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North Conejos School District
At the southernmost part of Colorado in windswept San Luis Valley is a community that is an unlikely candidate for one of the top school districts in the state.
North Conejos School District RE-1J is a consolidated district of 1,025 students, who hail from several small towns to attend the district’s two elementary schools, one middle school and one high school. Two-thirds of North Conejos students are eligible for federal meal benefits, a sign of poverty.
More troubling is a devastating drug problem has ravaged Conejos County and its surrounding towns for years – resulting in overdoses, youth suicides and families being split apart.
Despite the hardship, the resilient North Conejos School District has been awarded with the top accountability honor of being a district “Accredited with Distinction” for the past three years – an award that went to just 25 of the state’s 178 school districts in 2018.
The award recognizes districts with students who have met or exceeded performance in academic achievement, academic growth, academic growth gaps and post-secondary and workforce readiness.
The magic happening in North Conejos isn’t accidental but is hard to pinpoint. Arguably, it is the result of a well-functioning small community, where citizens depend on and help each other. In this district, school is like family with reliable consistency.
Academically, the district succeeds by keeping a steady focus on teaching to standards and not changing what works, said Superintendent Curt Wilson.
“We’ve kept things very simple,” Wilson said. “We rely not on the latest and greatest fads but those principles that time have proven to be effective: Time on task, direct instruction, little waste time, bell-to-bell teaching, high level of care, high level of love and intensity and discipline. And I think when you get a focus like that, it produces results.”
A few years ago La Jara Elementary had slipped into a lower rating of Priority Improvement. Staff and administration dug in to find the weaknesses by looking at the data and making sure the teaching was to standard. Wilson said the staff took it upon themselves to find out what wasn’t working.
“They refocused on the standards, not changing their style or strategy, and it worked,” he said.
Wilson has been superintendent for five years. Born in the community, Wilson graduated from North Conejos’ Centauri High School and taught in the district after college at nearby Adams State in Alamosa.
“I have never left,” he said.
One of his top priorities was to create a welcoming and positive setting for educators, providing them a space to practice their craft. Teachers in North Conejos have average salaries of $42,221, which is slightly higher than the state average. It’s about the middle of the pack for Colorado districts but pretty good for a small Colorado town. Additionally, the district allocates up to $915 a month to employee health insurance and other benefits, effectively fully paying for their insurance.
“More than money, I think teachers want a good place to work, where they are free to do those things that they’ve been trained to do,” Wilson said. “We have not overwhelmed them with implementation of programs or switching programs. We’ve tried to build that kind of environment where people want to stay. And it’s worked. We have a lot of our own students return as teachers. Normally, teachers stay quite a while in this district. I think that consistency really pays dividends, not changing programs, expectations stay the same.”
Krista Middlemist, a special education teacher, said teachers feel valued.
“One of the main reasons why teachers stay here is we have a very positive school climate,” she said. “Students and teachers feel safe. We are supported and the students know they will be taken care of. We feel we are all on the same page - all heading in the same direction.”
Wilson said the appreciation for teachers has meant the district has little teacher turnover – other than the normal ebb and flow among employees. For the 2018-19 school year, the district lost just nine teachers from the previous year, which Wilson said was mainly due to retirement or teachers getting married and moving off.
Pay and benefits are afforded through scrimping in other areas, relying on the community to come up with fundraisers for other expenses, Wilson said.
Wilson and teachers swear that the biggest part of the district’s success is in creating a safe atmosphere at the schools. Two major religious denominations dominate the community – the Catholic and Mormon church, which along with the schools provide safe harbors.
“We definitely have challenges with students coming from harsh or unsafe environments, but we take a lot of pride in letting kids know school is a safe place,” Middlemist said. “Students know when they come to school that they are going to be safe. We also expect them to have exceptional behavior. When students come to school, they don’t have to worry about the outside world. They have that focus and attention.”
A prescription drug epidemic has had a stranglehold on the community for several years. The five small counties in the San Luis Valley and the city of Alamosa in 2018 filed suit against prescription drug distributors, claiming they have flooded the towns with opioids, causing heroin addictions, overdose deaths, hospitalizations and suicides.
In neighboring Alamosa County, for example, a total of 20,960 opioid prescriptions were dispensed in 2015 to a population of only 16,654 residents.
“In this area, what do you do when there are threats from opioids? You circle the wagons and take care of everyone inside. And that’s our philosophy,” Wilson said.
Joseph Valdez, a pharmacist in La Jara, graduated from Centauri High School in 1968. One of his friends approached him not long ago with a sad story to tell. His son had been addicted to opioids and killed himself. Valdez knew of another young man who had become addicted and saw others falling into the trap.
Valdez knows the power of the schools in the community. He approached Superintendent Wilson with a plea from the community to do something about the substance abuse.
“We had an assembly to encourage the kids to stay clean,” he said.
Wilson took it further. He worked with teachers to create an anti-drug curriculum with pieces culled from the Generation Rx curriculum, the D.A.R.E. program and information from the Conejos County Coalition.
“But, in honesty, the resistance skills most taught and readily accepted is from our own high school students, who convey what they know in ‘kid’ language, which we have found to be the most accepted and respected,” Wilson said.
High schoolers began going into the elementary school to talk about drug abuse, teaching the young students to understand the signs of drug abuse and role-playing to show their younger peers that drug addiction leads nowhere.
Nikol Kelley, a seventh-grade English language arts teacher who has been in the district for 20 years, said the schools are the saving grace for many of the students, who have formed strong relationships with their teachers. Once children understand their social-emotional needs are being met, they can concentrate on learning.
“It’s about, ‘Let’s make you OK now then we can do academics tomorrow,’” she said. “Wherever our kids go or whatever classroom they go into, they know they have someone who they can get a hold of and talk to. I think we are missing that in our world. One teacher isn’t making that difference. It is all of us. It is staff-wide from the secretary to the custodian. We all work together to get our kids where they are.”
Joseph Baroz, school board president, said the key is that the community is involved in the schools and the schools are involved with the community.
“It is principals and teachers going to student houses when they are struggling or when they are doing well,” he said. “That is the key – that family-like environment.”
Wilson said the district is like an extended family.
“It helps when your custodian at the top all the way down to the superintendent know every kid,” he said. “They speak to every kid. All kids. All the time. Have a relationship with them, an appropriate relationship of support, and kids know that.”
Wilson attributes the success to sticking with what works, paying attention, giving students a safe environment to learn in and accepting the help from the community.
“Having the connection with the community and knowing where the resources are is a definite advantage,” he said. “Knowing where to leverage those is a real key. I think having that high collaboration, that family, that family setting. You talk about things. You find who does what, who can help our kids, what resources are available and then you can leverage it.”