When Charlotte Ciancio became superintendent of Mapleton Public Schools in 2001, she took a long, hard look at the district that had always felt like home. After all, she'd attended elementary school in Thornton and worked for Mapleton in various capacities — as a teacher, special-education coordinator and administrator — for twenty years, between stints with other districts. "I always longed to come back," Ciancio remembers. "Every time I'd go to another school district, I'd want to get back to Mapleton. There's something magical about the community. This is my home, my family; my parents still live down the street. This is not a place I want to visit. I've planted roots."
But it was also a place that was failing students. Mapleton had been consistently losing half of its high-school kids between the start of freshman year and graduation. "For many years, we just pretended that kids move," she says. "We knew that wasn't true." Now that she was superintendent, the school board told Ciancio, they wanted something different — and it was up to her to determine what that might be.
In February 2002, Ciancio called together 150 community members for a strategic planning process. They came up with a mission — to guarantee that each student achieves his or her dreams — and then tried to figure out how to accomplish that mission. Among other things, they decided that students should have an "enticing menu of learning opportunities." And since Mapleton's menu at the time wasn't particularly broad or enticing, they set out to create a new one.
Although the district had only 10 percent participation in parent-teacher conferences, 1,200 people came out for community meetings to discuss potential new programs. Once Ciancio had a grasp of what both parents and students were looking for, she started visiting schools — including many small charters. "Being a public-school educator my whole life, I had this attitude about charter schools," she recalls. "We visited a lot of them, and it changed our view. There were some amazing charter schools and some very dedicated people who were in it for the right reasons. That challenged us to think outside what we traditionally think of as a public school."
In 2003 Ciancio traveled coast to coast and visited fifty schools. "We were looking at where is it working, where is it great? We used the philosophy that we would stand on the shoulders of giants and start where others had left off," she says. "Then we matched what we heard in our community with what we saw. So if our community said, 'We want technology to be a focus for our kids,' we matched a tech school with that. We heard the arts were an important piece, so we wanted a school focused on arts. We were also deliberate in making sure all our schools use their model as a means to a common end, which was college readiness."
Ultimately, Mapleton's comprehensive Skyview High School was to be replaced with small high schools spread throughout the district; a grant of close to $3 million from the Gates Foundation helped pay for the transition. The first two small high schools opened in 2004, and five more with just freshmen and sophomores in 2005; in the meantime, Skyview stayed open so that upperclassmen wouldn't have to adjust to a new environment so close to graduation. In 2006 the district completed its transformation, doing away with middle school altogether and giving elementary students a choice of schools, too. Allowing students to choose their schools would make the kids feel more invested, officials hoped.
Despite their different designs, Mapleton's new schools all emphasize a combination of strong relationships and challenging, relevant curriculum. To keep some of the benefits of a large high school, the smaller high schools all fall under one Skyview umbrella for sports; to build community, the district made a point of not segregating groups by age. York International is a K-12 school, and MESA, which serves seventh through twelfth grades, shares a campus with Highland Montessori. To ensure that students can attend any school in the system, the district provides transportation — and buses aren't divided by age, either. Fears that sixteen-year-olds would be smoking and cussing at the six-year-olds dissipated quickly as parents and teachers found the older students taking care of the younger ones.
Mapleton is one of eight districts involved in the School Redesign Network LEADS, or Leadership, Equity and Accountability in Districts and Schools program at Stanford University, which supports research-based urban school and district transformations. Unlike some of the other seven districts in the program, which are in places like Milwaukee and San Francisco, Mapleton is small enough to try system-wide reform. "Most school districts have to chunk the work a little bit," Ciancio says. "They do a high school and dabble a little bit in middle school and can't get to elementary, and most have a complement of charter schools. We don't have any charter schools. We've never even had an appeal for charter schools here."
The experiment seems to be working: All of MESA's seniors and 90 percent of Mapleton's (including Ciancio's son) were accepted to college last year, collecting $2.6 million in scholarships. A graduate of Skyview Academy became the district's first-ever Boettcher Scholar. Still, test scores remain well below the state average. "Of the kids we serve, about 65 percent are on free and reduced lunch, 65 percent are of Latino descent, and of those, 43 percent are learning English as their second language," Ciancio points out. "Those are big numbers for them to be ready to take assessments at a competency level commensurate with kids who were born here in middle-class communities, so we look at growth and say, 'Where did they start and end? Did they learn a year's worth of information? Are they getting closer to where they need to be?'
"We want 80 percent, minimum, of all kids proficient in all content. It's going to take a while to get there. We're not there. Everybody says it takes three to five years, but nobody's patient enough to make that happen. You have an implementation dip where you get worse at something before you get better. We believe we're at the bottom of the dip. We should start seeing that going up, so we're trying to be patient. Teachers are learning a new way to teach, and students are learning a new way to learn. It takes time."
Time, and money. Ciancio hopes that voters will understand that when she asks them for a bond and mill levy override this November. The district tried for a bond last year and lost. If the proposal fails again, the Mapleton board will have some tough choices to make with an already tight budget. Small schools cost more to run than big ones, but Ciancio says the investment will be worth it if the district's kids become productive citizens instead of dropping out.