The Middle Years

  • Story and Photos by: Caroline Grundy

Photo: Josh VanAuken helping students repair a broken bike chain.

Across St. Vrain Valley schools, our middle schools are designing unique programs to foster engagement and advance student achievements.

Enter room 406 at Longs Peak Middle School and you will see dozens of bikes lined up on the floor and hanging on racks from the wall. Students work in groups of two and three to change bike tires, repair broken chains, and replace old bike grips. Home to the Longs Peak Bike Shop, this program is run by Instructional Coach, Josh VanAuken, who had a vision to increase students’ sense of belonging with a broader goal of increasing attendance rates. In 2016, a $700 grant from the Education Foundation for the St. Vrain Valley provided the seed funds needed to start the shop.

With degreasers and tools in place, the bikes came pouring in from community donors. Now students are busy refurbishing old bikes, knowing that better versions will go back out to members of the community. The program has partnered with nonprofits like the YMCA of Longmont and Bicycle Longmont to donate over 200 bicycles during the holidays, in addition to providing ongoing donations to individuals in need.

VanAuken was not bike savvy prior to the start of the program. In fact, when asked about the Longs Peak Bike Shop, VanAuken will consistently repeat that “this program has nothing to do with bicycles – even though it seems to have everything to do with bicycles.” Rather, he explains, the program is an active process to build student engagement. The Bike Shop is a place where students collaborate to work on problems, build relationships, and find their sense of self to feel a part of the larger community. Achieving these social-emotional successes helps students academically and allows them to consider positive next steps. Autumn Harvey is an eighth grade student whose participation in the program has encouraged her to think of her future. According to Autumn, “One of my goals next year is to be a part of the MBSA (Medical and BioScience Academy) program at Longmont High School. In part, my time in the Bike Shop has helped me make this decision. Although building bikes and the MBSA program are not exactly the same, the Bike Shop showed me that a real-world, practical program inspires me and motivates me to be a contributor in the community.”

“The Bike Shop showed me that a real-world, practical program inspires me and motivates me to be a contributor in the community.”

Autumn Harvey, Eighth Grade, Longs Peak Middle school

Photo: Sam Degen, eighth grade student at Westview Middle, using an iPad in Tech Squad.

Breaking Down Barriers

“The more connected students feel to the school community the more likely they are to succeed and excel in academics and beyond,” says Principal of Coal Ridge Middle School, Liza Nybo. In the 2017-2018 school year, a team of teachers at Coal Ridge Middle School worked together on a design thinking challenge focused on staff passion projects. This group wanted students to feel more engaged with the hope to enhance school culture and community. In looking at the data, they saw that students who did not have equal access to after-school activities were not performing as well academically. The team noted that, while the school has a wide offering of academic support programs, athletics, arts, and other co-curriculars, many students do not have access to transportation in order to participate in activities outside of normal school hours.

Lance Yoxsimer, Director of St. Vrain Valley Schools’ Transportation Department, has worked with schools like Coal Ridge Middle to “break down the barriers between academic support programs and students’ transportation needs.” Hearing stories of students’ lack of access to support programs, Transportation now provides an after-school academic bus at four St. Vrain schools. The buses transport students to a central walking location at the end of the after-school activities.

After-school programming expands connections throughout the school because students interact with peers they do not see during the school day. Principal Nybo has seen some sixth graders who will try every after-school club before they find their right fit within the community. Through after-school academic supports and activities, Nybo says, “students see themselves overcoming challenges which boosts their confidence and willingness to try new things.”

Students Supporting Students

When Westview Middle School received a large stipend for new technology several years ago, it was as exciting as it was overwhelming. With an influx of laptops, document cameras, and iPads came a need for a group of trained personnel to manage the devices and troubleshoot problems. Instructional Librarian, Cindy Thompson, knew the best group for the job would be Westview Middle students. What started as a volunteer effort of students has grown into the popular elective class, Tech Squad, where students receive a week of “boot camp” training and travel throughout the school during their elective period to solve tech issues as they arise. Tech Squad sees up to 50 student and staff members daily seeking support with technology and devices.

Sam Degen is an eighth grader at Westview Middle School who has been participating in the program for three years. After seeing his sister’s experience in Tech Squad, he was inspired to also join. She would come home every evening and enthusiastically share what she had accomplished through Tech Squad, which encouraged him to also want to help people throughout his school. According to Sam, “Tech Squad has improved my leadership skills in helping others and has made me more of an empathetic person.” Sam says that the customer service element to Tech Squad comes first, sharing that many people who reach out to Tech Squad are frustrated about an issue. According to Sam, “Just a smile can do better than anything else. It’s a very powerful and simple tool that people overlook.”

St. Vrain Valley Schools’ goal is to ensure that every student is involved in some activity within their school community. Whether it be arts, athletics, co-curriculars, or student-led clubs, student engagement exponentially increases social and academic success.

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