What We’re Learning from Lamar

June 01, 2016 by Tony Lewis

Photo: J. Stephen Conn
Our team took a recent trip to the eastern plains of Colorado – home of farmers and ranchers, tornadoes spawned from high intensity thunderstorms, and four-day school weeks. Yup, four-day school weeks. If you read my last blog post (How We Work), you’ll remember our fascination with those schools and districts.

To recap: half of all districts in Colorado have adopted four-day school weeks (“4DSW”), primarily out of cost concerns. This was the topic of our conversations in Lamar, a very rural district in southeast Colorado. Lamar has received continuing investments from a number of foundations and non-profits; they recently finished a LiveWell Colorado community grant and have begun a Colorado Health Foundation grant as part of theirHealthy Places Initiative.

We had the fantastic opportunity to connect with several involved community leaders in Lamar, as well as half a dozen superintendents in surrounding rural districts. Many of these districts have had 4DSW since the 1970s or 80s; others adopted it more recently in the wake of the 2008 recession. Among the anecdotes we heard, one big theme was that 4DSW have become a key teacher attraction and retention strategy, at a time when rural districts face a human capital crisis.

In Lamar, a big town of approximately 8,000 people, there are community resources for kids on the fifth day (usually Fridays in eastern Colorado). But this is not the case in the surrounding super-rural towns of closer to 1,000 people.

So what do kids do on Fridays in Lamar? Some high schoolers are pressed into service on their family farms and ranches during planting and harvesting seasons; otherwise they’re often either competing in sports (a BIG activity in rural Colorado), “hanging out,” or babysitting younger siblings. About 10% of students in third grade through high school participate in programming (a combination of tutoring, non-school related sports, computer access, gaming) both after school and on Fridays through an amazing non-profit called Partners For Hope Center. The Hope Center is run out of a vacant elementary school building, and the district provides the after-school hours transportation.

What about kids in kindergarten, first and second grade, you ask? Great question – and not one with much of an answer, so far. Same with preschoolers, as there is a clear lack of available high-quality ECE. And what about in smaller towns, like nearby Granada with a population of just over 500? No Hope Center there. In fact, there is often nothing more than literally a post office, library, feed store, perhaps a business or two, and the school(s). Families are spread out. There is either a small town center or no center at all.

Part of our time now will be spent thinking about specific assets these localities have – for instance, in the eastern plains, every community enjoys high-speed internet connection – and how some of those resources could be leveraged. One idea is to hook these students and communities up with organizations like General AssemblyGalvanize, or CreateU, who may be able to innovate around this “extra” fifth day to lead students to jobs in the tech sector or to develop their skills to create and run their own web-based companies in their locales. We hope to seed ideas, make connections, and encourage communities and students to identify the resources they have and design their own innovations as well.

Keep in touch with us as we move this work forward – we still have lots to learn and hope to capitalize on all the creative ideas out there!

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