5 Questions With: Damon Debernardi, David Stauffer, Matt Jackman, Megan Jensen, Chad Shelley, Jason Brown, John Bettolo; Candidates for Sweetwater County School District #1 Board of Trustees

In today’s edition of “5 Questions With…” Wyo4News reached out to Sweetwater County School District #1 Board of Trustees Candidates Damon Debernardi, Kenneth Lorimer, Fredann Soto, Michael Lopiccolo David Stauffer, Matt Jackman, Megan Jensen, Chad Shelley, Jason Brown, John Bettolo about subjects of importance to Wyoming voters.

Wyo4News received answers from Debernardi, Stauffer, Jackman, Jensen, Shelley, Brown, Bettolo.


Jason Brown:I believe that the School District is doing a good job with school safety. One change that I would like to see, depending on funding, is the reconfiguration of the front office area in several of the older schools in the District. While they can see who they are buzzing in to the building over video, it would be safer if they were able to see them face to face before deciding to let them into the secure space of the building.

Damon Debernardi:The schools need to provide a safe and supportive learning environment for all of our students. Teachers and administrators need to continue developing connections with students so students can feel comfortable bringing any issue to the attention of staff. The schools need to consistently enforce district policy regarding bullying and harassment.  The schools need to support the mental, physical and emotional health of all of our students.

David Stauffer:In order to insure the safety of our children in our schools we should do the following:1.Continue to update our schools with the best safety technology. 2.Educate students and faculty on safety procedures and protocols. 3.Partner with local law enforcement and mental health professions to implement a joint plan of Action to help educate district employees, students and parents on mental health issues.

Matt Jackman:Every year the district is taking steps to ensure our children’s safety. We have to continue to educate our staff, our students, and making the necessary adjustments to keep our schools as safe as possible. Keeping people that don’t belong in our schools out and making sure we have a capable staff inside the building is something we have to continue. The next and most obvious is step is securing the transportation of our students to and from school. The Highway Patrol and other top safety experts have identified the school bus as the next step for a potential active shooter incident.

John Bettolo: Statistically, students are safer at school than almost anywhere else. I have a great deal of confidence in programs currently in place through the Rock Springs Police department and the Sweetwater County Sheriff’s department. The use of school resource officers is a tremendous asset for our students and I am grateful for the commitment of Chief Pacheco to this program. Recently, schools have implemented more robust security measures and lock down procedures and I would encourage administrators to remain vigilant and continue to practice and refine emergency preparedness plans to keep our students safe.

Megan Jensen:We want our schools to be safe. And by working with law enforcement and everyone in our schools- most importantly our students, our professionals and our families in our community, we can come together to make it better. We need to start a dialogue about a student led solution, with the help of all of us. I was part of a student body where we chose fellow students to train as mediators. Once a week this chosen group of students would learn more about mental health issues and how to educate others through a mental health provider in the community.

Chad Shelley:I believe the ensuring the safety of our students is paramount to their success in the future. Allowing a student to focus on their education without concern for personal safety will help them achieve more while attending school. I believe anti-bullying programs should continually be evaluated and implemented in our schools throughout Sweetwater County District #1. Counseling for those bullying and those being bullied will help limit the fear of aggression within our schools. A continued positive relationship with local and county law enforcement will also help use to achieve a safe environment for learning from potentially harmful or threatening outside sources. Updates to cameras, as well s the number of cameras, surrounding the entrances and outside activity areas of our schools should be re-evaluated frequently.

Graduation rates have dropped 5 percentage points since 2014 what do you propose to change this trend?

Damon Debernardi:It is important that attendance issues are addressed early; children that attend school regularly are much more likely to graduate. Providing a safe and supportive learning environment is essential to keep kids in school.  It is also important to celebrate student achievement inside and outside of the classroom. 

David Stauffer:According to sweetwater1.org since 2007 the Sweetwater county school district # 1 has had a low graduation rate of 67.01 in 2007-08 and a high graduation rate of 78.19 in 2011-12. Graduation rates vary each year based on many factors. We should strive to increase our graduation rate from year to year by focusing on the factors that we can control like hiring the very best teachers and administrators and implementing a strong strategic plan of action.

Matt Jackman:The academy system started in I think 2010 since that time RSHS has created an elite class of student. Propelling and giving them an advantage while the other students fall behind. I am 100% for helping our highest achievers be successful, but not at the expense of the rest of the students. We also have to shift our focus to earlier in the educations process to the Junior High and Elementary levels in our district. Our current policy asks teachers to force students forward even if they do not have the proper skills. Each year the student is advanced to the next grade, and they fall farther behind and eventually becoming lost, we have to make sure the student has the appropriate skills for the next step.

John Bettolo: I would advocate for early identification programs, beginning as early as Kindergarten, looking for students with poor attendance.  Programs to help parents increase student attendance at all levels need to be implemented.  Additionally, research Done by Robert Balfanz from John’s Hopkins University state that students have only a 15% to 25% chance of graduating on time if any of the following three occur: 1) Failing Language Arts or Math classes in grades six or nine, 2) Having less than 85% attendance, or 3) Having unsatisfactory behavior marks in at least one classroom. Intervention programs for attendance and academics (especially Math and Language Arts) need to be implemented starting in 6th grade to help students graduate on time.

Megan Jensen:First, it’s important to take a look at our district website, where I see some reasons to celebrate improvement. We have a lot of work to do in Wyoming as a whole in terms of our graduation rate and what our graduates are taking with them as they transfer to higher education or the workforce. This is another opportunity to talk to our parents, students and community about a solution. Taking a hard look at K-3 curriculum compared to the remainder of a students’ education will be somewhere I would personally like to start.

Chad Shelley:I believe there are many factors which could play a role in graduation rates. In my opinion, many of the vocational programs which may be of interest and train individuals for careers in the more labor-intensive field s are being placed on the “back burner” for more standardized educational goals. I personally did well in the standardized fields but had difficult passing the welding portion of our shop class. Other I knew excelled at welding and woodworking which allowed for a more artistic expression versus a standardized test. There has got to be a way to allow students to express themselves in both arenas of study and graduate from school with a diploma. Another concern I have is the possible loss of quality educators to other districts, or lack of interest of additional quality educators to want to come to Sweetwater School District #1. There continues to be a inherent fear among our current educators for the stability of their positions. While the pay in our district may be higher than some surrounding areas or states, we want to be able to be selective in who qualifies to be a part of our education family. We must also keep those individuals who continue to provide a genuine interest and concern for the educational well-being of our children. Educators without a passion for their students and their subjects of education cannot stimulate the minds of our children. Unstimulated children tend to not excel and prefer the work force to further sense of failure in the classroom.

Jason Brown:Years ago, students were given the ability to check themselves out of school at 18, which made it so that they were checking themselves out of an education. I would like to have programs in place, starting in the 9thgrade or earlier, to help identify students at high risk of not graduating. These at-risk students should be given more opportunities to be successful as a student, such as being able to retake core classes online, or a mentorship program to help them become proficient in the classes that are giving them issues.

Do you think schools are doing enough to educate students to deal with the realities of life after graduation?

David Stauffer: Regardless of the path a student chooses after High School, there are many basic skills and realities of life that many of them are not ready for. Whether they are taught in schools, in homes or a combination of both our kids need to understand basic financial, physical and emotional concepts and strategies that will help them deal with life. Teaching the basics of insurance, investing, debt, physical well-being and stress management should be a high priority in our schools.

Matt Jackman:Unfortunately, they are not. Failing to educate our students in life after graduation isn’t a district problem. Nationwide employers and colleges alike cite new workers as being unable to meet the demands needed outside the school. Students do not have a firm understanding of basic skills such as communication, clear and concise writing, and problem-solving. Many of our failures are a result of technology changing and shaping our lives. We are training students for jobs that will most likely not exist in ten years using outdated teaching techniques.

John Bettolo: I worry if Rock Springs High School students can compete with students from other students based on test scores.  In 2017 only 36.72% of our students were proficient or advanced in Math. 28.2% were proficient or advanced in Reading and 24.92% were proficient or advanced in Science.  In comparison, 40% of students from Laramie High School performed at the proficient or advanced level in each of these content areas.  However, test scores are not the only measure of whether young adults are ready to transition to higher education or the workforce.  I would advocate for partnerships with local employers, Western Wyoming Community College and the University of Wyoming to discuss the performance of graduates and to target specific interventions.   

Megan Jensen:I think that at this point, we are just trying to get by. Our society is changing faster than what we can competently educate our students for their future. They know this, and we are frustrated. In Wyoming, we need to be discussing the difference of our ACT scores compared to the rest of the nation. We could be talking more about testing, what is working and what is not. It’s critical to note that when students are included in a decision that affects them, they are more likely to see it through to success.

Chad Shelley:The preparation for the realities of life is a tough subject. My spouse and I have had many discussions about this as we have raised our children. I believe the current thought in education is to allow for multiple attempts before failure. While in certain instances this would be beneficial to a few students, this should not be the standard. Late assignments are allowed to be turned in weeks after they are due in an attempt to allow for success. This is a real world reality. Not many employers in either the labor-intensive or office setting allow for multiple opportunities to get it done, let alone get it right. As I stated above, some instances require encouragement to try again. If a student does not do well the first time, allow them to try again. If a student fails to turn in an assignment, the opportunity for full credit should be pulled from the table. Our educators should not be required to grade the same assignment multiple times throughout the semester because of late assignments. We must instill responsibility in our children and parents. The reality is that opportunities and success in life come at a price. Sometimes that price is a hard lesson learned about self reliance and responsibility.

Jason Brown:Yes, I think the schools are doing a good job of giving students tools to help them with life after graduation; the “three R’s” apply to most jobs and careers that come to mind. Whether it is reading a MSDS sheet to know what the exposure hazards are for the chemical they are using, being able to read and understand the grading stakes on a construction site, or understanding the math to set up a budget for their first household, Rock Springs students learn the basic skills necessary to be successful in life.

Damon Debernardi:Our schools are trying to educate students about the realities of life after graduation but it’s not a thing that schools are entirely responsible for.  Families play a big part in preparing students for life after graduation as well. The schools can play a role in letting families know what is available to help prepare students for their adult lives.

What programs would you create or expand to assist minority students?

Matt Jackman:Creating a program for minority students is immensely challenging. You have countless cultures and points of view in this community alone. An ideal plan would be more of a support system or homeroom structure where they can meet with ELL teachers, tutors, and other staff whose sole focus can be on those students.

John Bettolo: The intervention program I would advocate for is AVID.  Advancement Via Individual Determination is a program that helps students and teachers focus on common skills that will allow young people to be successful by creating a culture of high expectations.  This program begins in grades 6,7 and 8 with coursework, but the foundations for skill development can begin in elementary schools. AVID helps students discover and take advantage of educational opportunities that they may have never been exposed to before. It also provides a system of support with mentors and tutoring to help students be successful in school.

Megan Jensen:It’s not just the programs that help minority students, although they are there and needed for a reason. Communication is again, key here. Talking to people who have different experiences than I have helps me gain more knowledge about the world around me. Just talking to someone can make a world of difference. Listening to understand is more effective than just listening to reply or react.

Chad Shelley:I am not unaware of any of the current programs for minority students. I look forward to the opportunity to educate myself and expand these programs to benefit these students.

Jason Brown:I think the District made big strides in addressing deficiencies when they implemented an ELL program at all schools, and the ELL teachers are doing a fantastic job assisting English Language Learners in the district. I would love to sit down with the ELL teachers and other District staff to see what ideas they have for assisting English Language Learners and other minority students.

Damon Debernardi:I would be in favor of any program that supports and assists minority students.  The school can engage in partnerships with entities that provide services and support to minority students.  School needs to be a place where all students feel safe and supported so any program that helps with that would be beneficial.

David Stauffer:I do not believe that programs should be created or expanded based on a category like ethnicity, sex, sexual orientation or religion. Programs should be created to assist kids regardless of any type of classification. Programs created should not only focus on students who are currently struggling in some area but for students excelling that need to be pushed even further.

How can the district educational strategy do a better job of preparing students for college or providing vocational opportunities for kids not going to college while preparing them for life after graduation?

John Bettolo: AVID is one step, continued with additional work on career and academic planning.  Students should be given the opportunity to explore multiple career paths and learn “why they are learning” by visiting with members of our community in career fairs in Middle School.  RSHS career academies need to continue to expose students to real life experiences.  Vocational and technical programs should provide a three-fold experience for students: 1) Classroom instruction, 2) Voc/Tech clubs and organizations like VICA, that allow students to become leaders and to compete with other students, and 3) Real life experiences for students to work (or at least shadow) in their chosen field.

Megan Jensen: This is a question that I could include communication in, but unfortunately, this will take more than just talking. What I do know, is that education funding continues to decline. It is getting to the point where cuts are being made that are damaging us now. I understand that as a society, we are unsure of where our money is being spent. Technology is important, but are we getting results relative to what we pay for? Until those concerns are addressed: Are there solutions in our professional community we could explore that make sense for only our students in mind?

Chad Shelley: I spoke of this point somewhat previously in question #2. I believe the district can do a better job of preparing our students for both college and the vocational options. The most difficult obstacle is the premise that a student not going to college is a negative result. Not all of the students in our district have a desire to attend a formal college setting. There are multiple opportunities for skilled workers that provide an excellent lifestyle and fulfillment. These choices should be presented to our high school students as frequently as college. The truth is with the increased cost of higher education mixed with the lack of a specific career goal leaves many with incurred debt in a field or subject the individual has no interest or future in.

Jason Brown: The District is on the right track with the High School Academies (like Health and Law). I would like to see the development of a Trades Academy, with a focus on “Blue Collar” careers such as Welding and Electrical. This Trades Academy would give students basic knowledge and philosophy to begin apprenticing or pique their interest in a vocational career path they can pursue after graduation. No matter whether they choose to go to college or a technical school, students should take a few WWCC classes throughout their high school career to help them get a feel for what the workload of future college classes will be.

Damon Debernardi: The academies at the high school give the students involved a great head start whether they are entering the work force or continuing their education.  It would be nice to see an expansion of the academies to cover other areas including trades.  Duel enrollment in college classes is a great way for students to prepare for college but is underutilized.

David Stauffer: The district educational strategy should be to inspire kids to love to learn. Whether they go to college or directly into a career path, if they love to learn they have a higher probability of succeeding in their future endeavors. Making sure that we have teachers who love to teach and inspire young minds should be the key to this strategy. Providing more job shadowing opportunities and connections for our kids with local employers will help them be prepared when they graduate.

Matt Jackman: Your question relates back to both graduation and the problems we see in the workforce. In our district, we have to give students that are not in the academies more opportunities. There is no reason to have a second-class student in our high school. A much more effective strategy that is in place at schools around the country allow students that are college bound to take college prep courses, students that have plans for a vocational school to take the vocational courses, and students that are headed to the workforce to take life skills classes. We have 18 and 19-year-old students that don’t understand how to balance a checkbook and write a resume’, basic skills we have to teach all students to help them on a path to success.




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