Dear Osprey Families,
As we near the end of the year, which also marks the end of my first year as AHS Head of School, I wanted to share some updates and reflections. I am happy to report that we are in an excellent place as an organization–unified in our mission and vision, fiscally sound, and staffed by talented educators who are excited to be at AHS. When I was hired around this time last year, there were several items that the AHS Board of Directors, our community, and our staff had recognized as important areas of growth. The Board identified three top priorities for the 2015-2016 school year: right-sizing of the school, school culture, and instructional leadership. I’d like to share our progress on each of these fronts with you.
Right-sizing for a school means that we have the right number of students enrolled and staff employed such that our per pupil revenue (PPR, which is at $7,145 this year) is enough to balance the AHS day-to-day operational budget without any additional fundraising. If we are sized correctly–in terms of both students and staffing–we are financially solid. The ability to be financially self-sustainable is a trait of a successful school, especially for a charter school like ours that receives roughly $1,000 less per student from the state than district-run schools. I am proud to say that we have been able to meet this Board-directed goal and we are financially stable as an organization thanks in no small part to the fantastic work of Christine Imming, our Director of Finance.
The staffing changes we have experienced this year have enabled us to get closer to our goal of being a high-achieving school that funds daily operations solely through PPR. In all cases, trimming staffing has not negatively impacted class sizes; we are still a school where class sizes are small and students receive lots of individualized attention. We are excited to share that we will see very little turnover in our faculty and staff for next year. Currently, we are hiring for just two positions for the fall: a senior science teacher, as Dave Heerschap is taking a one-year sabbatical, and an ESS support position, because Torrey Baldwin has decided to pursue other adventures with her family. Though Crystal Pennington has departed, we do not plan to hire a Spanish teacher to replace her; Jenny McKenzie will teach Spanish 1 and 3, Susy Raleigh will teach Spanish 2, and Jessica McCallum is excited to teach Spanish 4 in addition to her junior Humanities duties. Continuity in our staffing is clearly beneficial for our students; teachers who know our school well and continue to grow within it are better able to design excellent projects, assess student growth, and develop meaningful teacher-student relationships.
Balancing a budget as a charter schooI has its unique set of challenges, and we have additional expenses as a project-based learning school. What this means is that the roughly $2,500,000 budget needs to be utilized in an efficient and effective manner that enables us to fulfill our mission and vision. Our model works best with small class sizes, larger than normal classroom budgets, time for teacher collaboration, and ample physical space. My goal has been to trim areas in our budget that we do not need so we can prioritize:
- retaining our talented, dedicated teachers and staff through higher salaries with raises across the board, thanks to our competitive salary schedule
- larger classroom budgets
- small school population
- high quality professional development
While creating a leaner budget, we have also ensured that we have a solid contingency fund so that if something needs to be repaired or our state funding is lowered, we will weather the fluctuation. We have a budget surplus this year that allows us to have more than the generally recommended 15% of our total budget in a reserve fund. We are in very solid financial shape.
Part of right-sizing, too, is determining our ideal student enrollment number. We are a small school, and that is one of our greatest strengths. When teachers have lower student numbers, they get to know students as the unique, whole individuals they are. In past years, we felt that we needed 100 students per grade–400 students total–to ultimately create a balanced, sustainable budget and that was the target we were aiming for. However, through cost-saving measures and fiscally sound budgeting, we are currently financially self-sustainable at approximately 300 students. Knowing that we can remain the small high school we are is good news for us, as it best supports our mission and vision. We are right sized at 300 students.
The second area of focus the Board identified as a priority was school culture. We deeply value our Culture of Excellence at AHS, and continue to refine programs and policies to support it. Improvements in school culture this year have included:
- refined student orientation
- grade specific retreats throughout the year
- Bridge Program, which pairs seniors as mentors to 9th graders
- revamped PEAK meetings, now known as NEST meeting (news, entertainments, announcements, talent), in response to student feedback
- restructuring AHS student behavior management to focus on whole student health including restorative justice practices and natural consequences in a trusting environment
- prioritization of substance awareness education for students and families
Our school culture is strong, as evidenced by the Youth Truth student perception survey, which ranks us as higher than the national average in relationships with teachers, relationships with peers, and school culture. We continue to hear from community members how impressed they are by our students’ maturity and respectfulness and we love the feedback we receive from visitors who marvel at how welcome and accepting our campus feels. Time and again we hear from our LINK internship mentors and business owners in the community that AHS students exhibit responsible behavior in the workplace that rivals adult workers’. We are proud of the fact that Animas students and staff are invested in upholding a respectful, open-minded, and accepting school culture.
The third Board initiative, instructional leadership, is and has been the overarching canvas on which the other refinements have been painted. I have prioritized getting into classrooms in order to help our teachers continuously grow. In our instructional leadership work, we have:
- developed a new teacher evaluation tool and framework
- redesigned our teacher orientation
- created a professional development arc for the year
- collaborated face-to-face and virtually with HTH administrators, teachers and staff
- welcomed educators from other schools to AHS, so they can learn from our successes
- redesigned our calendar, schedule, and budget to better fit our instructional model
- used our twice-weekly staff meetings to focus on improving instruction
- redefined what it means to teach and work in a college preparatory project-based school
Because of this focus on instructional leadership practices, our teachers report feeling well supported by administration and feel as though they have had high quality professional development this year. Both of these translate to a happier staff that is growing in their practice, enabling our students to be better served. While our data is not the result of one year’s worth of change and growth, our school once again will have 100% college acceptance, and our ACT composite score (23.4) outpaced regional, state, and national averages and places us in the top 5% of schools in Colorado. We are providing a fabulous hands-on learning experience that simultaneously prepares students for the academic and social rigors of college and career.
We deeply value refinement–it is one of our five Habits of Heart and Mind. As educators, we are always looking for the leaking oil in order to improve the overall experience for our students. We have made solid progress on the priorities identified by our Board this year, and we will continue to examine various perspectives, ask for your advocacy, persevere through transitions, utilize evidence, and refine our program and practices in order to make AHS the best school it can possibly be. It’s a good time to be an Osprey!
Thank you for being part of our community. We are so appreciative of our families, and recognize that without you, there would be no Animas High School. Thank you for entrusting your student’s education to us and for seeing that there is great value in the educational model we have embraced. It is an honor to work with the amazing young people we see every day at Animas and we are grateful for the partnerships with families and community that help us all work together to challenge and support our students as we prepare them for college and meaningful lives.
We hope that you have a rejuvenating spring break and we look forward to seeing you on the other side for our final push.