- Overland Trail Middle School
27J grad talks funding, impacts
Recent grad brings unique perspective to community investigation of finances
“When I got to college, I felt like those around me were so much smarter and had done so much more than me,” Gaby Chavez recalled as she looked out to the lake surrounding the back of the Reunion Coffeehouse. It was a warm day outside, and the patio was full of chatter from other tables.
She turned back to me. “But the truth is, they just had more opportunities within their districts, and I should have had access to those opportunities, too.”
Gaby is a long-time Commerce City resident, yet, this was her first visit to Reunion Coffeehouse. The burgeoning coffee shop is one example of the growth and changes happening in 27J Schools’ communities over the past 20 years.
While some see a tension between “old” and “new,” Gaby sees it differently. Coming back home a year after graduating from Eagle Ridge Academy, she sees both the old and the new as essential components that make up the 27J community — a community that she is still a part of.
Gaby, now a student at the University of Denver studying psychology and Italian, had a big realization upon starting college.
“I talked with other students from Colorado, and their public education experiences were very different from mine,” Gaby reflected. “I started to realize that 27J had done its best to prepare me for life after high school, but it failed to provide me with the opportunities other districts gave their students.”
Getting to know students from other districts and hearing about their K-12 experiences drove home the reality that 27J’s lack of funding meant Gaby was denied access to the resources she should have in school.
When 27J Schools, facing a continued lack of funding, made the decision to shift to a four-day school week in 2018, Gaby’s school, Eagle Ridge Academy, followed suit. As a high-achieving student with a lot of extracurricular experience, Gaby felt the squeeze.
“I didn’t like the four-day school week,” Gaby recalled. “My schedule flipped upside down and my days were so long. I would get home after 7 p.m. on school nights, and I would feel physically and mentally tired.”
Gaby wanted answers. As a sophomore, she heard 27J was forming a new Student Advisory Council (SAC) with Superintendent Chris Fiedler. Gaby jumped at the opportunity to be a part of this effort to have students’ voices and perspectives heard by the number one person in charge.
SAC is composed of sophomores, juniors and seniors representing each district high school (27J Online Academy, Brighton High School, Eagle Ridge Academy, Innovations and Options, Prairie View High School, and Riverdale Ridge High School). The council meets with the Superintendent and makes monthly presentations to the 27J Board of Education.
The first point Gaby brought up to the Superintendent and the 27J Board of Education as a SAC representative was the impact of the four-day school week on students. After hearing her concerns, district staff explained why the move to the four-day school week was the best option to not only save money, but also to attract and retain more teachers.
“After understanding why the decision was made, it wasn’t as hard to deal with the negatives that came with the four-day week as a student,” she said. “However, I also saw how this explanation was something we wouldn’t even consider or be aware of as students. A lot of students were only seeing and experiencing the impact, but not understanding the reasoning behind it.”
This led Gaby to focus the rest of her time in SAC on closing the gap between students and the district by visiting and talking to students from schools around the district.
After graduating from 27J Schools, the transition from high school to college was not easy for Gaby, even with her extensive school involvement and stellar grades.
Gaby was frequently reminded of the resources she lacked during her time at 27J. She would talk with a lot of students from Colorado and hear about the kinds of public education experiences she missed out on. Opportunities like access to the latest technology, arts and science programs with intensive, personalized support for each student, sufficient staffing to meet mental health needs, and sufficient staffing and support for second-language learners. Too often, these were not available in 27J.
Sufficient staffing and support for second-language learners is a personally important issue to Gaby. As a second-language learner student at Second Creek Elementary School and Stuart Middle School, there were very few students who looked and spoke like Gaby during her time there. She remembers speaking in Spanish, the only language she knew, and seeing nothing but blank stares from others.
“Although there are a lot more Latinos moving to 27J boundary areas, there will always be a need for more programs, support, and parent outreach and engagement for Spanish-speaking families,” she said.
Gaby knows these types of supportive, educational experiences can only be provided if there’s adequate funding. Having been a part of SAC, she is well aware of the stark fact that 27J Schools has not passed a mill-levy override since 1999 – 23 years ago. A mill levy override is the only local option to fund increased school support staff, attracting and retaining high-quality teachers, and increasing program offerings at schools.
When Gaby was invited this summer to participate in 27J’s Blue Ribbon Commission, a group charged to intensely study 27J’s financial situation and provide recommendations on future funding actions, she joined without a second thought.
Although she’s already graduated from 27J, Gaby’s siblings still attend 27J schools. After realizing how a lack of funding impacted her education opportunities, she understands how strong schools build strong communities.
“There is no reason we shouldn’t have more,” she said. “From the outside looking in, our community may think the district is not struggling – but it is.
“We’ve put in the time and effort to study the facts. We understand what’s really happening with 27J’s funding, and our friends, family and neighbors are the only ones who can advocate for our students and the future of our community.”
On August 23, Gaby will join two other commission members and present the group’s findings and recommendations on how to 27J can move forward to catch up to neighboring districts.
Gaby Chavez is a young leader and advocate for students in 27J Schools. We are #27JProud of her leadership. We appreciate her willingness to have honest conversations about the experiences and challenges our past and current students face.