Rural schools oppose requirements

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Tougher admissions standards for Colorado's four-year public colleges and universities could create problems for rural high schools, a local education official said this week.

Paula Stephenson, executive director of the Colorado Rural School Caucus, is asking the Colorado Commission on Higher Education to postpone pre-collegiate class requirements scheduled to take effect in September for students who will graduate from high school in 2010.

The requirements are part of a program designed by the commission in 2003. The program lists class requirements for high school students hoping to enter a four-year public institution in Colorado.

Stephenson said the requirements would place a burden on small schools with limited funding for staff.

"We already have an extreme teacher shortage in math, science and foreign languages," she said. "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 commission's program implements the requirements gradually. Phase I of the program is in effect and applies to students who graduate in 2008 -- this year's sophomores. Requirements for that phase include three years of math, three years of science -- two of which must be lab-based -- and no foreign language component.

"We have no opposition to the Phase I requirements," said Stephenson, a former president of the Steamboat Springs School Board who is in her second year as director of the rural caucus.

Phase II of the program adds two years of a foreign language and a fourth year of math to the requirements for college-bound students.

Matt Gianneschi, chief academic officer with the higher education commission, said he has met with Stephenson twice to discuss her concerns.

"We're willing to consider modifications to the admissions policy but only if we're able to first get a sense of what the real structural problems are within the school districts," he said Tuesday. "I asked Paula to specifically identify what the structural problems are. When we can identify those, that gives us a better position to try to come up with some kind of arrangement."

Stephenson said she will conduct an assessment of rural schools and has scheduled a March 2 meeting with the commission's board.

"Hopefully, there will be a dialogue about (the commission) possibly postponing those requirements or getting rid of them altogether," Stephenson said. "We're very happy with how things are progressing."

Gianneschi said he doesn't know how the commission will rule, but he noted that the Phase II requirements were designed with input from Colorado college and university officials.

"They feel pretty strongly that students need to be well-prepared for their campuses," Gianneschi said. "They have every right to expect that students will prepare according to their own standards."

Stephenson said the state Legislature defines a rural school district as having less than 3,000 students. Of Colorado's 180 school districts, Stephenson said 140 fit that criteria. The Steam--boat Springs School Dist--rict has 2,001 students.

Stephenson represents the 115 rural school districts that are caucus members. Stephenson spends much of her time 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.

"We just have a different idea about what education should be in the rural districts," Stephenson said.

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