Woodland Park RE-2 School District Rocked by “Sick-Out” Protest and More Upheaval

Photo By Erin O'Connell

Move to Boot 6th Graders Out of Middle School Sparks Outrage

Trevor Phipps

A recent announcement made by the Woodland Park School District administrators and Interim Superintendent Ken Witt again sparked tension and controversy within the community, leading this time to the first ever declaration of an official “sick-out” day by RE-2 teachers.

At issue is whether the administration is relinquishing too much power to the Merit Academy, which now share WP school facilities,  at the risk of jeopardizing the RE-2 District and displacing many students.

Similar to what happened when Witt was hired earlier this year, parents, students and teachers last week launched several protests to speak out against the district’s most recent decision to make a major change in where students in the district will attend school for the ’23-’24 school year.

According to multiple accounts, last Tuesday afternoon the district’s interim superintendent announced that for the next school year, sixth grade students would attend one of the district’s three elementary schools instead of going to the middle school. The announcement came without being discussed at any recent school board meetings, and staff members and teachers have said that none of the staff was consulted or asked for their input.

Board members and the interim superintendent, though, told local media outlets that restructuring the schools has been an issue that has been discussed over the last year. They said that since it was a decision made by the district’s administration, it did not have to go to the school board for a vote.

Then on Wednesday, the day after the announcement was made, the district sent out a letter to parents of students at the Woodland Park Middle School saying that a number of teachers called out sick. “Parents, please be advised that the middle school has a significant number of classrooms that will be covered by guest teachers today, March 1,” the letter to the parents reported. “Substitute teachers, counselors, and district administration will be covering classes. A large portion of the day will be used as self-directed learning day. If you feel working from home today is a better environment for your student today, please contact the attendance office and we will mark your student as a remote learner today.”

According to local news reports, a number estimated at between 25 and 30 staff members at the middle school called out sick last Wednesday in what is being labeled as a “sick-out” protest. Later that day, the district issued a press release condemning the teachers’ actions and explaining why the decision was made to move sixth grade students to the elementary schools.

“After careful consideration, Woodland Park School District has made a strategic decision to optimize its facilities and enhance academic performance by expanding its three elementary schools to PK-6 grade schools and relocating 6th grade from the middle school to the elementary schools,” the press release reported. “This new configuration will allow for proper utilization of space for both the Woodland Park Middle School (WPMS) and Merit Academy as enrollment continues to grow.”

Administration officials said that the new configuration will benefit students in several ways. “Firstly, our elementary schools strongly emphasize fundamental skills such as literacy and numeracy,” the press release continued. “By incorporating the 6th grade into our elementary schools, students will have a better opportunity to establish a solid foundation in these core subjects before transitioning to the more complex middle school environment. Also, middle school can be a time of heightened peer pressure as students begin to navigate the complexities of social relationships and group dynamics. Staying in elementary school for 6th grade allows students to focus on their academic and personal growth without feeling as much social pressure.”

The district also said that since sixth graders will now be the oldest children in the schools, they will have opportunities to take on leadership roles, and the change will “help students to develop important skills like empathy, communication, and responsibility.”

 “Sick-out Protest” Condemned by School  Officials

District officials also condemned the “call-out-sick protest.” “We understand the frustration caused to our students and families,” district officials said. “It is unconscionable that some would target Woodland Park families to elevate adult angst at the expense of our student’s classroom learning.”

 In a television interview with KRDO, one board member went further and labeled the actions as extremely irresponsible and disrespectful to the community.

Many members of the community have said, though, that the recent change has less to do with what is best for the children. Moreover, they contend the decision was made to allow for more room for students attending the Merit Academy charter school.

It was then announced last week that Witt would be meeting with middle school employees Thursday morning to discuss the change.

Wednesday afternoon a post was put on the website supportwpschools.com asking members of the community to come out Thursday morning to protest and show the teachers at the middle school that they had support from the community.

On Thursday morning, more than 100 people lined the streets around the school holding signs to protest the district’s decision and show their support for staff members. Many of the protest signs took direct aim at the interim superintendent, with such signs as “We are at Witt’s End,” and pleas for the district boss to “pack his bags” and leave.

At the protest, community members and parents told local news stations that the protest came about due to the fact that the district did not collaborate effectively with stakeholders like students, teachers, and parents when the decision was made to put sixth graders into elementary schools. Some even brought up a survey conducted last November that asked hundreds of staff and community members the question as to what school sixth graders should be in. The majority of staff and community members said in the survey that they preferred sixth graders stay at the middle school.