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STEM School parents concerned about teacher retention, calling for change in leadership

A school spokesperson said that across the entire school, including teaching and non-teaching, there are 29 open positions, a slight increase from last year.

HIGHLANDS RANCH, Colo. — The entire STEM School Highlands Ranch community has persevered over the last few years, enduring the May 2019 shooting that killed student Kendrick Castillo and injuring several others and then adapting to a new way of learning during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Now, parents are worried about the number of teachers leaving the school.

A zoom meeting held Tuesday night among parents detailed their concerns.

Among other things, several parents of now-former students of the school said that a change in leadership, particularly the Executive Director position, is needed to help improve teacher retention. 

Credit: Luis de Leon

Parents concerned

Sitting at a park table in Highlands Ranch, Erin Gomez, a parent of a now-former student at the STEM School Highlands Ranch said that there had been groups of parents throughout the years who have been advocating for new leadership at the school. 

Among other reasons, she said the leadership has impacted the number of teachers leaving.

"It's become unwieldy to expect our children to have to rebuild relationships every single year," she said. 

Gomez, a former School Accountability Committee Chair for the STEM School, said that recently her child decided not to continue at the school because her child's teachers would have had the next academic year recently left. 

"It's demoralizing for the students and it feels like they have to rebuild relationships with people, who they considered, who they may have had years worth of communication with and were planning on these additional advanced classes," she said. "I still believe it's a really good school and I think that it could really thrive under proper leadership. And the the teachers that we just had leave were amazing teachers."

Credit: Luis de Leon

Other parents like Tamara and David Emge, who were on several school committees, including School Accountability and the Safety and Wellness Committees, said that neither of their two children, who were students, attend the school anymore. 

They said that their younger child is no longer in the school specifically because of concerns about the staffing levels.  

"I mean, he's got a good amount of years left in his school career. And ultimately, when you're worried about if he's going to have teachers, you know, there are just certain sacrifices that we opted not to make, you know, moving forward," David said." Tamara said. "And as it sits right now, we have concerns that the teachers, whatever teachers he might have next year, are not going to be prepared to promote his growth," 

Both Tamara and David add that they still believe in the STEM school but agree that leadership changes are needed.

"I am a huge supporter of STEM because I've seen what it can do. I think it was a positive experience for our kids," David said. "We're leaving because in in my opinion, it looks like there's leadership problems that are going to make it very difficult to maintain the same caliber of teachers and deliver on that curriculum that makes STEM so worthwhile and leads to that success."

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Back in May, a group of parents submitted a letter to the STEM Board, which parents say had more than 400 parents sign. However, a school spokesperson said they could not confirm the exact number. 

The letter includes, among other things, anonymous testimonials from current and former teachers and administrators. 

Credit: Luis de Leon

School response

In an email to 9NEWS, STEM School Communications Director Nicole Bostel said that they were aware of the parent meeting held over zoom earlier this week and that a few have been held over the last few weeks. 

Bostel also acknowledged that around 30 parents and students spoke during public comment at the May board meeting, and the letter sent in by parents was read during that meeting.

She said that three staff members spoke up about their positive experiences at STEM. 

Bostel added that their Executive Director, Dr. Penny Eucker, shares with their community areas of focus, topics of concern and celebrations each week. 

"On several occasions, Dr Eucker shared that with staff, students and families that she was anticipating another year with a higher than the desired number of staff leaving due to the stresses of the last two years. This was based on feedback that she was receiving from feedback from staff on the stress level that they were under as a result of teaching in-person and virtual students simultaneously," Bostel said. "Additionally, Dr Eucker shares with our Board and our community our retention/attrition data for teachers and staff at our October Board meetings, and what the plan is to try and mitigate that. Additionally, STEM has a Strategic Plan with one of the five goals focusing on Teacher/Staff Support."

Bostel added that the Board of Directors only had four serving members for most of the past as some had stepped down in the summer and fall for personal reasons. 

"The Board worked throughout the school year to eventually get back to eight board members in May, following our board election cycle. The Board of Directors is responsible for overseeing Dr. Eucker only and it is in their bylaws that they do not weigh in on personnel matters of employees," she said. 

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Staffing levels, according to the school

Bostel said that for grades 6-12 at STEM, they currently have about 41 teachers on staff and are hiring for about 12 open teaching positions. As a K-12, they employ on average about 175 employees from year to year, she said.

Across the entire school, which includes teaching and non-teaching, they have about 29 open positions.

Some of these positions are new or are restructured positions that are being split into two, said Bostel. 

For context, last year, the school had about 22-25 open positions from May to July that they were hiring for.

The year prior, they had approximately 31 open positions, "as we had a large number of Elementary teachers that left following the incident," Bostel said. 

She also said that it's not uncommon for charter schools to have a larger turnover than neighborhood schools. 

"Many national educational organizations have been tracking this data for several years to try to help reduce the amount of turnover," she said via email. "Charters provide a lot of flexibility and at STEM, we hire many people from highly sought after industry professions (Engineering, Computer Science, etc), who come to teach at STEM for a few years and then are recruited back into their industries."

Recently, STEM School board chair, Rudy Lukez, sent a message to STEM School Highlands Ranch Families, outlining what the eight-member board is working on this Summer. 

"While our administration team is in planning and hiring mode for the 2021-22 school year, and taking a much-needed break for the next few weeks, your Board is working on getting trained and refocused," the message reads in part. 

To read the full message, click here.

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