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Skills for Living & Learning board closes REACH doors
9/19/2008 By: Melanie Mazur
Without enough students to keep a program going, the board for Skills for Living and Learning announced that Tuesday was the last day for the non-profit school.
"We had an outstanding staff in place to provide a quality academic experience for our students," the board wrote in a letter to community members that appears on Page 2 of this edition. "However, without a certain number of students, the program would not bring in enough funds to operate in a fiscally responsible manner."
REACH had four teachers for 26 K-12 students, and needed 50 students to be economically viable, said the school’s new director, Julé Skoglund.
The day after REACH closed, Susan Livingston, the director of Skills for Living and Learning, announced the opening of a new school for kindergarten through fifth grade, Piedra Learning Community.
In a letter to families, Livingston wrote that the school would have two teachers, Cecile Gabellini-Diffey and Gayle Dupree, and she would provide assistance and occupational therapy to students.
"Instruction will follow an accredited curriculum meeting Colorado standards," Livingston wrote. "We will emphasize hands on learning and the development of a community of learners." The school would have a maximum of 20 students.
REACH, which stands for Resource, Enrichment and Academic Choices, was run as part of Skills for Living and Learning, a local non-profit agency that also provides occupational and physical therapy for children. Livingston is the director of Skills for L&L, and the board hired Skoglund to direct the REACH program this year after problems arose last spring in the program, when Livingston was directing REACH.
REACH had contracts with the Bayfield and Ignacio school districts and received some state and local funding for teaching students in an alternative setting.
Bayfield Superintendent Don Magill said the Piedra Learning Community would not receive a contract or funding from the district this school year.
"We would consider to support some kind of program, but not for a year," Magill said.
If the Skills organization or another school brought a proposal for the school board next spring, the district would consider it, he said. Don Mooney and Bill Faust, both members of the Bayfield school board, said they support an alternative school in the area and would like to look at proposals for next year.
Juvie Jones, superintendent at the Ignacio School District, said he spoke with Livingston earlier this week, and he thinks the district will sign a contract with the new school to continue teaching students from the Ignacio district.
Skoglund said she and Laura Driver, a teacher in the REACH program, were looking at ways of opening another private school next fall.
"We would hope to have more time and be a separate entity from REACH and the program they had, without any of the past handing over us," she said. "We want to provide for the needs of our students."
Last year, controversy erupted at the school when two students created a computer presentation with Ku Klux Klan and racist images, dismembered bodies, and other violent imagery. Staff members said the presentation was left on an unsupervised school computer, and that Livingston would not remove it, even though they had asked her to. Some staff members who later complained to the Times about Livingston’s supervision of the school were fired.
Although REACH was run separately from Skills for Living and Learning, they were housed in the same building leased from the Bayfield School District, part of the former middle school on South Street. The board of directors of Skills for Living and Learning oversaw both programs.
"We had a really, really strong team very committed to the students," Skoglund said. Particularly for high school students who hadn't fit in well at other schools, Skoglund said closing REACH is a real loss.
Jen Rumore, whose son attended REACH for the past two years, said losing the REACH school is a loss for parents and students who need choices in education.
Rumore said she believes at a minimum, Livingston did not support the revamped REACH program, and that she thinks Livingston wanted it to fail.
Many parents were contacted about the new school before REACH was closed, she said.
Rumore said she and her husband are now deciding whether to enroll their son at a private school in Durango or at Bayfield Elementary, where she said the staff has been very helpful in talking with her about her options.
Rumore said her son benefited from the field trips and experience-based learning the school offered last year, but she had him independently tested, and he is not academically prepared for first grade this year. She believes this is in part because Gabellini-Diffey, his teacher last year, is not a certified teacher. Another former REACH parent also said her daughters fell behind in grade level last year. She also believed Livingston had recruited students to the new school before REACH had closed. Rumore added that she thought the new REACH program has improved teaching this year under Skoglund and the new staff members.
"I thought it was awesome," she said.
The staff at Skills for Living and Learning and the Piedra Living Community did not return calls from the Times seeking comment.