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Poudre School District tables vote on Polaris school merger

A+group+of+Poudre+School+District+students+gather+outside+the+Poudre+School+District+Information+Technology+Center+Oct.+10.+Students+and+parents+protested+the+proposed+vote+to+merge+Polaris+Expeditionary+Learning+School.+Under+the+merger%2C+younger+students+would+be+relocated+to+Olander+Elementary+School%2C+and+older+students+would+be+moved+to+Blevins+Middle+School.+
Collegian | Allie Seibel
A group of Poudre School District students gather outside the Poudre School District Information Technology Center Oct. 10. Students and parents protested the proposed vote to merge Polaris Expeditionary Learning School. Under the merger, younger students would be relocated to Olander Elementary School, and older students would be moved to Blevins Middle School.

Poudre School District voted 7-0 to delay the decision relating to the possible merger of Polaris Expeditionary Learning School Oct. 10.

The merger has drawn sharp criticism from students and parents alike and spurred a walkout Monday to bring attention to the issue.

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Polaris, an alternative K-12 school, promotes the expeditionary learning model, which focuses highly on creativity in the classroom. Classroom content standards are expanded to be covered and studied over a longer period of time than at a standard school in “Expeditions.”

Some Polaris families transfer to the school to benefit from the alternative learning model, with the school having a high population of neurodivergent students.

“I graduated from Polaris four months ago,” said Isabel Maculo, a protester outside the board meeting. “Polaris is the sort of school that has such a strong community. I honest to God don’t think I would still be alive if I would have not gone to that school. The teachers (are on a) first-name basis (with students) — super friendly, amazing people. The other students are incredible. It’s like family there.”

Under the proposed merger, Polaris would split into three entities; kindergarten through fifth grade students would be sent to Olander Elementary School, and middle school students would be sent to Blevins Middle School.

The current space would then house Centennial High School and Poudre Community Academy, an alternative high school that focuses on students with disabilities or alternative ways of learning.

“(The merger) would be completely disrupting all of the small communities,” Maculo said. “There’s a lot to be said for having got all of (the students) together. The (school) cannot function as it is in the bigger sort of manner that they want. … I am here because that kind of disgusts me, and I graduated from Polaris. I feel like it’s necessary of me to give back to the community by saving and helping try to save the school that helped me so much (and) to give that opportunity to other students in the future.”

Student protesters from both Polaris and Centennial wanted to halt the school board’s vote around the merger.

“We are out here protesting the decision by Superintendent (Brian) Kingsley to basically merge a bunch of schools, which we believe is going to … destroy their culture and possibly destroy their academic success,” said Otis Hepp, a protester from Polaris who wore a shirt decorated with the words, “Halt the vote.” Hepp said Polaris is an integral part of the community for all students and families.

“(The merger would) eliminate the safe spaces that have been provided to the LGBTQ community within places like Polaris,” Hepp said. “This isn’t just about Polaris. There are people from Centennial; there are people from PCA. I’ve talked to a couple people, and I don’t think anyone’s really happy about the move. If we feel like there hasn’t been enough time to consider this, we feel like none of us have been consulted on this. They didn’t talk to the community, and the teachers found out about it a couple of days before we did. So this is just too soon. If there is change that needs to be made, … we can work with them. But they can’t just make a decision that impacts us.”

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Poudre School District sent out a message regarding the potential merger Oct. 5, five days before the board meeting and vote.

“One of the biggest things we’re trying to communicate today is that we are willing to work with them,” said Gunnar Salzmann, a protester with Hepp. “We acknowledge that, like, they might feel threatened by us. And we do feel like we’re trying to send the message that we’re willing to work with them. And we’re willing to collaborate to make this plan work because we think there’s an opportunity for these spaces to grow. However, how they’re going about it right now, we think, is going to completely undermine all of the schools that are involved.”

Crowded outside of the Johannsen Support Services Center while the packed board meeting took place inside, families and students gathered around an inflatable movie screen broadcasting a livestream of the school board meeting. Parents and students came with signs and loudspeakers, urging the school district to delay the vote.

“I’m here today because Polaris is what has made me who I am,” said Aria Weiner, one of the organizers of the protest. “The community and the people and the teachers have been what turned me into a performer and an activist and a historian and, like, all of the things that I love to do.”

Weiner is a student at Polaris and credits the school for giving her the courage and desire to protest to save her school.

“Polaris is a place where people can go and truly feel like they are understood by their community and by their teachers,” Weiner said. “And that is a place that cannot be found in many places.”

During the school board meeting, Kingsley called for the school board to delay the vote, which eventually was motioned and passed by way of a 7-0 vote. Kingsley said that as a district, PSD was not ready to make such an impactful decision. Kingsley acknowledged the downward trends surrounding finances and enrollment since 2016, both of which are factors that prompted the suggested merger.

“I want to be incredibly clear: This board hired me — you hired me over two years ago to be bold,” Kingsley said. “And to be resourceful, acknowledging the way of things in our system. We’re not healthy, not just in terms of where academics were trending but in terms of where our finances were going and enrollment trends that have been trending downward since 2016 without any significant changes across the system to make ourselves whole. That’s not your fault. That’s none of your fault. But I want to acknowledge it is my responsibility to navigate the competing interests of all 54 of our school communities that are equally as proud.”

Kingsley called for a delay of the vote for three to four months with any possible changes not being implemented until the 2025-26 school year.

“I think it’s in the best interest of this community for us to not take a vote tonight,” Kingsley said during his presentation. “I believe that we’re not ready. I have engaged with hundreds of students over the last two weeks. I have engaged via email, via meetings and coffee shops and concerts and restaurants, in the hallway and in my neighborhood with many members of our community who want to acknowledge that they have ideas of their own that have merit and value. … I do believe that the ideas that were put on the table initially were in good faith and trying to accelerate the work moving forward. We simply can’t do that alone, and we need to identify ways to bring the community along.”

Following a 23-person community comment, PSD will table decisions surrounding Polaris until a later date.

“There are schools that are here today in the advocacy of our young people, (and) I’ve never been more proud,” Kingsley said. “While I wish it was under different circumstances that people were stepping into the democratic process, it makes me really proud that our system is working.”

Reach Allie Seibel at news@collegian.com or on Twitter @allie_seibel_.

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Allie Seibel
Allie Seibel, Editor in Chief
Allie Seibel is the editor in chief of The Rocky Mountain Collegian, a role she loves more and more with each day. Previously the news editor and news director of The Collegian, Seibel has a background in news, but she’s excited to branch out and experience every facet of content this and following years. Seibel is a sophomore journalism and media communications major minoring in business administration and legal studies. She is a student in the Honors Program and is also an honors ambassador and honors peer mentor. She also is a satellite imagery writer for the Cooperative Institute for Research in the Atmosphere at Colorado State University. Seibel is from Colorado Springs, Colorado, and loves how The Collegian has gotten her acquainted with Fort Collins and CSU. When she’s not writing, reporting or in class, you can always find her with a book, cross-stitching, planning where to travel to next, trying out a new recipe or listening to Taylor Swift. Seibel is incredibly proud of The Collegian’s past and understands the task of safeguarding its future. She’s committed to The Collegian’s brand as an alt-weekly newspaper and will continue to advance its status as a strong online publication while preserving the integrity and tradition of the print paper. Seibel is excited to begin a multi-year relationship with readers at the helm of the paper and cannot wait to see how the paper continues to grow. Through initiatives like the new science desk and letting each individual desk shine, Seibel is committed to furthering The Collegian and Rocky Mountain Student Media over the next few years.

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