Pagosa Peak Open School Hires Its Staff, Part One

I had the pleasure of meeting with educator James Lewicki last week, over a cup of coffee at Higher Grounds, to discuss the ongoing development of Pagosa Peak Open School — the first charter school to be authorized by the Archuleta School District (ASD) since the passage of Colorado’s ‘Charter Schools Act’ in 1993. The school plans to open this coming September, serving grades K-4 in rooms leased from Parelli Natural Horsemanship in the Parelli building in the Aspen Village “live-work-play” subdivision. The school will add an additional grade each year until it serves K-8th grade.  Enrollment is limited, according the school’s contract with ASD, to 15 students per grade.

The school is publicly funded and tuition free — open to all families in Archuleta County.

Mr. Lewicki is serving as Pagosa Peak’s School Director, and recently moved to Pagosa Springs from Fort Collins, where he served as the Executive Director at the T.R. Paul Academy of Arts & Knowledge. His various duties include regular meetings with ASD administrative staff, grant writing, financial management, negotiating contracts, painting of the classroom walls.

And, of course, hiring the school staff.

We talked a bit about the staff, and his excitement around the coming school year.

(DISCLOSURE: In addition to my editorial duties at the Pagosa Daily Post, I also serve on the governing board for the Pagosa Peak Open School, and thus have an intense interest in the school’s future success. Please keep that in mind as you read this article series.)

In addition to his 17 years in public school classrooms, and as a former YMCA Camp Director and an instructor for the National Outdoor Leadership School, Mr. Lewicki has consulted in the creation of over 100 new or redesigned schools — ranging from small to large, rural to urban, and elementary to middle to high school — across 20 states.

James Lewicki:

“The first thing, when you are starting a new school, there’s always the vision. But then, who is going to execute the vision? Who are the people involved there?

“And I’m really excited… this is a pretty talented staff. And I don’t say that lightly… I say that, having done this for 30 years, and having worked with over 100 schools…

“This is a powerful group, with amazing potential. We haven’t yet met all together; we have to form as a team, but it’s as good as any staff I’ve ever worked with. These are people who really ‘get’ the vision of what [Pagosa Peak] is about, and are really dedicated to a personalized, small learning community that’s also part of the fabric of the community at large.

“And they all not only ‘get it,’ but they’ve all done this with their personal lives; they’ve made a difference in the communities they’ve lived in. It’s sometimes rare to find teachers who are great at leading in the classroom, and also enjoy taking the kids out for a hike in the wildflowers.

“Another thing that strikes me is that they are all ‘entrepreneurs’ of some sort. Several of them have had their own businesses; they’ve made achievements in other fields as well… This is the kind of faculty that’s sort of a ‘Renaissance’ faculty… who can integrate the arts and music into the classroom. And over half the teaching staff is fluent in Spanish…

“They know what they are coming here to build…”

Sounds like an intriguing group.  But before we meet the Pagosa Peak staff up close and personal, a bit of historical background.

Back in 1993, Colorado’s General Assembly passed the ‘Charter Schools Acts’ as part of a nationwide effort to encourage innovation and reform within the American education industry. The Act reads in part:

Education reform is in the best interests of the state in order to strengthen the performance of elementary and secondary public school pupils, that the best education decisions are made by those who know the students best and who are responsible for implementing the decisions, and, therefore, that educators and parents have a right and a responsibility to participate in the education institutions which serve them;

Different pupils learn differently and public school programs should be designed to fit the needs of individual pupils and that there are educators, citizens, and parents in Colorado who are willing and able to offer innovative programs, educational techniques, and environments but who lack a channel through which they can direct their innovative efforts…

The idea that an innovative public school can be created, and operated, by an independent group of concerned parents and teachers forms one the key concepts in ‘Charter Schools Act,’ and during the early years of the charter school movement, many — perhaps most — of the new charter schools in the U.S. sprouted from grassroots efforts led by local parent and teacher groups.

These well-intentioned local groups were often successful in creating inventive, unusual and sometimes highly experimental educational environments as a contrast to conventional public schools.

Occasionally, these new public schools were spectacular failures.

But as the movement grew and evolved, for-profit companies began to develop, to serve the unique needs of these innovative, self-governing, internally-directed schools.

In point of fact, such for-profit corporations are merely a small segment of the multi-billion-dollar education industry that serves our conventional public schools — but critics of the Charter School movement often disparage these supporting companies as actors in a separate “charter school industry.”

Meanwhile, the standards, to which American education are being been held, have greatly changed since 1993 — at least, in theory. It’s become less common for an ‘amateur’ group of local parents to initiate a charter school — and more common for charter schools to be founded by a large, non-profit corporation with past experience, but perhaps with less connection to the local community.

In that sense, Pagosa Peak Open School is a throw-back to an earlier day, because it was indeed conceived and brought to life by a group of Archuleta County parents, most of whom had no experience starting or operating a public school.

Somehow, this amateur founding board — with the assistance of its new School Director — have managed to win over $500,000 in grants since last November, to help furnish, equip and staff a new, innovative public school.

Read Part Two…


Bill Hudson

Bill Hudson founded the Pagosa Daily Post in 2004 in hopes of making a decent living writing about local politics. The hope remains.