Volume No. 16 Issue No. 8 August 2019  

  Effects of population growth Part 3
  Student growth: How is D 49 adapting?
  By Lindsey Harrison

     The El Paso County Colorado School District 49 spans 133 square miles of urban and rural areas and serves more than 21,000 students, according to the district’s website. Pedro Almeida, chief operations officer for D 49, said that number is up from about 6,000 students in 2000.
   How is the district adapting to the population growth it has already seen, and can it handle the anticipated growth in the future?
   Almeida said much of the population growth D 49 has already experienced can be attributed to the Guided Online Academic Learning Academy, which serves students across Colorado. However, taking out the GOAL Academy population, the district has grown by about 10,000 students since 2000 and is growing faster than any other district in El Paso County, he said.
   To accommodate so many students, Almeida said D 49 generally follows the flow of development, building schools where the new houses are being built.
   “It is definitely a challenge because the district has to stay ahead of the student population without getting too far ahead,” he said. “We do not want a building to sit half-empty because we built it too soon or get behind, either.”
   While the question of timing school construction can be difficult, Almeida said the district is doing well with it and has already built two new elementary schools with the 3B mill levy override money it received from the ballot measure in 2016 –- Bennett Ranch Elementary School and Inspiration View Elementary School.
   “We feel pretty good that we are following what we have committed to voters to follow, the initiatives we said we would,” he said. Often, community members express that they would like to see progress on building happen more quickly, but Almeida said once the money for a new school has been secured, it takes about two years to get that school built.
   The next construction project the district plans to undertake is an expansion of the Springs Studio for Academic Excellence facility to accommodate the Pikes Peak Early College program, which was located in the district’s Creekside Success Center, he said. Both programs will be co-located on that campus, which will allow for more students to enroll in PPEC, Almeida said. Although that expansion has not yet been constructed, PPEC has moved into the existing SSAE building and the two programs are currently sharing the space, he said.
   “If things go well, within the 2020-2021 school year, the expansion should open and we should be able to take in more students,” Almeida said.
   A middle school is slated as the next major construction project the district will begin, although the location of that school has yet to be determined, he said. Although several locations and land options have been considered, the most pressure for a middle school appears to be somewhere along the Woodmen Road corridor, depending on the population growth in that area, Almeida said.
   “We see the need to be somewhere in that central portion of the district, but we do not have the land decided on yet,” he said.
   There are other charter schools applications in the pipelines, which could result in additional schools, and the district is constantly working in coordination with those charter organizations, Almeida said. It is possible that additional charter schools will be built in the next two to four years, he said.
   An increase in student population means an increase in students needing transportation to and from school, and D 49 is adjusting to that need by adding routes and buses to its current fleet, Almeida said.
   “We had approximately 57 routes in the 2017-2018 school year, including both general education routes and special education routes,” he said. “Last year, we had 65 routes and this year, we are anticipating jumping up to approximately 73 routes. That is a pretty significant increase.”
   The district has added 18 buses to its fleet since the 2017-2018 school year, which Almeida said sounds like more buses than necessary, but buses for daily routes are only part of the equation. With field trips and the need for spare buses in case something happens to one of the regular route buses, the jump from 86 buses to 104 was crucial, he said.
   “We want to maximize the efficiency of our fleet and provide as much bus service to the district as we can,” Almeida said. The buses are currently running three routes each day; they run an elementary route, middle school route and high school route, and then do the same in the afternoons to take kids home, he said.
   But buses require space to park and 18 more buses means 18 more parking spaces are needed, Almeida said. The “bus barn” on Woodmen Road is running out of space; and, with more students entering the district, additional maintenance and parking space will be needed, he said.
   More buses also require more drivers, and there is a national shortage of bus drivers; and D 49 is not immune to those effects, Almeida said.
   “When the economy is strong, there are less folks interested in driving buses and we have to compete for those people,” he said. “We have been able to keep pace with the growth, but there is constantly an effort to recruit drivers and that will certainly be a long-term need.”
   As with bus drivers, there is a national shortage of teachers in general, but most specifically in the special education and math departments, said Sue Holmes, Falcon zone leader.
   “There is a shortage I think because teaching is really hard work,” she said. “It has been well-promoted the last few years across the country and especially in Colorado that teachers are underpaid. When high school and college students think about their majors, they think about where they can make a decent living. Someone with a degree in mathematics can make a whole lot more money doing something other than teaching math.”
   Additionally, the special education department is one of the most litigious areas in teaching because so much of what teachers must or must not do is legally mandated, Holmes said. Couple that with a high degree of burnout, and it is easy to see why that area is lacking qualified teachers, she said.
   As one way to battle that challenge, Holmes said the district is currently offering a $1,000 signing bonus to any position in the special education department or mathematics department that they post. The district is also offering a tuition reimbursement program to paraprofessionals, many of whom work in special education, who are in school to become licensed teachers, she said.
   “We have some difficulty filling our paraprofessional positions, which is due to a combination of things,” Holmes said. “It is not a super high-paying position and because they do not work during the summer, sometimes they may get another position that may fit their life or needs better.”
   D 49 is unique in that the school year starts earlier than the other surrounding districts and that poses another challenge for finding teachers, she said. With the school year starting so early, it can be difficult to determine how many students will be in each classroom at each school, which then makes staffing those classrooms even more challenging, Holmes said. Pair that with the high number of military families in the district and that becomes even harder, she said.
   “We have a significant amount of military, and it depends on when people get orders to move and that does not necessarily coincide with when school starts,” Holmes said.
   Overall, Holmes said she is optimistic that D 49 will be able to keep up with the population growth in the area and the administration will continue to monitor student enrollment through the district’s central office to determine staffing needs.
   Pull quote: “When high school and college students think about their majors, they think about where they can make a decent living. Someone with a degree in mathematics can make a whole lot more money doing something other than teaching math.”
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