Compact For Change

For years, motorists traveling on Interstate 25 through Pueblo, Colo., would hold their breath and continue their journey. The large smelter at the Colorado Fuel & Iron steelworks emitted such a foul smell that tourists had little reason to stop. However, to the locals, the pervasive odor evoked a sense of familiarity and comfort, reminiscent of bread and butter. After all, CF&I was the biggest employer in the city. As long as the smokestacks continued to emit soot, the residents of Pueblo could rely on a relatively stable life. In the 1960s, it was not uncommon for more than half of the city’s high school seniors to secure employment at the steel mill immediately after graduation. Abel Tapia, the former president of the board of education at Pueblo School District 60 and now the head of the city’s chamber of commerce, says, "And once you got a job with CF&I, your future was secure."

However, everything changed in 1982 when the mill laid off 4,000 workers, causing the city of Pueblo to experience a severe economic downturn. The unemployment rate skyrocketed to double digits. In fact, between 1980 and 1990, over 3,000 residents decided to leave as there simply weren’t enough job opportunities available.

Nevertheless, something close to a miracle has occurred in Pueblo, a city of approximately 102,000 people located around 100 miles south of Denver. Thanks in part to a proactive marketing campaign, city leaders have successfully attracted new, cleaner industries to the area. Pueblo’s unemployment rate now stands at a low 5%, and the once dilapidated downtown area is now flourishing.

However, the situation with the schools is far from ideal. Forty percent of all high school freshmen fail to graduate four years later. Moreover, until recently, very few students in the district bothered taking pre-algebra or algebra, which are instrumental for pursuing higher education. Superintendent Henry Roman points out, "even though successfully passing these two classes is key to going on to college."

Of particular concern is the consistently low achievement rate among Hispanic students in Pueblo. Ray Aguilera, the president of the Pueblo Hispanic Education Foundation, an activist, states, "Traditionally, they have performed poorly," referring to the Hispanic students who make up 51% of the student population.

Those students who do manage to graduate soon realize that a high school diploma alone is insufficient for success in Pueblo’s evolving economy. Even CF&I, which currently employs 1,450 individuals, requires prospective employees to possess college-level reading skills. And that is merely "to secure an interview," according to Stephen Bronn, the vice president for finance and planning at the University of Southern Colorado. He adds, "This tells us in the field of education a significant story about what needs to be done. We can no longer have students who simply coast through and deem our efforts successful. They will not become productive members of society unless we prepare them for the lucrative employment opportunities available."

In the rear of the classroom, Ms. Thornton and two student judges, who are both in the 3rd grade, listen attentively as the younger students take turns explaining their work. Each judge has a sheet of paper with three categories: "Did-Ant Do The Job," "OK Job," and "Excell-Ant Job." (The 1st and 2nd graders, who helped create the scoring guide with their teachers, are responsible for the puns.) The student judges take their responsibilities seriously. "Do you have a food chamber?" one of them asks a group of students. "Yes," a boy replies. "Is it labeled?" "Yes." Satisfied that the students have fulfilled all the requirements for the highest level, the judge declares the poster as "Excell-Ant." If it had fallen into the lowest category, the students would have had to redo the project.

After the assessment ends, the students go back to their classrooms while a few teachers and their principal stay behind to discuss the changes that have occurred at their school. Implementing the new standards-based system, they admit, wasn’t easy. "I think we’re always resistant to new things," says 4th grade teacher Diane Stewart. "Change is difficult. We had to see that this was going to work for us. But once we started using the scoring guides and saw how students could embrace it and strive to be their best, we realized that it could work. And now we strongly support standards and scoring guides." In fact, Haaff Elementary has become District 60’s model school for visitors who want to witness the new approach in action, and the school’s teachers now conduct workshops for educators in other Colorado districts.

"I believe things were good before," says JoAnn White, "but now we have a direction to follow, and we’re all moving towards the same goal. We know where we need to be. There are no teachers going in different directions."

Adding to this, Ms. Thornton says, "The children are more responsible. They understand the expectations."

"I’m seeing a lot more proficiency in all areas," says 4th grade teacher Michelle Meier. "Reading. Writing. Everything is interconnected."

"It’s exciting to see the students engage in meaningful projects," adds Principal Marcie Bartley. "But it’s also exciting to see teachers who have adapted their teaching because of this." However, she mentions that other schools in Pueblo have shown less enthusiasm towards the new emphasis on standards. "But that’s alright. They will come around."

How the new focus on standards will affect the district’s four high schools is yet to be determined. At Central High School, a team of six teachers, along with a professor from Pueblo Community College, met for three hours every Wednesday night last year to discuss how the school’s curriculum could be adjusted to meet the new standards. This year, teachers at the other high schools are doing the same, while at Central, the team members are working to bring the rest of the faculty up to speed.

Jim Manzanares, Central’s principal, admits that it’s a slow process. "Some teachers have the attitude that ‘This, too, shall pass’," he says. "But the standards are here to stay. We are determined to make our courses fit within a standards-based system." He hopes to see positive results in about three years.

Meanwhile, starting this year, all high school students in District 60 are required to take two years of math, including algebra, and two years of science. In District 70, the course requirements are even more challenging.

Keep watching.


  • calvinmerritt

    Calvin Merritt is an educational bloger who specializes in writing about educational topics. He has been writing for over a decade and has written for a variety of different platforms. His work has been featured on various websites and he has also been published in various magazines.