Making the grade
Mountain Middle School announces grant, new head of school

Future students of Mountain Middle School pose for a photo last summer. The new public charter schoool, based on the successful High Tech model, plans to enroll 140 students in August at a yet-to-be-disclosed location./Photo by Steve Eginoire

by Missy Votel

Durango’s newest charter school has cleared two more hurdles en route to its August start date.

This week, Mountain Middle School announced the hiring of its new head of school – Jackie Oros, an assistant principal at Timberlane Regional Middle School in Plaistow, N.H. – as well as an infusion of nearly $600,000 in grant money over the next three years.

“These funds are so crucial to the year, in training staff and defining the school’s culture,” said MMS President of the Board of Directors Nancy Heleno.

Administered by the Colorado Department of Education, the grant will be split into three annual installments of $195,000. Applied for in February, the grant was above and beyond the $180,000 the school originally asked for.

Since the money is funded on the fiscal year, which runs July 1-June 30, the school has only a few months to spend its first installment. But first, it must re-allocate the additional $15,000 into its budget and submit it for state approval by April 11.

Heleno said the funds will be used for staff training, bringing the school in line with the newest Colorado Academic Standards, legal services and registration.

The funds, unfortunately, cannot be used for facilities. The school, which plans to enroll 140 sixth- through eighth-grade students in the fall, is still narrowing down its choices for a location. Heleno said the search for a vacant, reasonably priced 10,000-square-foot facility somewhere within the vicinity of downtown has not been easy, but she expects an announcement in the next few weeks.

Once the building is secured, she said work will begin in earnest to renovate the space and bring it up to code. Heleno, who served on the facility committee for Animas High School, said it cost $250,000 to transform former North Main retail spaces into a functioning school. And since MMS won’t be able to use its grant money on the building, the school will be relying heavily on community members to pitch in.

“The first thing we’ll have to do is knock down walls because the state mandates the classrooms be a certain square footage,” she said. “We’re asking the community to step up – any person can come in and help us knock down the walls.”

When it comes time for the technical stuff, such as wiring and carpentry, the school will also be relying on good will. “We are asking contractors to donate their labor and materials,” she said.

In addition, the school has held several fund-raisers over the last year to help offset the facilities cost. She said the big selling point for helping out is a recent study that correlated high-functioning charter schools to economic stability in a community. “It raises the standard of every other school, too.” Heleno said. She said quality charter schools, in turn, are also an asset when trying to attract new businesses to an area. “When companies are looking to move here, one of the things employees look at are the schools. That makes a difference in the standard of living.”

Of course, MMS can’t open its doors until it has a staff. Heleno said Oros – who is spending a week in San Diego at High Tech High, upon which MMS is modeled – will begin looking over teacher applications when she returns. Oros herself was culled from a field of 183 applicants.

“Frankly, Jackie was the first to be interviewed, and she set the bar at a place where no one else could reach,” said Heleno of the selection process.

Aside from coming from an award-winning middle school that uses a similar project-based learning approach as MMS, Heleno said Oros exhibited a firm grasp on the unique needs of middle school children.

“Not only are they going through a significant cognitive growth phase and developing physically and hormonally, but it is a really important social and emotional time in a child’s development,” said Heleno. “Jackie understands these intricacies, which increases the chance for academic excellence in high school.”

Oros, who served as her district’s curriculum coordinator, said she looks forward to the challenge and reiterated her reasons for taking the job. “Students need to be engaged in active, purposeful learning; educators should be specifically prepared to work with this unique age group; curriculum needs to be challenging and exploratory; leaders need to be courageous and collaborative; and schools must partner with families, businesses and community groups,” she said. “Mountain Middle School embodies all of these characteristics.”

Once staff is hired, grant money will be used to begin training in the project-based learning that is the core of MMS. The teachers will travel to High Tech Middle School in San Diego as well as the Denver School of Science and Technology, a modified High Tech model. The funds will also be used to bring experts to Durango.

In addition, the school has several events planned through July, including information meetings for the general public as well get-togethers for the students to become acquainted with each other and the concept of project-based learning.

Due to overwhelming interest, MMS held a lottery enrollment March 2. Currently, the sixth grade is filled at 56 with a waitlist of 27; seventh-grade is filled at 56 with a waitlist of 13; and eighth grade is filled at 28 with a waitlist of 18. Heleno said the MMS board was not expecting such a high turnout for eighth-graders and will be looking at the feasibility of adding another 28 seats. She said Escalante and Miller Middle schools together have about 1,000 students, and that MMS’ 140 students is a reflection of the state average ratio between charter and noncharter public schools.

“What this shows is that this community is ready for a quality public education choice,” she said.

In closing, Heleno said school organizers are experiencing newfound exhilaration over how far they’ve come over the last several months of hard work. “We are really excited. We are overwhelmed on a daily basis, but it’s all positive and fantastic,” she said. •

For more on Mountain Middle School, visit



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