One D51 school fights against budget cuts, harsh economy for students

By: Taylor Temby Email
By: Taylor Temby Email

Schools in the Grand Valley are feeling the stresses of budget cuts. Whether it's a cut in copies or letting staff members go, it seems everyone is being affected in some way or another. Schools are working around these budget cuts, but one school is fighting against even greater challenges.

Rocky Mountain Elementary School has been hurt by cuts, but the down economy is affecting an especially large number of its families. It's hard to believe but this year the school has had to enroll or withdraw a student 400 times because of families moving in and out of the boundaries. The school is working to creatively use its resources for students and wants to make sure there are no barriers impacting their goals in the classroom.

There are still some nerves, but nothing quite compares to second year teacher Shawn Wilson's anxiety going into last summer.

"I don't' think I'm as nervous as I was last year," Wilson said. "[Last year] I remember going in [Principal Patti Virden's] office and saying, 'You know, I know I'm a first year teacher. Am I going to be cut?'"

His worries were justified. Like others in School District 51, Rocky Mountain Elementary has had to make adjustments due to budget cuts.

"The impact has been kind of felt throughout our system," Rocky Mountain Elementary principal Patti Virden said.

Just this year alone, four staff members have lost their jobs due to a lack of funds and grants. The school wants as much growth in its students as possible in a short time, which means the more staff the better.

Virden still doesn't know the fate of four to six jobs that could still be cut before next school year.

"We have seen over time, cuts in different things like our general budget," she said.

That means cuts in copies, field trip funds and supplies. Rocky Mountain has applied for grants to make up for some of the losses.

"The funding sources for these grants are sometimes on the chopping block as well at the state level and the federal level," Virden said.

But that money isn't always a for-sure thing. Other schools have had to cope with budget losses like Rocky Mountain, but few must also battle against the extreme economic odds many of its students face.

"This year we have the highest free and reduced lunch rate that we've ever had. We're at 85 percent, and most of those qualify for free lunch," Virden said.

The economy has also affected many students' home lives.

"What happens to those kids whose parents can't find employment, it's a single parent?" mother Darlene Dexter asked. Dexter has one student at Rocky Mountain Elementary, and a middle schooler who also went through the school.

"We have families that are moving because they can't find jobs from where they were and they're staying with grandparents and then they might leave," Virden said.

Movement has caused RME to make 400 enrollments and withdrawals in the last year alone, impacting many of the school's five hundred students.

"They kind of have to start back and start all over," Wilson said of those students.

In addition to funding cuts, there are other factors working against RME. It doesn't have a huge percentage of students who are proficient in certain subjects, but let it be known: this school will not go down without a fight.

"[A teacher's] job doesn't stop once they leave the school," Dexter said.

It's the effort teachers and staff make that the public doesn't always see. Teachers come in early and thanks to grant money, can stay late to help tutor kids who need a boost.

"We provide some after school academics for an hour for 40-ish kids in reading and math," Virden said.

Teachers also pull out their own wallets when school supplies runs out.

"We use our own money a lot of the time. Sometimes you can get reimbursed, sometimes you don't," Wilson said.

RME strives to provide its students with every opportunity it can without a budget. For instance, this year the computer lab instructor started teaching art.

"Sometimes that's a gift that children have that we don't see," Virden said of giving students the chance to try art.

While there are no funds for it, the instructor saves scraps and wanders through yard sales to pick up anything her students might be able to use.

"I think Rocky Mountain Elementary does a good job right now with their education, the great teachers that they have. They push them to be the best students they can be," Dexter said.

Despite the odds against them, RME's hard work appears to be paying off. At the rate things are going now, the school expects more students will become proficient in their schooling. It's the will of the teachers and staff to not let these kids fail that has given them so much success.

"I think that's what keeps me going as a teacher and waking up at five in the morning to get to work," Wilson said.

As Rocky Mountain Elementary prepares for even more budget cuts and a lingering tough economy, it's students will not fail.

"[The effort is] for those kids that you can change," Wilson said.

Wilson is also one of many participating in an after school basketball program for students. Teachers at RME have been donating their time to give kids an extra-curricular activity, and some even stay later to help tutor students who may be struggling. According to Virden, some teachers even come in on weekends to play basketball and study.

The PTA at Rocky Mountain has also done a number of fundraisers to help accommodate budget problems. It recently held a walk-a-thon that raised $3,000 that can be used for field trips, playground equipment and field day.

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