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Struggling Rural Colo. District Immersed in Long-Term Improvement Process

When Rocco Fuschetto started working as superintendent of Ignacio school district three years ago, he said he faced a host of challenges: low student test scores, low expectations for students and staff, and the general sense that education was not important.

Fuschetto is working to address those and other issues, and the school district's improvement efforts recently received the attention of John Hill, executive director of the National Rural Education Association. An acquaintance of Hill's is helping the district revise and rewrite its curriculum, and Hill visited the district to see their work. Hill wrote about the district in a recent e-mail to the membership of the NREA.

"The staff is student oriented," said Hill, who described employees as focused, devoted, and caring.

Rural Ignacio is surrounded by the 1,000-square mile Southern Ute Indian reservation, which is headquartered on the north edge of the town. Ignacio school district enrolls about 720 students who live across 210 square miles. The district has the highest percentage of Native American students in the state, and 63 percent of its students are considered low-income.

Fuschetto said his first change was implementing a dress code for staff: no blue jeans, shorts or printed t-shirts.

"We ask for higher expectations for all," he said.

Teachers were asked to post objectives in their rooms daily, and the district created a high expectation committee that invited 400 residents to a free dinner and asked them ways to improve morale and community involvement. A $49.8 million construction program will give the district new facilities by the fall 2015.

As for advice for other rural districts, Fuschetto suggested creating early release days weekly so staff could collaborate and work on curriculum.

"Create a vision and follow it, do not change in mid-course. Be firm but fair that it is everyone's responsibility and if you are not willing to put the time then look for another job," he said. "We have had several that left because of the amount of work."

He recommended giving staff a stipend for their extra work and offering bonuses, even in tough times, to show staff they are appreciated.

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