Colorado

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.”

School safety

Hiring more security officers in Memphis after school shootings could have unintended consequences

PHOTO: Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Tennessee’s largest district, Shelby County Schools, is slated to add more school resource officers under the proposed budget for next school year.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson earmarked $2 million to hire 30 school resource officers in addition to the 98 already in some of its 150-plus schools. The school board is scheduled to vote on the budget Tuesday.

But an increase in law enforcement officers could have unintended consequences.

A new state law that bans local governments from refusing to cooperate with federal immigration officials could put school resource officers in an awkward position.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen recently reminded school personnel they are not obligated to release student information regarding immigration status. School resource officers employed by police or sheriff’s departments, however, do not answer to school districts. Shelby County Schools is still reviewing the law, but school board members have previously gone on the record emphasizing their commitment to protecting undocumented students.

“Right now we are just trying to get a better understanding of the law and the impact that it may have,” said Natalia Powers, a district spokeswoman.

Also, incidents of excessive force and racial bias toward black students have cropped up in recent years. Two white Memphis officers were fired in 2013 after hitting a black student and wrestling her to the ground because she was “yelling and cussing” on school grounds. And mothers of four elementary school students recently filed a lawsuit against a Murfreesboro officer who arrested them at school in 2016 for failing to break up a fight that occurred off-campus.

Just how common those incidents are in Memphis is unclear. In response to Chalkbeat’s query for the number and type of complaints in the last two school years, Shelby County Schools said it “does not have any documents responsive to this request.”

Currently, 38 school resource officers are sheriff’s deputies, and the rest are security officers hired by Shelby County Schools. The officers respond and work to prevent criminal activity in all high schools and middle schools, Hopson said. The 30 additional officers would augment staffing at some schools and for the first time, branch out to some elementary schools. Hopson said those decisions will be based on crime rates in surrounding neighborhoods and school incidents.

Hopson’s initial recommendation for more school resource officers was in response to the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 people and sparked a wave of student activism on school safety, including in Memphis.

Gov. Bill Haslam’s recent $30 million budget boost would allow school districts across Tennessee to hire more law enforcement officers or improve building security. Measures to arm some teachers with guns or outlaw certain types of guns have fallen flat.


For more on the role and history of school resource officers in Tennessee, read our five things to know.


Sheriff’s deputies and district security officers meet weekly, said Capt. Dallas Lavergne of the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office. When the Memphis Police Department pulled their officers out of school buildings following the merger of city and county school systems, the county Sheriff’s Office replaced them with deputies.

All deputy recruits go through school resource officer training, and those who are assigned to schools get additional annual training. In a 2013 review of police academies across the nation, Tennessee was cited as the only state that had specific training for officers deployed to schools.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at cbauman@chalkbeat.org.

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede