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New digs for Animas High School

JERRY McBRIDE/Durango Herald

It’s been a rush to get the new buildings ready for the first day of classes Monday, but Animas High School officials say it’s going to happen. Preparing the main office last week are, from left, Kerry Masterson, parent volunteer, Maureen Truax, school registrar, Lacey Meek, 17, a senior at the school, and Laurel Rodd, main office manager. Lacey is the daughter of Greg and Sabrina Meek.

By Shane Benjamin Herald staff writer

Shreds of carpet, power tools and loose wires are expected to be tidied up in time for students’ arrival next week at Animas High School.

The charter school, in its fifth year, has moved from its previous home, a converted strip mall on North Main Avenue in Durango, to new digs at the base of Twin Buttes, 1.7 miles west of the U.S. Highway 550/160 intersection.

“We’ll be ready to go,” said Michael Ackerman, executive director of the school. “We’re psyched for this.”

The school announced in March that it was relocating, leaving itself a tight schedule to move before the 2013-14 school year.

Two buildings of 11,000 square feet each were prefabricated in Dallas, loaded on 28 tractor-trailer trucks, and delivered in June to Durango. The buildings are brand new on the inside and sided with a mix of wood and corrugated recycled metal on the outside. They include 20 classrooms, offices for the staff, biology lab, physics lab and a sprawling cafeteria.

“The timeline was tighter than anybody wanted, and we got a late start,” Ackerman said.

He credited construction crews and Twin Buttes developers for making it possible.

“The mantra was always, ‘It’s for the kids. August 19 school must start. We can’t delay school,’” Ackerman said.

Animas High prides itself on curriculum-based projects. Students give presentations, build exhibitions, create websites and take impromptu field trips as part of the learning experience.

“Our teachers are told that class is wherever they take the class,” Ackerman said.

Animas High started in the fall of 2009 serving only freshmen. It added a grade level every year, growing from 73 students the first year to 308 students this year, Ackerman said. The school’s charter allows up to 444 students.

A landscape architect has created areas for a sculpture, pavilion, amphitheater and outdoor classroom – or a socratic circle – where students will discuss topics such as nature versus nurture, what is the truth of war for a soldier, or is conflict inevitable for the human species.

A single-track mountain bike trail that connects to the Twin Buttes network passes right in front of the school. Animas High has a Division II mountain bike team that is currently state champions, he said.

“Mountain bike practice is going to be as easy as, ‘OK, everybody outside,’ and off we go,” Ackerman said.

Animas High students had the strongest scores in the county on the Transitional Colorado Assessment Program. The percent of 10th-graders who scored proficient or advanced on the test’s various subjects was 5 to 20 percentage points above Durango School District 9-R. Animas High School’s ninth-graders performed between 6 percentage points and 11 percentage points better than their peers in 9-R schools.

Ackerman said he is aiming higher. He likes to call Animas a “rural beacon of excellence.”

“Animas has experienced an incredibly fast acceleration to success,” he said. “Our school is really darn good, and I feel like we put the final pieces in place to be great.”

“It’s really nice to give them an environment, a space that is going to support what they’re doing,” he said.

The school will create individualized student “dashboards” this year that will help monitor students’ growth in various areas on a more frequent basis than once a year with the CSAP tests.

Ackerman attributes the school’s success in statewide testing to its small size and supportive culture.

“We’re working with young adults. If we can create a culture and a climate that is physically and emotionally safe, then I can ask you to take academic risk,” he said.

“If you’re in an environment where you feel OK to take a risk, then I as a teacher can set the bar pretty darn high – probably higher than you can achieve – and you’ll go for it,” he said.

shane@durangoherald.com. Herald Staff Writer Emery Cowan contributed to this report.

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