by Colorado high school students to attend a four-year public college or university in the state.

Stephenson and the rural caucus object to Phase 2 of the requirements, scheduled to begin in September and affecting students who will graduate from high school in 2010.

"We already have an extreme teacher shortage in math, science and foreign languages," Stephenson said in February. "Given that it's harder to attract and retain teachers in rural districts, we just won't be able to staff those positions (at many rural high schools)."

The impact study consists of a detailed, five-page survey sent to rural school administrators, with questions about subjects such as graduation rates, class schedules and potential staffing needs for increased requirements. Stephenson asked that completed surveys be returned by April 30.

"It is essential that the caucus completes this impact study, and it is crucial that we have the participation of all of Colorado's rural school districts in the process," Stephenson wrote to caucus members. "The data we collect will be used not only in our negotiations with CCHE, but it will also be given to the Colorado Education alignment Council, the State Board of Education, state and federal legislators and other education organizations."

Stephenson, a former president of the Steamboat Springs School Board, said the state Legislature defines a rural school district as having fewer than 3,000 students. Stephenson said 140 of Colorado's 180 school districts fit that criteria. The Steamboat Springs School District has slightly more than 2,000 students.

Stephenson represents the 115 rural school districts that are caucus members at the Capitol in Denver, where she works three days a week during the legislative session.

The Colorado Rural Schools Caucus began six years ago with help from Cyndy Simms, former superintendent of the Steamboat Springs School District.

-- To reach Mike Lawrence, call 871-4203 or e-mail mlawrence@steamboatpilot.com

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