April 23, 2014
Dear Ospreys, happy spring!
I am certainly ready for some biking, hiking, and hopefully even a good river season.  I hope you are each finding time to enjoy our special corner of Colorado this time of year.  I look forward to seeing you out there…
I am writing today for a number of reasons and I apologize in advance that this is going to be a long letter.  But there is a lot happening at Animas High School and I feel it is important for me to communicate often and clearly with you all.  So here we go:
First, thank you all for the support and care you have shown my wife, Cat, and me with the birth of our daughter Sadie.  She is almost three months old now and she already has me wrapped around her little finger.  She is quite healthy and seems to be loving life.  This has been a special time for our family and I am grateful we are raising Sadie in Durango and the AHS community.  Everyday we feel the love and support from you all.  So thank you.  Now that Sadie has been cleared by her doctor, expect to see her tramping around campus soon.
School Culture
With the birth of my daughter, I have become even more aware of the importance of being part of a strong, positive work and school culture.  The impacts of feeling safe, valued and challenged are wide-reaching.  We know, for example, that a strong school culture greatly improves academic achievement.  It can also help young people successfully navigate challenging terrain they encounter as teenagers, such as whether to use drugs and/or alcohol, or whether to be sexually active.  Although I believe that our school culture is fundamentally strong, we have encountered significant challenges this year.  We moved into a new facility that feels less tight knit for students and teachers, we enrolled our largest freshman class ever, we bid farewell to our founding class of seniors, and we had less of the amazing energy Michael Ackerman infused into our community.  As a cumulative result, we have had a tough year culturally.
But at Animas High School, as a matter of habit, we persevere and refine.  That is to say, we will overcome this challenge as we have many more before.  We are all — students, staff, parents, board members — committed to reestablishing our Culture of Excellence.  As I wrote above, I believe we have a solid foundation on which to build.  Here is how we will regain our strong school culture:

  • Emphasis on Culture in hiring:  As you read about below, we are in the middle of our hiring season for next school year.  We have an amazing group of applicants.  In all of our hiring decisions and staffing plans, I will prioritize school culture.  For example, I will look to hire a staff member who can focus on building our school culture through things like lunch activities, after-school clubs and school assemblies.
  • Refining X-Block and SIG Offerings:  Our staff is working hard this spring to expand our offerings for X-Blocks and revamp our SIGs.  In the past, these elective classes have offered our students invaluable opportunities to mix among grade levels and interact with our staff in a less academically focused way.  Our location this year has made X-Blocks challenging, since we don’t have parks and/or sports facilities readily available.

However, we are already making strides!  For example, Matt Hughes and his X-Block have built a portable skate park for our parking lot, and Roxy McKnight has found a way to drive her X-Block to the Durango Rec Center for a kayaking X-Block.  I am working with our facility committee to make some additions to the campus so our students and staff have more opportunities for recreation.  Along the same lines, we are working as a group to create a new approach to SIGs.  We want to make sure our students have engaging, challenging options during this period.  Look for more information in August.

  • 2014 Student Orientation:  Our students and I have already begun planning Student Orientation Week for next school year.  This is a great opportunity for us get to know each other, lay the foundation for a great year and have fun together.  After five years of orientations, we have a good understanding of what works well and what doesn’t.  I know Student Orientation 2014 will be great, especially since student voices are driving the planning.
  • Continued Advisory Improvement:  Every year our Advisory program gets better, thanks to more experienced staff and a more developed curriculum.  I am anticipating the same for next year.  We are considering adding new elements to Advisory, including senior mentors for each group, more focus on grade-level mixing with Advisory and closer mentorship for new Advisors.  I know that improved Advisory will have a strong cultural impact.

In summary, although we have had a challenging year culturally, I am confident we will see significant strides next school year.  Thank you to all of you who have come to me with ideas and offers toward building school culture.  Together we can and will make this place even greater than it already is.
 
Staffing
Of course, in addition to our amazing students, our staff is the best part of Animas High School.  We have a group of talented and dedicated professionals who treat this school as a labor of love.  Our Board of Directors understands the importance of retaining our high quality teachers and staff members.  Recently, the Board approved a compensation increase for all returning AHS employees.  The package includes raises, a one-time bonus and a number of stipends for additional duties and roles the staff takes on above and beyond their full-time teaching positions.  I was thankful the Board approved the package and I believe our staff understood it as a recognition of the hard work they do.  We have been able to retain a strong group of people for next year.  Sadly, however, we will see some turnover.
It is always hard to see colleagues go and it can be difficult for students to understand why it is happening, so I have asked each departing staff member to write a short goodbye to our community explaining why they are moving on:
Cathy Eagen, Math Teacher – “After 23 years in high school mathematics teaching, I am leaving Animas High School for a new teaching opportunity at Fort Lewis College.  I have accepted a position as Visiting Mathematics Instructor, teaching Pre-calculus, Calculus 1 and Calculus 2 beginning this fall.”
Elaine Ehlers, College Counselor – “I love Animas High School … talented students and dedicated staff!  I am leaving to ‘rebuild’ my Durango College Consulting business so I can continue to work with teens in our area with the college application process but on my own schedule.  Lots has been accomplished in two years of working at AHS including the 9-12 AHS College Counseling curriculum, Junior Seminar curriculum and Parent / Student College Workshops that will assist the next lucky person who gets this position.  The Animas High School Ospreys, I am certain, will continue to soar.”
Katherine Ghadimi, Math Teacher – “Dear Animas Community, thank you so much for giving me the opportunity to teach at your school and trusting me with your students.  I have decided that I need to be living in a bigger city to achieve my goals, so I must bid you farewell.  I have enjoyed your enthusiasm for education and your dedication to excellence.  I hope that I have imparted on my seniors a fraction of the knowledge they have imparted on me.  I wish you all the best.”
Dave Haffeman, Spanish Teacher – “For the past four years I have been a part of the Animas High School community.  The school, the students, the faculty, and the parents have all played a crucial role in my development as a teacher since the first day I set foot in the classroom.  At this stage in my life I plan to pursue other avenues of personal and professional development. Just as important as my own growth, I will be supporting my girlfriend, Maggie, in her educational and professional experiences outside of Durango.  The relationships I have formed and the skills I have developed during my time at AHS will continue to serve me on my educational path, and in the future I hope to return and continue my career with Animas High School.”
Rachael Sands, College Counselor – “After 13 amazing years in Durango and 20 years in Colorado, my family and I are moving to be closer to family.  I have loved my three years at AHS and will miss the students, faculty, and the amazing sense of community.  It has been an honor to work with such a talented group of students, faculty, and administrators.  I look forward to following the continued achievements of the school and our students.”
Jennifer Snead, Math Teacher – “I will not be returning to Animas High School for the 2014-2015 school year because my husband and I have decided to relocate back to Virginia. After being away for three years, we realize that even though we love Durango it is still not the same without family. In December we will be moving to Richmond, Virginia where I will be attending a graduate program at Virginia Commonwealth University for my Masters of Science in Applied Mathematics. After earning my masters I plan on continuing my passion for teaching wherever that may take me. I have deeply valued my time at Animas High School and the love of learning that so many of the students embody. I appreciate the opportunity to teach at AHS and I will have many memories to cherish as I move on.”
As I wrote above, it will be hard to see these talented educators go.  I am grateful for the work they have done for our students and I know our school is better thanks to their efforts.  It will be hard to fill these shoes, but I do have some good news: this year we have the strongest group of applicants ever for AHS Bonanza.  Bonanza is our hiring process and it is happening right now.  We invite candidates to campus for a full day; during their visit they teach a sample lesson and interview with students, staff and administrators.  This is a highly intentional process designed to give everyone at the school a voice in the hiring process.  It is a busy and exciting time.  This year we are thrilled to be hosting candidates from across the country, including High Tech High, Stanford’s graduate program in education and other high-performing charter schools.  Although we are losing some great people, I know we will have a very strong staff next year.
 
Enrollment
As we all know, strong enrollment is crucial to our long-term success at AHS.  A full school will help us both financially and culturally.  I am working closely with our Board of Directors, staff, and students to do everything we can to bring in a solid group of new Ospreys for next school year.  People often ask how they can help the school, and, right now, here is my answer:

  • Register!  Make sure that you have submitted your registration packet(s) for next school year.  We need to have accurate counts of returning students to make appropriate enrollment and staffing plans.  If you have any questions about this, please contact Maureen Truax at maureen.truax@animashighschool.com.
  • Spread the Word.  Talk about AHS with your friends, family and colleagues.  Let them know what AHS is all about and that we are accepting new freshmen and sophomores for next year.
  • Build Community.  Join us this summer for some fun events – including a rafting trip in June – designed to welcome new families to our school community.

That’s all folks …
Well, I warned you all that this would be a long letter, and it was.  Thank you for your time and attention to all of this.  I am personally very excited for the future of Animas High School.  I believe we already have an amazing group of students, staff, board members and devoted parents who care deeply about this organization.  In the next few months we will be experiencing some growth and change, but I see it all as an opportunity for our school to get better and better.  Thank you each for the role you play in making this a special place to work and go to school!
 
Respectfully, Jake Lauer
Head of School
Animas High School