David Blackburn

Alternative educators are used to thinking outside the box to solve problems.

Salida School District superintendent David Blackburn has a background in alternative education and he and his staff have put those “outside the box” skills to use in creating a vision for the district, especially around what it means to be a high school graduate in the 2020s.

At Tuesday’s school board meeting, the board considered several steps toward addressing predicted budget shortfalls of about $1 million, while still maintaining quality programming for students.

The board declared fiscal exigency, which serves as notification there is a problem and allows staff to begin addressing it.

Traditionally when school districts face shortfalls, cuts are made to transportation, activities, interventions and arts programs like music until the budget is balanced.

Blackburn said Salida School district is in a unique position to do something different and preserve  more programming.

The district proposes to use their partnership with Colorado Mountain College to create a new approach to what it means to graduate from high school.

Freshman academy

The first step on the path is the creation of a “freshman academy” separate from the rest of the high school.  

The move would remove about 100 students from the High School building to the Kesner building, freeing up space there. 

“We already know that we had growth problems going into COVID and those houses didn’t stop getting built, so we assume when we take the masks off, this problem will come back to us.

Moving students to a ready space puts off having to build a new building.

The shift would allow ninth-graders to focus on foundational skills proficiency such as ninth grade reading level and math skills as well as a plan of what they want to focus on in the rest of their high school experience.

Blackburn said a ninth grade reading level was about equivalent to “The Wall Street Journal” at which level “you can access most information.”

“The end goal of that is to develop a better culture, waking those kids up, maturing them and having them think through how they want to engage adulthood.” Blackburn said.

By knowing a student can’t read at the ninth or 10th grade level up front, staff can create a structure and a pathway for those kids to make sure they get what they need, Blackburn said.

Rethinking graduation

The next step would be revamping the high school experience at Salida High School.

Blackburn said in Colorado unless one has a post high school certification such as an associate’s degree or a trade certification, most jobs that are available are poverty level.

Proposed new graduation requirements would be more about experience than credits.

Under the proposed changes to earn a high school diploma a student would need to:

Complete a proficiency exam above the minimum cut score specifically addressing the areas of math and English.

• Complete 3.5 credits (or 7 semester credits) in grades nine through 12 in the prescribed social studies curriculum.

• Complete a Salida School District capstone project.

• Complete a post-secondary plan (career or higher education).

• Complete a post secondary certification (associate’s degree or trade/skill certification).

• Complete activity participation with a pass/fail assessment all semesters at high school.

Blackburn emphasized the social studies aspect of the proposal, especially in light of more recent national and global events.

“I look at what’s happened over the last 10 months with American adults who are the product of public education the last few decades and it’s difficult to be necessarily proud of how we handled the last 10 months. I think that might have been our test.”

The new high concept proposed a more robust civics curriculum with more of the basics like traditional history with an increase in learning around economics.

“We teach a personal finance class and we cover some things, but balancing a checkbook is not the same thing as understanding how money and the economy work. And all of us, regardless of career, if you don’t learn how money works, you stay poor,” Blackburn said.

“I want to make sure our kids can do civic discourse, have a deeper and broader sense of our economy and our history and how our system works governmentally. We want to spend more energy on that before we give a diploma,” he said.

Other more specialized coursework, especially at the junior and senior level, Blackburn said he hopes can be concurrent enrollment courses with CMC, ideally taught by Salida High School instructors who can then be partially paid from CMC coffers, thus saving the district half a position in pay.

The last element in this paradigm shift would involve activities. Blackburn noted data suggesting students who were involved with at least one activity, whether sports, arts or community related, did better academically than those who were not involved with activities.

In the proposed model activities would be part of the regular school day rather than just extracurricular.

Blackburn said if those opportunities are known to be good for kids he’d like to put that in the center of the day when there is staff on payroll to help open those opportunities for kids.

Partnering with CMC

The proposed changes are based on the Swedish model of education, Blackburn said, which focuses on foundations in the beginning of high school and the provides avenues for students to move into their passions, interests and specializations.

In the past some districts in Colorado had the early college model, which was very successful, but was discontinued due to the costs involved.

With CMC as a partner, Blackburn said the district can spread that burden across a different tax base that’s in a better position.

CMC tax money does not have to go into the state kitty to be redistributed to poorer districts. The money stays within and is used for the CMC districts.

The timeline for the proposed changes to the high school program and graduation requirements began with the school board’s approval on first reading of the changes.

Blackburn said in February and March, that district staff will look at the ideas and try to make sure they are operational.

Before spring break they plan to go to the larger community and give a full presentation of the specifics of the plan so that after spring break parents and other stakeholders can give their input.

If put into place the transition to the new program would take about two to three years to fully implement. 

The ninth grade academy piece is moving forward, however with the recent board approval of posting the position of principal for the new academic piece.

Blackburn said CMC is “all in” as a partner. The college has been instrumental in allowing Salida School District to open the doors to in person learning this year after some teachers decided they  weren’t interested in teaching base on what was known about the pandemic in August. 

“We were able to fill those positions with CMC staff and faculty, which allowed me to keep moving forward,” Blackburn said.

He said of the CMC partnership, “We’ve had a lot of conversations and again, in many ways this is the original vision we thought would happen. We just thought it would take 10 years.”

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