A Field Trip to Aspen View Academy

It’s almost Thanksgiving! Everyone is slowly starting to unwind from the last few weeks of frantic activity. Most are preparing to stuff themselves silly with turkey and dressing and mashed potatoes and pumpkin pie and many, many other delicious treats. But Thanksgiving isn’t just a time to test how much food the human stomach can hold. It’s also a time to reflect on the things you’re thankful for.

Of course, all the usual suspects are on my list—friends, family, plenty of food, light-up shoes, Juicy Fruit gum, etc. But as an education guy, I’m also incredibly thankful for all the talented educators who wake up every day and go to work for the next generation of Colorado citizens. With that in mind, and because we haven’t been on a school field trip for a while, I thought today might be a good day to spotlight the work some of these educators are doing at Aspen View Academy in Castle Rock.

I went to Aspen View a couple of weeks ago to chat with the charter school’s principal, Jason Edwards, about the school and its work in Douglas County. It was an awesome trip!

With nearly 1,000 PK-8 students, Aspen View is nestled into an area of Castle Rock that is experiencing a lot (and I mean a lot) of residential development. Construction equipment and trucks rumble up and down the streets constantly, dispersing crews of builders who slap up new houses almost faster than you can believe. The school is also located right next to the Meadows, which is one of the largest residential areas in this town of roughly 60,000 just south of Denver. Dougco has long been known as a choice- and charter-friendly district, and that focus on providing choices has provided good educational options like Aspen View for parents in a town that has experienced explosive growth in recent years.

When I first arrived at Aspen View, I was struck by the school’s beautiful campus. A large, new building houses the school’s primary academic work. Behind that building lies a bright green field of turf, a playground, and a couple of modular buildings that have been added to accommodate the school’s rapid growth. I got the chance during my visit to observe a music class in one of these outlying buildings. Taken as a whole, it’s easy to see how the campus allows students easily to participate in everything from academics to music to sports. As an added bonus, the nearby Rockies provide a gorgeous backdrop. It’s a pretty stunning place.

But what goes on inside the school is far more interesting. Aspen View received its charter from the Douglas County Board of Education in the fall of 2012. The charter was recently renewed for five years by the current board. Principal Edwards has been at the school since the beginning, though not always as principal. He and the rest of the staff have worked hard over the past several years to develop the Aspen View’s educational model.

Aspen View utilizes the Core Knowledge curriculum, which is designed to build knowledge upon knowledge as students progress through grade levels. Many other Colorado charter schools have used this educational approach with great success, but Aspen View has modified and supplemented the curriculum with a model designed to make sure students receive the help they need when they need it. The centerpiece of that model is flexible skills grouping.

Though students at Aspen View spend much of their time in larger classes made up of students of varying skill levels, they are frequently divided into smaller groups for math and reading instruction based on their assessed skill level in those subjects. These students are reassessed each trimester to ensure that they have been placed in the correct flexible skills group. This learning approach allows teachers to really focus in on the specific needs of their students in critical core subjects rather than attempting to constantly adjust their instruction and materials to accommodate a larger class with widely varied skill and ability levels.

Aspen View’s focus on deep dives into math and reading is supplemented by what Principal Edwards calls “flooding,” or the practice of having teachers and teaching assistants “flood” classrooms to provide additional guidance and help during math and reading sessions. During my visit, he showed me the schedule the school has put together to accommodate this technique. It was way, way too complicated for me to wrap my tiny head around. Not surprisingly, the logistic challenges of running a school with an academic model like the one at Aspen View are mind boggling.

As cool as Aspen View’s academic work is, what I found most interesting was the way the school has designed its culture to accommodate parents and students who are looking for a more holistic vision of student outcomes. The school doesn’t always perform at the top level on statewide standardized assessments and has experienced relatively high opt out rates in recent years, but Principal Edwards told me during my visit that these things are largely because Aspen View has built out what staff and parents see as more informative and actionable measurement tools within the school. Such an outlook isn’t particularly surprising given the significant shortcomings of PARCC, but it was refreshing to get a school leader’s candid perspective on a complex policy issue. Maybe more importantly, Principal Edwards’ statements helped illustrate that Aspen View has worked hard to develop a whole-student educational approach and the kind of culture that supports such a view of education.

As most of you know, I’m a believer in accountability backed by high-quality measurement. You probably also know that I’m skeptical of the organized opt-out “movement” and its intentions (which are importantly distinct from individual parents and their choices regarding testing). My thoughts on those subjects haven’t changed. But what I found at Aspen View wasn’t some deep-seated loathing for reform or choice or improvement efforts. Rather, I found that the school is meeting a type of demand we don’t often include in conversations about educational choice: demand for a particular kind of culture.

There are schools in Castle Rock that focus heavily on producing fantastic student outcomes easily measured by state tests. I think that’s fantastic. Many parents want such schools for their students, as evidenced by the schools’ often long waiting lists or deep lottery pools. But I’ve spoken personally with Castle Rock parents who believe such a culture doesn’t provide what they want for their children. These parents chose Aspen View not because they don’t value measurement or academic success, but because they have different ideas on how to define those things and were looking for a school culture built upon a more comprehensive focus on the whole student. And if Aspen View’s own at-capacity enrollment and large yearly lottery pool for admission is any indication, there are a great many parents in Castle Rock who believe this particular charter school provides the right type of educational environment for their children. There’s no arguing with that.

What I saw at Aspen View was a school that appeared to be focused, organized, committed, and joyful about its work. That’s a pretty good combination if you ask me. I’m very thankful for the work being done at Aspen View and other schools throughout the state. These folks are heroes, and I always love to get out and see them in action.

Happy Thanksgiving, my friends! I’ll see you back here next week.