Decision to unlink classes at Steamboat High School could signal larger morale problems

District is looking to hire a mediator to ease tensions between teachers, school administration

The Steamboat Springs High School in Steamboat Springs.
John F. Russell/Steamboat Pilot & Today

Steamboat Springs High School will not offer linked classes this fall, ending a program that received national acclaim as recently as 2019 and has been a fixture of the school’s curriculum for more than 20 years.

Principal Rick Elertson said the decision to unlink classes will allow more students to get their preferred classes, departments to have common planning time and ease the process of creating the school’s master schedule.

But the decision has also received a sharp rebuke from teachers who have taught the courses, alumni who say the link classes have been “life changing,” and current students who registered to take them in February — before the decision was made.

“I recognize that this is not the preferred model for our social studies and English language arts teams — I’ve known that since we started this journey,” Elertson said. “But we have given students way more opportunity to select the classes that they want. We provided important professional learning opportunities for every member of our team.”

“At the end of the day, the positives outweigh the keeping of linked classes, and that is why we did it,” Elertson continued.

Linked classes is a program where two different classes are taught in coordination between two teachers.

Current and former students disagreed when speaking about the benefits of the classes during public comment of the Monday, May 2, school board meeting. Delaney Bensler, a 2014 graduate, said about 170 students, staff and alumni have signed a petition in support of linked classes.

Both Elertson and Superintendent Brad Meeks acknowledged the benefits of a co-teaching style, but said they were prioritizing all students.

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High school social studies teacher Deirdre Boyd, who has taught Advanced Placement (AP) U.S. History courses for 17 years, said the real problem is how the decision was made.

“Collaborative, shared decision-making is something that we all get evaluated on, and that is not what happened here,” Boyd said. “All of the humanities teachers were opposed to this. We asked repeatedly for a meeting with (Superintendent Brad Meeks, Elertson and Director of Teaching and Learning Jay Hamric). Our emails got ignored.”

Despite the outcry, the school board did not take steps to make Elertson change the decision during the board’s Monday meeting. Curriculum is generally a topic school boards do not weigh in on.

But teachers say this issue — how the decision to end a beloved program was made — is a symptom of a much larger morale problem among staff at Steamboat Springs High School. They point to mass resignations at the school, adding that some teachers are looking to transfer elsewhere in the district where morale is stronger.

Of 21 resignations or retirements by teachers, paraprofessionals or other educational staff in the district approved by the school board this year, more than half have been among staff at the high school, according to a Pilot & Today review of board documents.

The district is currently advertising five full-time teacher positions at the high school. The district’s other schools combined have two full-time teacher roles currently posted, excluding preschool-level positions.

“I can confidently say that the morale in our school has never been lower, the relationships have never been more divided and the environment has never been more toxic,” said Jenny Shea, who has taught English at the school for 17 years.

“Our district is rated No. 9 in the state,” Shea continued. “That will plummet unless something is done to address the toxic environment that is causing this exodus of teachers from the high school.”

Elertson said other alternatives to nixing linked classes were considered, but in his view, each amounted to rearranging chairs and not solving the problem that ultimately prevented some students from getting their desired classes.

How many students the change benefits is murky. Elertson said the final schedule created for this school year accommodated about 88% of students’ chosen classes. After the change, that number jumped to nearly 92% for the next year, and there is still more hand-scheduling that could bring it higher.

But when school board member Lara Craig pressed Elertson on what data he used to determine linked classes were such a logistical problem that the program needed to end, he didn’t have much.

“The data that you seek, we looked for,” Elertson said. “The data you want does not exist. We looked for it. So I have to rely on anecdotal data.”

Elertson said the schedule he created also brings the high school up to speed with a district-wide initiative to organize common planning time for teachers. In next year’s schedule, each department has a common period for planning.

Board members asked whether that could be rearranged to allow for common planning time between teachers who previously co-taught classes with the hope that the curriculum wouldn’t be totally lost. Elertson said if students still were to get next fall’s schedules before the end of this school year, there wouldn’t be time to make those changes.

Disagreements over unlinking classes have risen to the point where the district is looking to hire a mediator in an attempt to turn down the heat on discussions between staff and school administration.

“I think we’ve gotten to the point where we have so much emotion that we can’t have a productive conversation,” said Katy Lee, school board president.

Elertson said he has reached out to a mediator. Craig stressed she wanted an update on the mediator as soon as there was one and requested that they have a presentation about culture and climate in the district at the board’s next meeting.

Board member Chresta Brinkman said she expected a plan to bring a mediator into the building would be communicated to the board in a reasonable time. She said that person needs to come in, understand the issues among staff and start to repair those relationships so the school can move forward.

“I’ve heard the word toxic a lot,” Brinkman said. “Until we can work on repairing and restoring what’s going on in the building, I think we’ll continue to see issues rise up.”

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