Students at RE-1 surmount barriers

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In a school district with some barriers to student success, a place where transiency is close to 30 percent and 31 percent of the 335 students are considered homeless, there is an uplifting feeling in the air, something intangible.

The cultural evolution in the RE-1 School District is the result of collaboration of people determined to enhance the lives of the students, starting with programs such as Rachel's Challenge.

“Absolutely, this is something we needed to bring in because my first year here it was pretty clear that culturally there was a lot of aggression in the building,” said Trudy Vader, principal of the Cripple Creek/Victor High School.

Since that first observation in 2005, Vader has initiated changes that tap into cultural, social, emotional and academic veins.

With Rachel's Challenge, named in honor of Rachel Scott, a victim of the shootings at Columbine High School, Vader helped the students develop a sense of community. “Rachel believed in creating positive relationships and impacting people's lives in a positive way. She also believed in dreaming big," Vader said.

Following the challenge, the district implemented the Dream Big program for high-school students, funded by a five-year $660,000 grant from the Colorado Department of Education.

The program's goals promote the STEM curriculum, science, technology, engineering and math through activities such as robotics, rockets and rock climbing. “Anything that engages these kids; the vision is that all students find out who they are, what they're passionate about and that all their dreams are possible,” said Debbie Morrill, who was hired to blend the programs within the 21st Century Community Learning Center.

This year, the learning center was the source of a $600,000 five-year grant from the CDE for an after-school program for middle-school students.

“There are 10 goals, eight of which are around math, reading, parent engagement and self-esteem,” Morrill said. “We've been building them up, because if their self-esteem is in the toilet they're not going to care about math or reading.”

Buoyed by the reduction in negative behaviors, Vader and Morrill moved on to initiate Chain Reaction as a counterpoint to bullying issues. “After the training session, 11 new students said it was the first time they'd ever felt welcomed in school, that it felt like family,” Vader said. “The sessions get pretty emotional.”

In what's often a turbulent time for adolescents and teenagers, the center is designed to offer alternatives to success, despite setbacks that involve economic factors.

A chat with a few seniors is reflective of the vigor associated with the schools, Cresson Elementary and the high school.

- Marissa Sober: “Rachel's Challenge means to me that we tolerate our differences.”

- Katie Tapia: “The challenge helps us get along and know each other better.”

- Sarah Wywias: “Awesome! We're such a small school and it's great for us to know about each other. We're a close community.”

- Taylor Peterson: “The challenge brings our school closer and makes you realize you are not alone.”

- Stephens Cano: “A lot of people understand how others feel. We become stronger together, we talk our problems together.”

- Sarah Elizaldi: “I'm in the Destination Imagination (within the learning center) program. In the core classes we integrate science, math and English, look at a problem and all the things you need to learn. It's the coolest program I've ever been in.”

- Patrick Evans: I really like Dream Big because we get to do fun and adventurous things. Many kids don't have the money or the opportunities to experience things like this. We meet cool people and do projects together.”

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