Laredo Middle School was brand new when John Buckner came to Aurora in 1975.
He came to the Colorado plains from suburban Chicago to serve as the school’s first assistant principal. He chose the city as his new home partly for its diversity, for the promise of students, parents and teachers from all over the world.
He got his wish. In his 30 years as a principal and administrator in the Cherry Creek School District, John saw a population explosion from the ground floor. As principal of Overland High School from 1988 to 2005, he saw the student body morph to reflect a new America.
“The student population essentially moved from fairly diverse to one that did not have a majority of any particular group,” he recalls. “When I left Overland, it had 58 different primary home languages … That was one of the things that the community was really proud of.”
The diversity that came to define Overland during his time at the high school is becoming more and more common in Aurora and the rest of the metro area. Last year, John won the House District 40 seat in the state Legislature, and his time in Aurora’s schools has played a big part in how he represents the city.
“It’s grown, and that growth and increase in size adds complexity to everything,” he says. “It’s even hard to say, ‘This is the problem, so this is the solution.’ Education is much more complex than it was at the beginning of my career.”
Judging by the sheer amount of new laws, academic standards and funding questions coming down the pike for this year, his observation is right on.
Senate Bill 191, passed in 2010, is set to redefine how teachers, principals and schools are assessed in the state. Big pieces of those new laws are set to take effect this year, as are new guidelines that affect curriculum in Colorado schools.
Add to that the $950 million tax increase proposal for schools scheduled for the ballot this November, and there are plenty of complex changes facing the public education system in Colorado for the 2013-14 academic year.
John sees promise in those reforms. Redefining standards to properly prepare students for college, for example, is a bold step in the right direction. Making sure that kids don’t have to learn lessons they should have mastered in high school after they start their first year in college should be at the top of the list of priorities.
“These are the skills that every high school student needs to have. That’s something that I’ve believed in my entire educational life,” he notes.
But such broad reforms don’t come cheap. The perennial issue of school funding will have a lot to do with how the state adapts to new and old challenges alike. Buckner sees a critical lack of services for students outside of the classroom—the counseling, family aid and other resources that were a standard part of school life when he started his career have largely disappeared because of short funds.
“Things happen to families—when there’s a medical emergency or when there’s a mental health emergency or when there’s a mental health crisis,” he says. “The public services in schools were reduced dramatically. That had an impact on things.”
At Overland, scores on state tests declined on the whole. The school has been a low scorer in the Colorado State Assessment Program and its successor, the Transitional State Assessment Program. But John says those results hint at a bigger issue, one tied to race and resources. The white kids at Overland score similarly to the white students at schools like Cherry Creek High. As in schools across the country, the black and brown students at the school lag behind their white counterparts. At Overland, John says, the problem is more pronounced because of the school’s diverse student body.
Making sure kids of all ethnic and economic backgrounds find a common ground boils down to reform, and reform boils down to funding, he insists. As the complex reforms start to take hold, funding will have a lot to do with their ultimate success.
That’s why the tax question this November is so important for this former principal from Overland.
“Everyone essentially agrees that the current system will not provide the kind of statewide education system that we need to have,” he says. “In the long run, it’s a dramatic improvement over status quo.”
And the status quo, according to John, isn’t keeping up with the ever-increasing complexity of public education.