WOODY CREEK – Skye Skinner still calls her first exposure to the Aspen Community School a “monumental moment.”
Through the Buddy Program, her husband, Steve, was mentoring an eighth-grader in the early 1990s. Purely to lend support — she had no kids at the school or any other connection — she attended the eighth-grade graduation ceremony, and as she recalls, “I sat in the audience and cried through every single kid.”
At Community School graduations, even to this day, each graduating student makes a personal presentation to the audience of faculty, staff, parents and extended family.
“I was profoundly moved by those young people,” Skinner recalled. “It was hard for me to believe they were only eighth-graders. They were so self-possessed, confident and articulate.”
From that point forward, her life would take shape around the K-8 school, located on a scenic mesa above Woody Creek. She talked then-Executive Director George Stranahan into hiring her as a full-time assistant; she sent her daughter, Riley, to the then-private school; and she would eventually become the executive director — not of the school, which has its own principal, but of Compass, the nonprofit that operates the Aspen Community School, the Carbondale Community School and the pre-K Early Childhood Center in Woody Creek.
Since then, the Aspen Community School and its parent organization have been completely revamped. Among many other changes, the original 208-acre school property donated by George and Patti Stranahan was reduced to about 28 acres. The other 180 acres were subdivided into two residential lots and sold in order to pay off debt and start a Compass endowment.
From the very start, Skinner recalled, she and virtually everyone in the Community School family were encouraged and empowered. That ethos remains, even after all the changes.
“The door was wide open for me to explore my potential,” she said, “and to be really valued and respected for that. And that’s never ended.”
Today, the Aspen Community School is a public charter school within the Aspen School District, and it’s in the middle of a massive, $13 million renovation. Construction fencing restricts access to much of the campus, and kids attend classes in the 40-year-old log buildings while a new main classroom building rises from the mud just up the hill.
The building project is neatly segregated from the ongoing classes, and all appeared to be shipshape on a recent Wednesday morning. But Skinner admitted that she’s losing some sleep these days.
“What’s keeping me up at night is $4 million,” she said. “Despite our best efforts at clear communication, a lot of people came away with the message that we’re done, and we’re not done.”
In spring 2013, Compass and the school announced that they had successfully raised $4.9 million toward their school renovation project and thus had earned a $4.2 million grant from the state of Colorado. Much of the credit for this milestone goes to Skinner, whose fundraising leadership reeled in some 650 individual donors to the school’s grassroots “I Believe” campaign.
Overshadowed by this good news was the fact that $2.5 million was still needed to complete the campus overhaul. And since then, owing mostly to the need for additional classroom space, the fundraising target has risen to $4 million.
Skinner, 52, was never trained as a fundraiser, let alone an educator. Everything she knows as the leader of an educational nonprofit was learned on the job. Born in Alaska, Skinner moved to Aspen at age 16 and graduated from Aspen High in 1980. She attended college for a semester before dropping out to travel and see the world. Her resume included a variety of Aspen retail and restaurant jobs, and she’d thought she had hit her stride as a travel agent when she landed at the Aspen Community School.
“I’d spent a good part of my life in this valley, but I hadn’t found my tribe till I arrived on this mesa,” she laughed.
A key element of the school’s mission is to “foster lifelong learning,” and Principal Jim Gilchrist said Skinner is “the embodiment of what we’re trying to do around here.”
She also knows how to tackle a task and finish it. Said Stranahan of his former personal assistant, “She does what’s on her plate, she finishes, and she cleans up. She’s a completer.”
Skinner’s passion and optimism, not only for Compass’ three schools but for charter school education in general, earned her the 2014 Charter School Leader of the Year Award. Certainly the Aspen Community School’s consistently high scores on standardized tests had something to do with the honor, but Skinner and Gilchrist have a somewhat testy relationship with the state’s assessments.
They acknowledge the need for standardized testing to measure and compare student progress across the state, but they worry that the emphasis on assessment, and the class preparation required, may gradually monopolize teachers’ time. Despite these misgivings, they tout the school’s high test scores whenever they can.
Skinner says the TCAPs (soon to become CMAS, or Colorado Measures of Academic Success) “give you credibility publicly. I don’t think it is hypocritical to be proud of the fact we do really well on those tests, and we always say, at the same time, the tests are a single measure of a single moment in time for each kid.”
Also, as Gilchrist notes, “We’re held to the same standards as everybody else, yet nobody’s telling us how to get there.”
This is the advantage of being a charter school: The charter gives the school autonomy to do things its own way as long as it meets or exceeds the state’s benchmarks.
Aspen School District Superintendent John Maloy appreciates that the Aspen Community School continues its strong performance on state assessments — as do the district’s main schools — while also offering a different educational package.
“I think there’s a place for alternative school settings, charter school settings, that may provide a different learning style, a different delivery model,” Maloy said. “We’ve had a very healthy relationship (with the Aspen Community School) for a number of years, and I think it’s to both our advantages.”
The key to the school’s success, Skinner believes, is the small classes — roughly 14 per grade level — and the small school community, which enable individualized instruction and a close-knit culture where everyone matters.
Though he hasn’t been a daily presence on campus for years, Stranahan still feels a sense of kinship with the school he once led.
“Our classes are smaller, and I truly believe class size is incredibly important,” he said. “The other thing is, the school is smaller. It’s a community, and it remains a first-name community.”
And that is unusual in the world of modern-day public schools.
Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism and The Aspen Times are collaborating on coverage of education. The Times published this story on Tuesday, Sept. 16, 2014.