The state of Soroco: Shrinking schools | SteamboatToday.com

The state of Soroco: Shrinking schools

Teresa Ristow

— Inside a fourth-grade classroom at South Routt Elementary in Yampa are 13 students with ample room to spread out assignments, gather into groups or find a corner to concentrate alone.

Music teacher David Hamaker holds his fourth grade students attention during specials at South Routt Elementary in Yampa. The school's fourth grade is split into two classes of 13 and 14 students. John F. Russell

Down the hall is a second fourth-grade class of 14. Together, the two groups represent too many children for a single teacher, but separated, they illustrate the results of a decade of declining enrollment in the South Routt School District.

"We've lost a lot of kids," said Superintendent Darci Mohr, who was hired in the summer of 2014 to lead the district.

This year, the district's Oct. 1 enrollment count, excluding preschool students, was just 327 kids, down from 367 in 2014 and down from 430 to 460 students counted annually for most of the past 20 years.

Enrollment is directly tied to the amount of state funding that school districts receive, with each K-12 student bringing in about $9,300 annually for a small district such as South Routt. A larger district similar to Steamboat Springs gets less for the same student — about $7,300.

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The loss of 40 students in a single year may represent minor funding shortfalls for larger districts but means significant monetary, staffing and logistical challenges for small, rural districts such as Soroco, which already run less efficiently by nature.

What is most frustrating for Mohr and district board members isn't the families that choose to relocate outside of South Routt, it's the fact that many of the students who leave the district still live within district boundaries.

This year, 14 more South Routt students enrolled in the Steamboat Springs School District, bringing the total to 78 students living in South Routt boundaries and commuting to Steamboat, an accredited-with-distinction district currently ranked second in academics by the state.

The students are able to apply to attend Steamboat — or any other district — before the start of the school year thanks to Colorado's open enrollment law, a statute that Mohr and Steamboat Superintendent Brad Meeks interpret differently.

The law allows districts to deny students for a variety of specific reasons, including if a district has a "lack of space."

Mohr, who holds a law degree and was formerly a Front Range school district attorney, believes this portion of the law would allow an overcrowded Steamboat to justify saying “no” to more students, while Meeks and the Steamboat Springs School District interpret "lack of space" to mean at a particular grade level, not a school as a whole.

Meeks said he believes the district's open enrollment policy complies with the spirit of the law, though it may need to be revised to consider schools that are currently overcrowded as a whole but have space within a particular grade level.

"We've looked at it by grade level," said Meeks, who envisions being challenged on the law if the district stopped accepting students that they had space for within a particular class.

Even if the district's policy were changed, Meeks said he would still have to accept students of Steamboat school employees who live out of the boundaries of the district per a negotiated collaborative bargaining policy (11 students this year). And he said a change in policy wouldn't mean the return of some 130 students who have been accepted into the Steamboat district permanently under the current policy.

In addition to the funding lost when students leave South Routt for Steamboat, 12-year outgoing board member and Routt County Commissioner Tim Corrigan theorizes that the students leaving South Routt may be the more academically minded, suggesting that their departure presents additional challenges for South Routt, which has struggled to keep up with state averages on test scores.

"It's accelerating the downward trend we've had in achievement scores," Corrigan said. "A school's ranking and a school's achievement scores in aggregate really depend upon having the kids. You can't take away the highest-achieving kids in the school district without having some consequences."

Mohr said while she shares Corrigan's suspicions about which students might be leaving, finding data to prove that theory is difficult. Mohr does point to a higher percentage of students needing special services as enrollment drops as possible evidence.

Meeks counters that 40 percent of out-of-district students in his district need special services also, and that free-and-reduced-price-lunch and special education students have also increased in Steamboat.

As they continue to watch students go, Mohr and the South Routt Board of Education have embarked on a journey to remarket the district in an attempt to showcase its strengths, such as a strong agriculture program and an FAA team ranked third in the state, in light of poor test scores.

"We have a long list of kids that are very successful," said Board of Education member Jules Palyo.

District leaders are hopeful with the right strategies in place, students will stop choosing to leave.

"We're not going to stop employing all the strategies we can," Mohr said.

Correction: The percent of out-of-district students in Steamboat that require special services was incorrectly identified in an earlier version of this story.

To reach Teresa Ristow, call 970-871-4206, email tristow@SteamboatToday.com or follow her on Twitter @TeresaRistow

Excerpt from Colorado’s open enrollment law

C.R.S. 22-36-101 Choice of programs and schools within districts

“Any school district may deny any of its resident pupils or any nonresident pupils from other school districts within the state permission to enroll in particular programs or schools within such school district only for any of the following reasons: a) There is a lack of space or teaching staff within a particular program or school requested . . .”