Located in the northeastern corner of Colorado, Holyoke School District covers approximately 540 square miles and educates almost 600 students. Agricultural production is the primary industry in this rural community that has a population of 2,200. Over 25% of the overall school population receives ESL services, and more than half of the school population is eligible for free or reduced price meals. The district is in their second year of participation in the Homegrown Talent Initiative, (HTI) and is a participant in the Student-Centered Accountability Program (S-CAP).
In this interview with Summer Maloney, you will get a glimpse at how this rural school district is focused on the whole child, connecting student, and family, and community voices with learning objectives and outcomes. Summer serves on the Holyoke School Board, and as Holyoke’s HTI coordinator.
Please share a little bit about yourself and the path that led you to working with schools and youth.
I grew up and graduated from high school in Holyoke. I worked as a student aide for the counselor here – I actually knew from the time I graduated that I wanted to be a school counselor. I went to the University of Northern Colorado and also earned my master’s degree from the University of Phoenix. I was lucky enough to come home and do my internship here, and then was offered a job! I never thought life would bring me back here, but it did. I was in the role of junior high/high school counselor for seven years before I became a stay at home at mom.
While I was away from the school, I joined the school board; that was a great way to stay connected to children. I’m in my fifth year on the school board, and it has been wonderful. I was asked to join the design team for the Homegrown Talent Initiative (HTI) last fall, and in December I took the role of HTI coordinator. It was just a blessing that this came about when I was ready to go back to work. Although our counseling position opened up this year, I chose to stay with the HTI position because working with kids and careers, and their paths after high school is my true passion.
What are your primary responsibilities – what does your day-to-day look like?
I have 42 kids right now, spread out across the day, and so I would say this first month of the school year has just been working with them and getting them into an internship. We’re very close to having them all situated. My role will continue to be evaluating them and building that program, but my day will open up now that they are onsite.
The other part of my role is working with the community and our business partners, and creating unique opportunities for the students. I will be visiting with community members, and continuing to manage some different committees that are going to help lead the development of capstones and new pathways for kids. Once we can increase contact with others, we hope to do some career fairs and have our business partners come in and do presentations for our students and our families.
Engaging families is a big piece of what we want to include, so I will be coming up with different ways that we can get our families involved, keeping them up-to-date with what we’re doing at school.
Also, we have created our new Center of Innovation. School is the heart of our community, and this area is the heart of our school, so what better way to increase engagement than to just go ahead and dive in and make an innovation center where we can bring our community in, our students in, our teachers in, and our families in?
Can you tell me more about the Innovation Center and how it is designed to operate?
When we went on a site visit to Canon City, that kind of sparked the idea of having an innovation center; they have something similar. They turned their library into a safe place for students and families to come into, and so we kind of started running with that idea. We talked to their administration and visited some of their individual programs to see more. It feels like it kind of happened overnight, and as we got closer to knowing that we were moving on it, new ideas started flowing, and now looking back on it, I’m glad we jumped in and did it, because it has sparked the excitement of students and our community.
At the Center of Innovation, part of my job will be working evening hours so that parents who work can come in and work with their students. We have new laptops and we really want to share those with parents. Students have their Chromebooks, but the parents may not have a laptop, so it would be a time for them to come in and utilize technology with their students while we provide child care for them. We also have some ideas of pairing with our community to offer some translating courses, for students and parents, giving them kind of a leg up. We have a couple of companies in town that employ the majority of our Latino families, and they are always looking at ways to partner and encourage their employees to do bigger things, so I think it’s exciting that we could bring them in to our Center of Innovation. We’re hoping that basically everything that we offer to our students we can offer to our families too.
I have this vision that we’ll have, months focused on specific topics. I’d like to offer resources to Latino families, for example, asking ‘what do you struggle finding help with in the community?’ and then bringing all of those resources into the Center of Innovation for them to access. Also, walking parents through the whole seminar class with their kids…we’re getting some new curriculum for that, so when that happens it would be a perfect time to get everybody in so they can see exactly what their kids are going through.
Holyoke is in your second year of HTI now. What impact have you seen so far with students, families, and the community?
It’s just a spark among students. We had several kids that were a part of the design team to start with, and we had hoped to have a bigger group of students, but then COVID happened. Those kids that have been a part of it have been able to pass that spark to other students. A lot of kids have been curious, and they’re really starting to talk about it more, so there is excitement and there’s big visions and new opportunities coming.
One thing we really wanted to bring out was student voice. Last year when we started doing the design and empathy building, it really came out that students want to have a voice in their education, and it was like an aha moment where we thought ‘why haven’t we listened to them more often?’
So we’re really trying to build on that momentum. I have a group of about 20 kids who are going to be in a student focus group. They will be involved in the whole process as we move forward. We have representatives from each class, K-12, to participate in the student focus group, and they will take information back to their classmates, and then gather feedback, so hopefully every student has a voice. Every age group, every dynamic, is able to give their opinions on different opportunities they want to have, different classes they would like to see, different things they want going on in the school. That’s really sparked a big interest with our students.
I was talking to the counselor yesterday and she said even the younger kids are starting to talk about careers and life in general because they’re seeing the Center of Innovation, and they’re seeing kids in there working and they’re saying – ‘oh wow – what does it take to get there,’ and ‘when can I be a part of that,’ and asking a whole lot of questions about how different classes pertain to their career. This is exactly what we wanted them to start doing – thinking about it at a younger age. I’ve seen excitement in students.
Also, with our internships, we’re encouraging kids to think outside the box. We don’t need to be one-dimensional, and just because you grew up in a small rural town doesn’t mean those are the only jobs out there; they are learning how to utilize a mentor outside of the area, and how to connect with the bigger picture. That’s been exciting. Kids are getting a little more invested in their internships and taking them really seriously.
Are the internships at Holyoke High School for seniors only, or for juniors and seniors?
Juniors and seniors; with COVID hitting, we didn’t have our registration process done and we hadn’t been able to really talk to the students about what internships were going to look like. We had really hoped that all seniors would be in an internship, and some juniors, and we just weren’t able to get that completely solid. This year, internships are a choice for juniors and seniors. We’re hoping that by next year we will have internships added into graduation policy. We’ve even talked about small internships with down to the ninth-grade level, so that’s a big goal for us… giving them a small snippet each year that would lead them up to a big experience during their senior year to go along with their capstone.
Do you find that the kids have a pretty good feel for what they think they might want to do or is there a lot of openness to discover what they could do?
I would say that the group of interns that I have right now are pretty focused and know what they want to do, but there quite a few still that don’t; there’s a couple of kids that are already switching gears, just because we’ve been allowing them some career exploration time. One of my students right now has completely shifted; she thought she would go to a school for eight years and now she’s discovered that she wants to do something that’s requires just two years of education.
What are some of the ways that family and community members are involved in shaping the learning environment in Holyoke schools?
We included quite a few community members on our HTI design team from last year, and now we really want to focus on bringing more people in, both in the community and in the parent role.
We’ve always done a good job of including parents but we want to give them another connection where we are able to ask them what they think that we’re missing, what supports do they need to help their students, and equally, educate them about things going on. I would say too, that we have been part of the Student Centered Accountability Program (S-CAP) that’s going on around the state and I feel like we’ve really provided our parents and all of our stakeholders different ways to participate in their student’s education. We do quite a few surveys and we hold focus groups every year, so we’ve been able to get feedback from them, and we’ve actually used a lot of it to change our programming and procedures. We feel like it gives them an outlet to let us know what they think, and shifts the focus to them being a resource for us, and not just a consumer – not just sending their kids here, but they really are a resource and driving their students education. I feel like we’ve done a good job with that and I think that the HTI has continued to leverage that.
I would imagine in your community, and maybe in other communities across Colorado that are shifting towards more family engagement, that it’s not a traditional role for parents and families to be involved in different ways, so they may they not even understand what that looks like.
Yes, I completely agree. I would say that we have a really good turnout of parents and families showing up; we usually have about 80% of our district’s parents that come to parent-teacher conferences. Now we are asking how do we get them really engaged? Not only in what their students are doing, but also in helping us provide what they need. We have a supportive town and parents; they trust that we are going to do what’s best for the students, which is wonderful, but we want them to really start diving in with us.
Do you have some examples of how Holyoke School District gives all students equal access to opportunities, support and the tools they need to succeed?
I think it’s a bonus already that we’re doing a lot of these things; we’ve always fostered an inclusive environment and we’ve worked really hard for that because of the dynamics of what Holyoke has been for a long time. Through the pandemic we’ve learned a lot – one thing I would say is that we offer for every K-12 student, which we have done for a long time, and I think when the pandemic happened, it showed us how valuable that is. The pandemic also taught us a lot about how can continue to meet all kids’ needs. We have a very large ESL department and when COVID hit, our ESL teachers worked tirelessly to connect with every family through a live zoom; they got everyone set up, and they had a huge focus on making sure that those kids could continue. It’s also taught us about the value of teachers recording lessons. We had several students who couldn’t return back to school this year because they had traveled outside of the country, and we have some that are leaving in October to take a vacation or to go see family, and won’t be able to return because they have to quarantine, but the great thing is we can continue their education. Their teachers are getting them set up on their Chromebooks, everything is ready to go, and they’re going to be able to be away because of that 1:1 device. I really value what the teachers have done to give every kid that opportunity. Another thing that we’ve learned is different ways that we can connect with families. For example, parent-teacher conferences are coming up in two weeks, and we are working with families to do Zoom conferences. If they don’t feel comfortable coming in, or if the hours don’t work for them because they’re working, they can jump online and visit with several teachers at one time, making it a little more accessible for them.
Another example is the seminar class that we have. The students in those classes follow the same teacher for six years, and the reason we do that is the safe relationships, the safe environment that provides. Students have eight teachers a day, and so this one teacher is there to check in and monitor their grades and attendance, and call home If things aren’t looking good, or if things are good. It’s helped parents to have one teacher that they can call; If they have important issues, that teacher helps them navigate the system of who they should talk to. It’s created a safe environment for both students and parents.
Additionally, during advisory class students work through social emotion learning curriculum as well as career exploration, and also being a responsible student. I feel like that’s one way we’ve given kids access to a lot of important tools that they need.
The Center of Innovation will be key to providing access for all students to find what they need. For example, a lot of times teachers want students to make projects, and then they have to go home and ask their parents to buy things for the project. So we have filled two carts full of supplies that any student can walk in and use, from poster boards and markers to hot glue guns and yarn – everything to build things, but also paper and pencil and notebooks and tape and staplers…anything that a student might need, and it’s open for every kid. They can walk in and utilize everything, and that is a huge equity piece, especially for kids who might not otherwise be able to bring their vision for a project to life because they didn’t have what they needed.
Tell me about the leadership team at Holyoke.
This is our superintendent’s second year; he’s been with the district for about 13 years. We have a new principal at the high school; she was previously our counselor before, so we all have kind of rotated roles. It has been nice, because I grew up with the principal and I’ve worked with her for years. Our elementary principal was actually a teacher here for a lot of years too, and she is married to someone who grew up here, so she also has very deep roots here. Our new counselor is from within the district also, so it’s been a very synced process, where we can stay on track and we’re not starting over, even though there are different people in those roles.
It’s been exciting, really. With the changes that have happened over the past two years, it was just like, ‘oh wow, we’ve got something good going on’… I think we really feel that.
October is National Principals Month. What do you appreciate about the principals in Holyoke?
It’s been very exciting to see how our two principals have created a really dynamic team. What I would say stands out to me right now, and through the pandemic, was they were out on the forefront of everything. The minute it hit, they worked tirelessly to make sure that we were hitting all the right points. They worked all summer on a re-entry plan; they wanted kids back in person. Every time something comes up they take care of it, not only with the pandemic, but everything. We want to be the best of the best. We want to foster wonderful learning with our kids and they will do anything to make sure that they’re giving that to the teachers. It’s been very cool to watch them – they both have a huge passion for having a very inclusive environment. We’re always focused on the wellbeing of the kids; they’ve worked consistently to make sure they bring social emotional learning in, training for staff, and we revisit what that means regularly. Along the same lines, when we went into remote learning last March, we wanted kids to move forward with their education, but the big focus was making sure that kids were safe at home. Our principals made sure that was what teachers were doing – they did a social emotional check-in every day with kids, and that was our principals’ huge focus – you make sure those kids are safe, you make sure that they know that they can still see you; Zoom with them when need to; you make sure that you are that safe person for kids. I really appreciate that about our principals… that they understood that our students were at home, maybe babysitting, or out working because they had to, they definitely were worried about overall wellbeing. I applaud them for always making Holyoke a very inclusive district.
Do you have any general or specific insight you would like to share about how this school year is unfolding in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic?
We’re really lucky – we are plugging forward. Our kids are excited to be back, still. I think the pandemic made everyone rethink what education looks like. Teachers value seeing kids – we missed them, and I think equally so, our students missed being at school. The tools that we learned during remote learning have been very instrumental in what teachers are doing in their classrooms now. I would say parents are very supportive and they have a new appreciation for what teachers do every day, and they are more than willing to make sure their kids are taken care of and symptom free so they can be here. It’s been a really good transition. We’ve done a lot of work around being prideful in our family here as a school. At the junior high and high school we’re doing a lot around Dragon pride, and kids are weekly talking about what it means to be a family. Our principal found some money to make sure that every student has a matching shirt that says Dragon Pride on it; those t-shirts were the first Dragon gear some students have ever had. We have the Dragon pride wall, where the students post everything that they are proud of. They’re proud to be a Dragon, they’re proud of their teachers, they know that people care about them. Our counselor pointed out this morning that they have been doing some social emotional surveys; on the last one, no student said that they didn’t want to be back here learning. 100% of our kids indicated they want to be here, and they wouldn’t choose anywhere else.
Looking a few years down the road, what are you hopes for the students who graduated this year and will graduate in 2021, in the middle of all these challenges?
I would say that they feel wholeheartedly that we prepared them. That no matter what path they choose, we gave them all the necessary skills that they needed to go out and be productive citizens. For so long I think students have felt like they have to go down one path to a four-year college, and so our hope is that they know they were supported in any direction that they chose. That they are emotionally ready to go into the world; that’s a big part of it; we want to make sure that they’re ready to face it head on and just remember where they came from. Our graduate profile reflects that; remember where your roots are and be proud of where you came from. I hope that they can say they had the best education.