Since March, Aspen Middle School has been working with Kansas-based SWIFT Education Center to increase inclusivity for students of all learning levels. Since then, the program has expanded to include Aspen Elementary School.

The 2019-20 school year hasn’t officially started yet, but interim Aspen Middle School Principal Elizabeth Meador already is taking part in an ongoing assessment to increase inclusivity for students of all learning levels on the premises. 

Toward that goal, the local school district has joined forces with the SWIFT Education Center, part of a research institute at the University of Kansas, Aspen School District interim superintendent Tom Heald explained Wednesday. The partnership is the result of Aspen Middle School getting flagged by the national Department of Education for special education students’ subpar performance on state assessments, he said.

“We were flagged for a three-year data set that showed that our special education students at the middle school were not performing at a level that they could have been or we thought they were capable of performing at. Compared to other students across the state, they were much lower,” Heald said.

Heather Abraham, the district’s special education director, noted that overall, the school district’s assessment results were positive — and not all of the district’s students with special education needs even participated.

“It’s a conundrum in a way. We only got flagged based on our state assessment results specific to special education,” she said. “The state assessment can be a tricky assessment for students with disabilities to take, and some parents opt out.”

However, district representatives took a proactive approach to the less-than-optimal data.

“That unlocked an opportunity for us to write a grant to the state to fund this work at the middle school,” Abraham said. “It’s an opportunity to take a look under the hood.”

Heald agreed.

“We asked them to come in and help us with what our systems are and is there a way we can work with them better,” he said. 

Inclusivity is the name of the game, said Abraham, whose titles also include executive director of student services.

“Really, all students that receive special education services are general education students first,” she said. “They are all involved in the general population of students; they’re working with all the teachers in the school in addition to maybe a special education teacher or a school psychologist or something. 

“What we’re trying to do is look at our instruction on multiple levels to make sure we create a system that supports the needs of all students’ needs.”

That’s where Kansas-based SWIFT — which stands for Schoolwide Integrated Framework for Transformation — comes in.

“They really look at a system not about individual kids or kids that maybe have been historically marginalized, but they look at this whole thing: How do we treat everybody?” Heald said. 

That means examining how students across the learning ability spectrum relate to one another, their teachers and the entire school community. SWIFT specializes in this type of evaluation.

“What does SWIFT mean by ‘every child?’ We mean students who struggle to learn, are labeled as gifted, live in poverty, with disabilities, are culturally and ethnically diverse, and students with the most extensive support needs,” according to the center’s website. 

In addition to virtual support, SWIFT coaches have been working with the district directly. Angie Caster and Amy Jablonski, both SWIFT leadership development and research project directors, were in Aspen this week to continue data collection from the middle school and, more recently, the elementary school.

“We’re already seeing some patterns emerge at the middle school around wanting to look at our universal behavior systems,” Abraham said, noting that the middle school began working with SWIFT in March. Since then, though, the project has expanded to include Aspen Elementary School.

“And as we started to do that work, we started to realize ... it makes sense to work with our elementary school as well. Today is the second meeting,” she said Wednesday. “This is long-term work; this isn’t a Band-Aid. We’re really trying to analyze our system to make long-term improvements for kids.”

“At SWIFT, we don’t come in and say, ‘Use this curriculum,’” Jablonski said. “We come in and help the school look through their implementation data, the self assessment. What are they putting in place and how is that working, compare that with the student outcome data and see what priorities they want to work on to get better outcomes.”

The timing, in some ways, is fitting. The SWIFT collaboration offers a fresh perspective on the school’s larger community at the same time that that community is changing. 

At the middle school, for instance, students will answer to Meador, whose role as principal is in an interim capacity. Her tenure will start Friday, though having served as assistant principal at Crystal River Elementary School in Carbondale, she’s no stranger to the Roaring Fork Valley.

“She’ll be integral in this whole process,” Abraham said of Meador. “We’re already in the process of working with her to bring her up to speed so she can be a vital component to this work.”

Heald, too, is serving in an interim capacity — at least for now. He will manage the district following the departure of longtime superintendent John Maloy, who announced his retirement in early June.

“I told the board that I would do this for one year, and I’m very excited and honored to have the opportunity to create the conditions to take this district, this position to a place where it can really thrive,” Heald said. “Either hand it off to someone new or hand it off to myself. I don’t want to presume I’m that right person at that time.”

In the immediate term, though, the elementary and middle schools’ work with SWIFT fits into a larger picture.

“We’re in the thick of a strategic planning process; we’re doing a bunch of work around an organizational chart and how we reimagine how the district office supports the schools and student learning,” he said. “My task right now is to create these conditions for what can be a roadmap for the district to 2040.”

AHS counseling position

Aspen High School also is managing some changes heading into the school year, which starts Aug. 19. Melissa Lustig’s last day in the college counseling office was July 12. 

“We had over 18 people apply, and we interviewed six,” AHS Principal Tharyn Mulberry said. “We had a committee made up of one parent, two students, [Aspen Education Foundation members], Kathy Klug, our entire counseling department, and then me. We’ve already completed interviews — we don’t have an acceptance yet.”

Megan Tackett is a reporter for the Aspen Daily News. She can be reached at megan@aspendailynews.com or on Twitter @MeganTackett10.