Emotional parents packed the gymnasium at Copper Mesa Elementary on Sept. 23 to share concerns about their school with Douglas County School District leaders.
A drop in student performance, high teacher turnover and fears that the traditional …
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A drop in student performance, high teacher turnover and fears that the traditional neighborhood school might shift to a specific academic theme has divided the Highlands Ranch school's parent community, leading to the meeting.
Superintendent Elizabeth Fagen, chief financial officer Bonnie Betz and assistant superintendent of elementary education Ted Knight were among the district staff who sat at a table in front of the crowd, attempting to address questions and calm the unease.
“We all know this is tearing our community apart,” said parent Shannon Palumbo, who led the meeting with fellow parent Stacy Hammond.
Both urged the meeting's attendees to unite as a community and work toward solutions.
Along with parents, the audience of about 200 included some current and former teachers and Douglas County residents with no children at the school who are concerned about district-level issues and policies.
Copper Mesa's grade on the Colorado School Grades website recently fell, going from an A to a B-plus. The site bases its grades on state data.
“We had been at A rating for years,” Hammond said. “When we dropped to the B rating, that's when a lot of parents started to say, `What's going on with our school?' ”
Additionally, the school lost 19 of 68 staff members in 2014, including the principal.
“At most we've seen two to three teachers leave due to family reasons, maternity leave or to go to another school,” Palumbo said. “We want to figure out why that's happening in our Copper Mesa community.
“We want our teachers to be listened to and their concerns recognized. Research shows if teachers are happy, kids perform well. That same research shows if teachers are unhappy, that's when you have problems with your students.”
The introduction last year of an Innovative classroom with an individualized curriculum made some parents worry the entire school will change its focus as a few other DCSD schools have done. For example, Castle Rock's Meadow View Elementary adopted an artful learning curriculum, and Larkspur Elementary an environment-based education. Principal Peggy Griebenow said a survey shows Copper Mesa parents want to remain a traditional neighborhood school.
“We want to retain a neighborhood, well-rounded, whole-child teaching approach in a non-niche educational facility,” Hammond said.
Fagen said it's not the district's intent or decision to force any changes.
“No school in Douglas County is required to declare any sort of programmatic approach, although it is an option if they want it,” she said. “We continue to support schools that go through a process with their communities and decide that's a direction they want to go.
“Our conversation has been and continues to be (that) we partner with parents and empower them to make the very best choices for their children.”
Parent Lee Tompkins said the problems go beyond the elementary school.
“The issues we are experiencing at Copper Mesa Elementary are a reflection of a larger district-wide problem in Douglas County where our teachers are being bullied and intimidated, and the (board of education's) agenda is pushing neighborhood schools in directions not supported, or even understood, by the parental community,” he said.
A few parents snapped at one another during the meeting, with some offering differing opinions on the innovation classroom. Others said information about the class was poorly communicated. Some directed their frustrations at the DCSD officials, saying many teachers feel unsupported by and fearful of the district.
Fagen encouraged such teachers to talk to district leaders. Despite rumors to the contrary, she said, no teacher has lost a job for doing so.
“If the teachers here feel they need additional information or support from me or any (one), we're absolutely here to do that anytime,” she said.
Griebenow, new to the school this year, said she is dedicated to improving communication and getting the school back on track.
“We have a culture that needs to be healed; I understand that,” she said. “In terms of teachers leaving, I'll acknowledge we have a culture issue. We have culture issues within our community, within our staff.
“I want you to know when I come to a community, I'm invested. I feel very loyal and protective of all of you, despite what your differences are.”
Fagen said high-performing schools are sometimes “challenged by growth.”
“The entire state of Colorado (TCAP scores) did go down this year,” she said. “Copper Mesa has very high trends and very likely will return to those high trends.
“I just want to say we're here to support the school, the community and Peggy moving forward from here in the way that is best for students at Copper Mesa, whatever way we can do that.”
Palumbo said after the meeting that she felt the evening was beneficial, and the first step toward bringing the Copper Mesa community back together. Other parents expressed a similar sense of optimism.
“While I don't believe all of our concerns were fully addressed, and few, if any, resolutions to our concerns were presented by Ms. Fagen and her staff, I think the community dialogue was a good start on — hopefully — a road to resolution,” Tompkins said.
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