By Liz Onufer

The Impasse of Education

Author’s note: Given the word count I had to work with, I needed to be very selective in the voices represented and the points presented herein. Education in Teton Valley is a personal and important topic to many local families. This piece is intended to be part of a much larger conversation, not a comprehensive overview of the state of education.

Thirty plus children wait in idling cars in a dirt parking lot on a cold winter morning in Victor. When the bus comes into sight, they scramble out of warm SUVs and line up in orderly fashion. The size differences are obvious—high schoolers to kindergarteners. This is not a school bus, but it is their bus to school. The stairs are big, the seats soft and large. These students commute over Teton Pass to attend schools in neighboring Jackson Hole rather than locally in Teton School District 401 facilities.

The issue is becoming more and more frequent: People move to Teton Valley for the quality of life and their kids leave because of the quality of education. Is it possible to have both be top-notch in this one place?

Some pin the issue on the valley’s conservative Mormon culture. Others look to Idaho’s embarrassing national ranking in education, consistently in the bottom half. Locally, the reputation of an ineffective school board and inadequate administrators clouds perspectives. Perhaps the failing label, induced by the No Child Left Behind Act, provides the quantitative support.

The truth is, the problem, which is difficult to name and is defined in many different ways, can always be blamed on politics, place, or a group of people. What some see as the valley’s greatest attributes—its rural nature, tight community, small town politics—become the biggest detriments in the landscape of education.

Teton Valley students boarding the bus to Jackson. Photo by Jamye Chrisman.

But when all the news headlines and varying perspectives are plowed away, the diverse group of stakeholders, from recent immigrants to fourth-generation farmers, typically agree on one foundational principle: The community wants the best for Teton Valley’s children. And lying in this one simple seed, where decisions are made and opinions formed, is the greatest division: how to define best.

For a small group of Teton Valley parents, the best means bussing their children to Jackson, where money spent is seen as an academic investment.

Tuition at the Jackson Hole Community School is almost $20,000 annually; at the Journeys School it rests at just under $21,000. Whether public or private, the numbers are hard to argue. Teton School District 401 (TSD 401) in Idaho spends approximately $6,945 per student, a bit more than Idaho’s average of $6,157. Teton School District 1 in Jackson? Close to $18,000 per student. The national average totals just over $12,000 per student, placing Idaho at the bottom of the list, while Wyoming ranks sixth in the nation.

But Jackson schools are not the only ones luring students out of the district. A small number of private schools have cropped up right here in Teton Valley, and homeschooling options have also expanded. Today, an estimated 27 percent of school-age youth in Teton Valley are not enrolled in TSD 401.

Driggs Elementary School. The Teton Valley Education Foundation raised money to re-do this playground. Photo by Jamye Chrisman.

Financially, Teton County, Idaho, cannot compete with Jackson. Residents are well aware of the divide, a barrier as significant as the mountain pass that must be tackled to get from one to the other. But does living in Teton Valley have to mean fewer opportunities and settling for less when it comes to education?

Monte Woolstenhulme, superintendent of TSD 401, doesn’t believe so. “The balance is providing the opportunities, and then students and families taking advantage of those opportunities,” he says.
In fact, the opportunities in the school district are growing each year, in part a response to the demands of parents and other community members. Nola Bredal, a school board member from 2004 to 2013 and founding member of the Teton Valley Education Foundation, has witnessed the shift in community participation: “When I look at when I was on the board, the only time [the public attended meetings] was on Boy Scout night and when we discussed the calendar. Now there is always someone there.”

Full Circle Education has helped deliver lessons about food and gardens to a varity of schools in Teton Valley, both public and private. Photo by Jamye Chrisman.

The numbers reflect these opportunities as well; the Teton High School (THS) class of 2015 earned 679 college credits through Advanced Placement (AP) and dual credit courses at Teton High. For the graduates going on to post-secondary education, close to $1.5 million was awarded in scholarship money. Parents are taking notice, and so are alumni.

“I look at it now and think ‘I wish I could’ve had this,’” says Juan Morales, a member of the THS class of 2004 and a school board candidate in the 2015 election.

In recent years, the positives have gotten buried under the headlines of contentious issues—a decision to change the Redskins mascot at Teton High School (it hasn’t happened), the controversial proposal to adopt a four-day school week across the district, and the suspension of the novel Bless Me Ultima in tenth-grade English classes. Small victories in the classroom and the slow progress of institutional change become side notes to the front page stories.

Victor Elementary School. Photo by Jamye Chrisman.

“As educators, we are good at working hard, but not at telling the story of the work we are doing,” Woolstenhulme says.

Not everyone in the community believes it is just an issue of not telling the story. The narrative of TSD 401 depends on the perspective. And that perspective, Bredal acknowledges, is hard to define as a community. “People look at education through their own lens,” she says. The majority of Teton Valley residents have some level of education, and this educational experience often lends citizens a sense of expertise—more so than in other public sectors, such as planning and zoning or roads and transportation, where people have opinions but minimal expertise or personal experience. This makes defining the specific issues at TSD 401 difficult to pinpoint.

Led by a small group of parents desiring to improve the valley’s public education system, Parents Lobbying for Educational Advancement, or PLEA, recently formed in Teton Valley. Of great concern to the group, says Sue Muncaster, one of the group’s founders, is the “old culture of mediocrity and [just] meeting the standards, rather than [fostering] a culture of being the very best and exceeding standards.”

Photo by Jamye Chrisman.

The issues of traditional culture versus new culture surface in multiple contexts around the valley, because as the demographics shift, so do the expectations. The average level of education has swung upwards. In 1990, roughly 17 percent of the valley’s residents held a bachelor’s degree. By 2012, that number had nearly doubled to 33 percent. These numbers have a direct correlation to the district’s own go-on rate, which is the percentage of students pursuing post-secondary education. Studies show that parents’ education levels often set the expectations for their children. Students whose parents have attended college have a much higher probability of going to college themselves. Likewise, parents whose highest education is a high-school diploma often see the same outcome for their children.

The go-on rate for THS graduates falls somewhere between 40 and 50 percent. Compare this to the average of 52 percent in Idaho and 66 percent in the nation. “Our mission is ‘career and college ready,’ and we help each graduate work hard to reach their potential,” says Woolstenhulme. “This is partly the work of the school—but even more important, it’s what parents and students choose.”

It’s no secret that parental involvement is key to a student’s success. Wade Kaufman, THS class of 1992, father of five, and Driggs City Council member, asserts that parents must take an extremely active role. “Kids whose parents don’t have the time fall through the cracks,” he says.

Pointing the finger in both directions—at the district and at families—paints a more comprehensive picture of the issues at hand. Changing demographics and shifting expectations lead to a diversity that can be challenging to rectify under one roof, that of the school.

“Segregation of our community is the elephant in the room that has plagued every growth discussion in our county,” Kaufman says. “We all have to come to the table and realize this county will never be what it was thirty to forty years ago. People have to stop beating that dead horse. We have to learn to grow with what we have seen and what we’re going to see.”

Teton Middle School. Photo by Jamye Chrisman.

For his part, Woolstenhulme sees it as both one of the district’s greatest strengths and its biggest challenges. “I love the diversity of our community, but it also leads to divisiveness,” he says.

The district has an open-door policy, yet the superintendent says the invitation for parents to visit classrooms isn’t often accepted. Therefore, he believes, some parents’ educational choices for their children are being made on secondhand and thirdhand information. “If people are making decisions based on firsthand knowledge and experience, then I respect their choices,” he says. But, he adds, those who do know from personal observation what the district is doing “are impressed. My frustration is that people are making choices not knowing.”

These issues in education are not unique to TSD 401. “Teton Valley is a microcosm of what’s happening nationally,” Woolstenhulme says.

The negative perception of public education is pervasive across the country, and many places echo the sentiments heard in our community: ineffective teachers, poor return on fiscal expenditures, and declining student aptitude. With a laundry list of problems, and the slow-moving bureaucracy of politics and education, making improvements is a Herculean task, one often tied more to financial fixes than systemic changes.

Budget cuts take the bulk of the blame in the decline of the quality of public education. The problem, according to Idaho Ed Trends, an organization providing data on public schools in the state, is that “schools need money to provide students with a quality education. How much money is reasonable and how it is spent are the tough decisions facing lawmakers, taxpayers, and educators. Research shows that supporting high-quality teachers can help ensure students are successful beyond high school, including at two- and four-year colleges and universities and in technical programs.”

But this is a catch-22. Voters and legislators are hesitant to increase funding to schools with poor track records. Without additional funding, however, issues are only perpetuated. In August 2014, and again in November 2014, TSD 401’s $19 million bond failed to pass with the necessary two-thirds majority. Kaufman views the bond as an opportunity for the district to prepare and plan for the next ten years. “But the community is shutting them down,” he says. “We can’t just maintain things.”

This begs the question: How do schools create the best education for their students when they lack the needed resources? And, at the same time, how can a community be persuaded to invest more money into a system they perceive is not working? As a city council member working through many of the same challenges for the City of Driggs’ future, Kaufman poses this question: “What precedents does the community want to set for their own education?”

From Juan Morales’ perspective as an alumni and local business owner, the solution is in the members of this community. He explains what he considers a common mentality: People live in this county but don’t know very much about it, because they work every day and don’t have the time or energy to learn. At the heart of this truth is an attitude shared by Woolstenhulme: “It’s all interconnected. Good schools need a good community. And a good community needs good schools.”

Teton High School. Photo by Jamye Chrisman.

Few would argue that Teton Valley does not have a good community; it’s often why people choose to live here. Just consider a few of the many successful events held throughout the year: The Tin Cup Challenge, which has raised more than $8 million for local nonprofits in its eight-year history. The Teton Valley Foundation’s Music on Main, bringing top-notch national performers to the stage in Victor for eight consecutive Thursdays in the summers. And Family Safety Network’s Walk a Mile in Her Shoes, along with activity venues like the Kotler Ice Arena and the Teton Rock Gym.

Morales sees an answer in local business people, politicians, and farmers. “Every community member can be open minded to teaching, giving time, and getting involved,” he says. “In essence, we’re all sharing this community.”

The call to action is not isolated to Teton Valley. Rural communities across the country are asking the same questions: How do we keep educated and talented people in the community, while creating the economy and jobs that will draw others back? Morales believes his experience illustrates the point. He graduated from college, traveled the world, and then returned to Teton Valley, recently starting his own restaurant in Victor. “We have to give individuals reasons to come back,” he says.

But comparing our financial resources, community involvement, and go-on rates to the national education statistics still does not solve the issue of defining best at the local level. Here, we must discuss the intersection of the quality of life and the quality of education. TSD 401’s open-door policy presents many opportunities to engage in the conversation—welcoming phone calls, emails, and school visits; taking comments at the beginning or conclusion of school board meetings; urging community members to visit the district website to better acquaint themselves with policies and finances. So do the school board elections, which historically draw low voter turnout.

First, however, the conversation must start at home, defining best for the individual student, and then seeking out the resources needed to achieve this.

Today, certain students who once lined up for their daily commute to Jackson Hole can be seen boarding a TSD 401 school bus. After weighing the pros and cons, the long days and extra costs, involved with sending their kids over the hill for an education, a small number of families here are recognizing the local district as the best option for their children.

Nola Bredal, the former school-board member, has a son, Paal, who recently transferred to Teton High School from a private Jackson school. “No system, private or public, is perfect,” Bredal says. “The goal is merely to find the best fit for the student. We are happy to live in a community that values education and where there are options.”

The recognition that academic excellence cannot be measured exclusively in the amount of tuition paid or state dollars spent per student, but also by community commitment and involvement, contributes to an improving educational landscape. These families are acknowledging and accepting the diversity of the community—finding that best cannot be defined by one model. The very characteristics that drew families here in the first place can be the same ones that keep their children here.