State’s smallest district enrolls 10 students

AGATE – Students in the state’s smallest school district are again enjoying some academic niceties officials there feared they’d never see again:

The entire student body of the Agate School District – 10 children in kindergarten through fourth grade – gathered around a classroom table.

Regular music and art classes, jettisoned years ago when the budget got tight, have been restored. Physical education is daily now. There’s a computer for every student and regular computer instruction.

There are even some luxuries other districts can only dream of, such as regular field trips. An artist-in-residence program. A well-stocked library and rich stashes of classroom supplies. Classroom space to spare. Frequent enrichment activities. And pretty close to individualized instruction for every student in every academic subject.

But there’s a trade-off for this kind of resource abundance. With only 10 students, officials in Agate aren’t sure how long their school district can remain viable.

“It’s working well right now,” said Kendra Ewing, district superintendent and principal of Agate School. “But I don’t know if it’s sustainable. I don’t have my crystal ball to look into.”

Board opted to close junior and senior high school

Nearly two years ago, faced with years of steady enrollment declines, the school board made the decision to close the district junior and senior high school and send those students to nearby districts.

Art classes have been restored in Agate, as well as music and regular computer instruction.

It kept open the elementary school, and determined to offer the best primary education possible.

Last year, there were nine students in the 36,000-square-foot building. This year, there are 10.

“But see me in two weeks,” said Ewing. “I bet we have 12 by then. One of our parents may have some relatives moving in.”

She also knows of at least three 4-year-olds in the pipeline. But Ewing isn’t willing to count her kindergartners before they enroll.

“It’s all so iffy,” she said. “We have a lot of movement out here. Half our students are from different families than we had last year. People move away.”

A lot of land, not many people

The Agate School District encompasses a vast area on the eastern plains. It’s 458 square miles of rural Elbert County.

Agate enrollment
  • Fall 2012 – 10
  • Fall 2011 – 9
  • Fall 2010 – 33
  • Fall 2009 – 45
  • Fall 2008 – 56
  • Fall 2004 – 91
  • Fall 2000 – 108

District funding

  • Agate receives $13,815 per pupil in state funding, based on an enrollment of 38 students
  • Since voting to become an elementary-only district in 2010, 28 of those students are sent to nearby districts
  • Agate pays three districts – Kiowa, Byers and Limon – to educate them
  • Agate also pays their parents part of the costs to drive them to those districts

“That’s a lot of land and not many people,” said Ewing, who lives on a farm in Genoa, 30 minutes from the community of Agate, where the school is located. “What other people call rural, I wouldn’t necessarily call rural. This is rural.”

Ironically, Agate School might be more easily accessible to residents on the eastern edge of the metro area than it is to some of the district’s own residents. It’s 70 miles east of downtown Denver, but right off I-70. Some students in the district live 30 miles or more away from the school, and must traverse dirt roads to get there.

The district actually is home to 38 school-age youngsters, and that’s what the state’s per-pupil funding is based on. But of the 28 older kids, eight now go to school in Kiowa, 17 in Byers and three in Limon. Agate pays those districts to educate its junior and senior high school students. It also pays their parents part of the costs to drive them there – 32 cents a mile for one round-trip per day.

In the enormously complex algorithm that is Colorado’s school funding formula, so far everybody’s making money on the deal, except the state. While the state average per-pupil funding in Colorado is just $6,474, for Agate it’s $13,815. In the neighboring districts accepting Agate’s older students, state funding ranges from $7,134 per pupil in Limon to $8,181 in Kiowa. Agate reimburses those districts 70 percent of their state funding rate for each Agate student they take.

“Ten extra kids to a school with 430 kids is nothing,” said Vic Craven, the district’s longtime business manager and former school board member. “They don’t have to add staff for that, so their expenses remain basically the same, but they get the extra funding for the extra students.”

Agate, meanwhile, banks the rest to build up its reserves. The district will spend only two-thirds of its allotted $944,000 income, and retain a third to help cover the bills for the following year – when income may be far less, if enrollment keeps going down.

“We are financially and fiscally in good shape,” Craven said. “We can operate on a minimum.”

“And we’re frugal wherever we can be,” added Ewing. “Not when it comes to enrichment activities. And anything our teachers need, they have. But our worries are about numbers. If our student count goes down, we’ll run out of money.”

Everyone involved in educating the children

Agate’s students – two fourth-graders, one third-grader, four second-graders, two first-graders and one kindergartener – soak up all the attention one part-time and two full-time teachers can lavish on them. Ewing, Craven and Ewing’s secretary, Jolene Chambers, also work with the children as needed.

Superintendent Kendra Ewing puts kindergartner Peyton Golliher down for a nap in her office.

“Everybody in the building teaches,” said Sue Anderson, who came out of retirement last year after teaching in Limon for 32 years in order to fulfill her dream of teaching in a “country school.”

“If I have someone who needs to read a story one more time, I can send that child to Kendra or Vic. Everyone in the building knows every child, and knows what that child needs to work on,” she said. “There’s no need for special ed in a system like this because we all know where every child is. They don’t have a chance of not mastering things when they have seven or eight people quizzing them on what they need to know.”

Anderson splits teaching duties with Agate veteran educator Karen Beuck, who taught at Agate High School since 1999, but got her elementary certification over the summer. Beuck teaches math and art to everyone, and social studies and science to the older students; Anderson does music, most of the language arts, and social studies and science for the younger ones. The students all take music and PE at the same time.

“I do miss the high school students. I enjoyed working with them. But each grade has challenges of its own,” said Bueck, whose three daughters all graduated from Agate High School. “Besides, I don’t know many other elementary schools where the students have computer training every day, and where there’s a teacher certified in art and a teacher certified in music.”

“I’m probably the only superintendent in Colorado who does playground duty … I’m probably also the only superintendent who has a kindergartner nap in her office.”
— Agate’s Kendra Ewing

“It’s not as though we’re small and don’t have anything to offer students,” she said. “In a lot of ways, we provide more opportunities for our students than larger schools.”

The youngsters all eat lunch together, and afterward hit the playground, where Ewing supervises recess at least one day a week.

“I’m probably the only superintendent in Colorado who does playground duty,” she said. “But I want to do it to be fair. We all share playground duty.”

After lunch, nine of the 10 students return to their afternoon classes. But the kindergartener beds down for her afternoon snooze – in Ewing’s office.

“I’m probably also the only superintendent who has a kindergartner nap in her office,” said Ewing, who taught elementary classes in Agate from 2002-2005, then returned to Agate as superintendent in 2010.

“The first week of school, I had a sign up on my office door that said ‘Shhh! Nap time!’ but you don’t want people thinking the superintendent takes naps during the day.”

Lots of lessons to prepare

While enjoying the luxury of extremely small classes and four-day school weeks, Anderson and Beuck do sometimes strain to prepare daily lessons for so many subjects and so many grades.

“I didn’t realize how much time and effort it takes to plan for that many kids at different levels,” Anderson admitted. She must prepare four different reading lessons every day, plus two music lessons, two P.E. lessons, two science lessons and two social studies lessons every week. “That’s why I’m usually here every Friday, just to plan,” she said.

Sunnie Iacovetta, the mother of a fourth-grader and a second-grader at the school, had no qualms about enrolling her children there when the family moved into the district last May. They came from Jefferson County – the state’s largest school district – but she had briefly home-schooled them as well.

“It’s A-OK with me on the smallness. I like the closeness the kids all have.”
— Agate mom Sunnie Iacovetta

“My kids have been to regular schools where there are twenty-some kids to a class, and I liked that too,” she said. “But I like this a lot better. It’s A-OK with me on the smallness. I like the closeness the kids all have. They snack and have lunch together, they do recess and gym together. And I can see the teachers really care about the students.

“The lack of sports doesn’t bother me because they’re just in elementary school,” she said. “And they’ll be in 4-H. They’re active kids. My daughter, Brooke, says she misses one friend she had before, but otherwise they don’t miss anything. They’re just happy kids living out in the country.”

Beuck wonders if other parents who currently home-school their children might not consider enrolling them in Agate School, if they knew about it.

“This might be a wonderful fit for them,” she said, “because it’s not that far from individualized instruction, but they’d get more socialization than what they have at home.”

defensor escolar

Memphis parent advocacy group trains first Spanish-speaking cohort

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Manuela Martinez (center left) and Lidia Sauceda (center right) are among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship.

Manuela Martinez doesn’t want Spanish-speaking families to get lost in the fast-changing education landscape in Memphis as the city’s Hispanic population continues to grow.

The mother of two students is among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship, a program that trains parents on local education issues.

“We want to be more informed,” said Martinez, whose children attend Shelby County Schools. “I didn’t know I had much of voice or could change things at my child’s school. But I’m learning a lot about schools in Memphis, and how I can be a bigger part.”

More than 200 Memphians have gone through the 10-week fellowship program since the parent advocacy group launched two years ago. The vast majority have been African-Americans.

The first Spanish-speaking cohort is completing a five-week program this month and marks a concerted effort to bridge racial barriers, said Sarah Carpenter, the organization’s executive director.

“Our mission is to make the powerless parent powerful …,” she said.

The city’s mostly black public schools have experienced a steady growth in Hispanic students since 1992 when only 286 attended the former Memphis City Schools. In 2015, the consolidated Shelby County Schools had 13,816 Hispanic children and teens, or 12.3 percent of the student population.

Lidia Sauceda came to Memphis from Mexico as a child; now she has two children who attend Shelby County Schools. Through Memphis Lift, she is learning about how to navigate Tennessee’s largest district in behalf of her family.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Hispanic parents attend a training with the Memphis Lift fellowship program.

“Latinos are afraid of talking, of standing up,” Sauceda said. “They’re so afraid they’re not going to be heard because of their legal status. But I will recommend this (fellowship) to parents. How do we want our kids to have a better education if we can’t dedicate time?”

The training includes lessons on local school options, how to speak publicly at a school board meeting, and how to advocate for your children if you believe they are being treated unfairly.

The first fellowship was led by Ian Buchanan, former director of community partnership for the state-run Achievement School District. Now the program is taught in-house, and the Spanish-speaking class is being led this month by Carmelita Hernandez, an alumna.

“No matter what language we speak, we want a high-quality education for our kids just like any other parent,” Hernandez said. “A good education leads to better opportunities.”

Stopping summer slide

On National Summer Learning Day, Memphis takes stock of programs for kids

PHOTO: Helen Carefoot
Torrence Echols, a rising first-grader in Memphis, builds a tower with giant legos at the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on National Summer Learning Day.

When it comes to summer learning, it’s been a better year for Memphis, where a range of new programs have helped to stem learning loss that hits hard in communities with a high number of low-income students.

On Thursday, Mayor Jim Strickland celebrated that work in conjunction with National Summer Learning Day and against the backdrop of the children’s reading room of the city’s main library.

He estimated that 10,000 children and teens are being reached this summer through learning programs spearheaded through Shelby County Schools, Literacy Mid-South, Memphis Public Libraries, churches and nonprofit organizations across the community.

That’s a record-breaking number, Strickland says, in a city with a lot of students struggling to meet state and local reading targets.

Summer learning loss, also known as summer slide, is the tendency for students to lose some of the knowledge and skills they gained during the school year. It’s a large contributor to the achievement gap, since children from low-income families usually don’t get the same summer enrichment opportunities as their more affluent peers. Compounded year after year, the gap widens to the point that, by fifth grade, many students can be up to three years behind in math and reading.

But this summer for the first time, Shelby County Schools offered summer learning academies across the city for students most in need of intervention. And Memphis also received a slice of an $8.5 million state grant to provide summer literacy camps at nine Memphis schools through Tennessee’s Read to be Ready initiative.

Literacy Mid-South used Thursday’s event to encourage Memphians to “drop everything and read!”

The nonprofit, which is providing resources this summer through about 15 organizations in Greater Memphis, is challenging students to log 1,400 minutes of summertime reading, an amount that research shows can mitigate learning loss and even increase test scores.

Reading is a problem for many students in Memphis and across Tennessee. Less than a third of third-graders in Shelby County Schools read on grade level, and the district is working to boost that rate to 90 percent by 2025 under its Destination 2025 plan.

The city of Memphis, which does not fund local schools, has made Memphis Public Libraries the focal point of its education work. This summer, the library is offering programs on everything from STEM and robotics to art and test prep.

Parents are a critical component, helping their kids to take advantage of books, programs and services that counter the doldrums of summer learning.

Soon after the mayor left the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on Thursday, Tammy Echols arrived with her son, Torrence, a rising first-grader at Levi Elementary School. Echols said they visit regularly to read books and do computer and math games.

“We always do a lot of reading and we’re working on learning sight words,” Echols said as she watched her son build a tower out of giant Lego blocks. “Torrence is a learning child and it’s easy to forget what you just learned if you’re not constantly reinforcing.”

You can find summer learning resources for families from the National Summer Learning Association.