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Back to School After the (Worse of) Pandemic


After two years of pandemic disruptions that closed schools and left many students struggling to keep up with their educations, Interim Cortez Superintendent Tom Burris wants the district to teach students how to be students again. This story is sponsored by TruWest Auto Outlet and FASTSIGNS


After two years of pandemic disruptions that closed schools and forced students to learn online, kids have forgotten how to be students. Interim Cortez superintendent Tom Burris wants to change that with the start of a new school year. You're watching the Local News Network, brought to you by Fastsigns and TrueWest Auto. I'm Wendy Graham Settle. Interim superintendent Tom Burris is no stranger to the Montezuma-Cortez school district. He worked 11 years for Cortez schools as an assistant principal, then principal of the middle school, and served in various capacities at central office. He left to work as superintendent for Truth or Consequences, then Roswell, New Mexico, before retiring last year and moving back home to Montezuma County. He came out of retirement to serve as interim superintendent after the school board suddenly dismissed Risha VanderWey, who had served as superintendent for less than a year. Like many school districts nationwide, Cortez has struggled to regain some sense of normalcy after two years of pandemic disruptions. Teacher shortages, behavioral problems, and absentee students are plaguing the district and interfering with student learning. Cortez will have to teach kids how to be students again.

As one of my opening things with the staff, I went around with three-by-five cards, and I said, "What do we do really well? What do we need to improve on? What do we need to add? What do we need to get rid of? And tell me 10 people in town that I need to go meet." And so the top three things that we need to improve on are student discipline, student attendance, and pay.

Successful learning starts with showing up, and Burris said the district will be aggressive in its efforts to get kids to school. School principals and counselors will first conduct an intervention with families who have students with excessive absences to develop an attendance plan. And if that doesn't work, the district will take those families to court. Once kids are in the classroom, they have to behave themselves. And Burris said the district will take a firm stand with discipline this year.

We have great teachers. They just need to do what they do best and not be hampered by attendance issues or discipline issues in the classroom or whatever. Teachers don't need to be harassed, threatened, hurt by students and...

Or the parents. And I won't stand for that.

Like schools nationwide, Cortez schools are plagued with staff and teacher shortages. So much so that the district was forced to close Manaugh Elementary School for the school year. The district has about 30 openings, with classes starting on August 15th. This summer, the school board increased the base salary from $31,000 to $36,000 a year to improve retention. But it's still significantly lower than other districts in the region. Starting salary for a Durango teacher for example, is $44,700 a year. In Farmington, it's $41,000 a year. Burris hopes to increase supply by paying teacher candidates to obtain their teaching certificates in what he calls his Grow Your Own Program.

My method of the Grow Your Own Program is I'll pay for the classes upfront. And I want you to pass them, of course. And you only have one chance at this. If you fail your classes or you drop out or whatever, I just say, "Thank you very much for trying, and you're not going to be going forward." But if you go forward, you know, pass your classes and do that, we are going to continue paying for your class upfront, so you don't have that financial burden to start with. And hopefully, we get you to be a teacher for us in the district. And then I'll require that you stay here at least three years

And goal number one, get kids caught up academically after falling behind during the pandemic's disruptions.

We've got kids who are way behind because they were unmotivated. My opinion on online classes, you put the most irresponsible group in the most responsible position by letting them motivate themself to complete their coursework. I know what kind of kid I was, and I'd be outside. So we have to work with kids where they are. We've got to bring them forward and get them ready for the next school year.

With the move to a four-day school week, teachers will have two days a month to work on curriculum. Burris says the district will work on grade level standards so that all teachers in one grade level are teaching to the same standard and that students are learning what they need to learn to proceed to the next grade.

We've got to use the standards to establish our lesson plans, to establish that alignment. And then, as we talked a minute ago, the vertical alignment, we've got to make sure that we're preparing kids for the next grade.

First day of classes is Monday, August 15th. Classes are scheduled Monday through Thursday this year. For more information, visit Thank you for watching this edition of the Local News Network. I'm Wendy Graham Settle.


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