School buses leave the Strawberry Park Elementary School and Steamboat Springs Middle School campuses Thursday afternoon. Routt County school districts are among 142 rural Colorado districts that the Rural Education Council was formed to assist.

Photo by John F. Russell

School buses leave the Strawberry Park Elementary School and Steamboat Springs Middle School campuses Thursday afternoon. Routt County school districts are among 142 rural Colorado districts that the Rural Education Council was formed to assist.

Council aims to strengthen relationship with rural schools

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— Hoping to strengthen the support they receive from the Colorado Department of Education, a group of educators from rural public school districts across the state met Thursday in Denver for the first time as a newly formed Rural Education Council.

The 18-member council, which according to the Department of Education will help to address the needs of Colorado’s 142 rural districts as they implement new state-mandated reforms, includes three members with deep ties to Routt County.

“I think if we can provide a voice for the rural school districts when it comes to the Legislature, down the line, this (council) will benefits us,” South Routt Elementary School Principal Raylene Olinger said Thursday after she left the council’s first meeting at the Department of Education offices that are just steps blocks from the state Capitol. “I do think there are a lot of things that can be learned by meeting with these individuals from across the state.”

Olinger, who leads a school of 190 students in Yampa, is joined on the council by former Hayden Secondary Schools Principal Troy Zabel, now the superintendent of the Bayfield School District, and Paula Stephenson, a former Steamboat Springs School Board member who now leads the Colorado Rural Schools Caucus.

Jhon Penn, executive director of field services for the Department of Education, said Thursday that the new advisory group for rural schools — which includes superintendents, teachers and principals as well as school board and community members from across the state — plans to meet quarterly. He added that it was important to give educators working in districts with fewer than 3,000 students, the Department of Education’s definition of a rural school district, a louder voice because together they account for 82 percent of Colorado’s school districts.

“This council is something we’ve needed for a long time,” Penn said. “The people serving on it are living and breathing rural education in their home districts, and we want to make sure their voices are represented.”

The Rural Education Council was recommended to the Department of Education in a study of rural districts released in January.

Penn said now that the group has become a reality, one of its most immediate priorities will be to assist rural districts in implementing new state-mandated reforms that include new evaluations for teachers and principals as well as a new student assessment program expected to launch next year.

Initiative fatigue

Stephenson said the council is partly a response to higher demands being placed on educators in rural districts at a time when resources and legislative support are scarce and new reforms are common.

“We’ve seen five years of reform and four years of (budget) cuts, so there are a lot of challenges we’re facing,” Stephenson said, adding that the Department of Education has reduced the number of its staff members dedicated to working with rural districts from 12 to two in the past four years because of budget reductions. “A lot of us have been hung out to dry as far as resources. We’re seeing a huge need from rural districts to try to figure out how we’re going to implement these new reforms from the state on top of the budget cuts we are seeing.”

She said although larger urban school districts often have more than one administrative staff member to file reports that accompany the new policy reforms from the state, staff members at rural districts must juggle multiple tasks and “wear many hats.”

Penn said the council also will aim to provide the rural districts with more opportunities for staff development and other resources that would ease the burden placed on the districts by additional mandates and reforms.

South Routt Superintendent Scott Mader predicted Friday that the council would prove to be influential because it has the ear of Department of Education Commissioner Robert Hammond, who said in a news release announcing the formation of the new group that his department was “making good on (its) pledge to better meet the needs of rural districts.”

“I think this council will be an important step to get us better representation” in Denver, Mader said. “It gives us a better voice.”

He also commended Olinger, his elementary school principal, for being selected to serve on the newly formed body.

“It’s a very prestigious and important role,” he said.

To reach Scott Franz, call 970-871-4210 or email scottfranz@SteamboatToday.com

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