Gradient Learning

A recipe for success

FRESNO, Calif. — When Hilary Downs walks around the campus of Aspen Valley Prep, she sees more than students and teachers. 

She sees a community, and not simply the one that’s on the school grounds each day. 

She sees connections from communities of the past, such as when Aspen Valley Prep Principal Nicole Rivera attended the school as a student. And she imagines communities of the future, when current AVP students grow up and leave their mark in their own unique ways.

“We’re not just looking at students here on our campus, we’re looking at how they are going to impact their community as future adults,” said Downs, Director of Learning for Aspen Public Schools. “We want that impact to be positive. We want to give them the skills that they need to be successful here and in their future.”

Aspen Valley Prep’s passion for doing all it can to best serve its students has not gone unnoticed. Aspen Valley Prep is one of two recipients of the Rise Award, a national honor given out by Gradient Learning that recognizes schools’ commitment to improving the quality of teaching and learning.

“There’s just so much love and care in that community,” said Krista Purnell, a Director of Implementation Success for Gradient Learning who has partnered closely with the school. “Working with Aspen Valley Prep truly has been a dream and I don’t say that lightly. The leaders at Aspen are so dedicated.”

‘Beyond wildest imaginations’

Downs joined Aspen Valley Prep as a teacher in 2007 and taught math and science at the school for 10 years. As she’s grown into a leadership role, there has also been tremendous growth in the Aspen Public Schools community in Fresno, California. Aspen Meadow Public School opened in 2016 and Aspen Ridge Public School opened its doors in central Fresno in 2021.

Together, the three Aspen Public Schools will soon provide a cohesive K-12 educational experience for children once Aspen Ridge (which served 7th-9th graders in the 2021-22 school year) eventually expands to 7th-12th grade.

“This was beyond my wildest imaginations,” said Janice Walstrom, the librarian at Aspen Valley Prep and one of the founders of the school that officially opened as a charter in 2004. “We started out with just seven kids, then 12, then 25, and then 60. By the time we reached 200 kids there was no turning back. I had to stop making homemade lunches for everyone like I had been doing.”

Aspen Valley Prep sixth-grader Jose, who has been at the school since kindergarten, was so relieved when he heard he’ll be able to stay in the Aspen Public Schools family by attending Aspen Ridge as a seventh-grader in the fall.

“I’m glad that I’m not leaving the community because this place has meant a lot to me,” Jose said. “The teachers here are what makes this place great. I have so much respect for every teacher here because they work hard every day to help kids reach their goals in life.”

Jose, whose favorite subject is math, aspires to be a professional chef when he grows up and is excited to perfect his “delicious specialty” of scrambled eggs with sausage. It’s that type of long-term thinking that inspires Downs when she watches teachers help students discover passions and build life skills.

“We know that kids thrive in a smaller environment,” Downs said. “We’ll show them how to be productive members of society and how they can be leaders in many different ways.” 

Downs is especially proud of how Aspen Public Schools provides an opportunity for students to thrive as learners regardless of their backgrounds. 

“We serve a lot of students with some trauma,” said Downs, referencing the socioeconomic challenges that exist in the Central Valley. “It’s heartbreaking in many ways, but one thing we know is our students are safe, they’re known, and they’re heard here.”

‘No secret sauce’

Downs said the key to Aspen Valley Prep’s success—both in and out of the classroom—is focusing on the same three pillars the school has had since partnering with Summit Learning six years ago: student engagement, meaningful learning, and fostering strong relationships between teachers and students. 

“We stay upbeat here because we’ve seen the fruit of our work,” Downs said. “We’ve seen how pivotal it is for student success to have that adult relationship to help guide them through different challenges that they may have.”

The positive impact from this type of environment is seen each school day in the contagious smiles and high-fives given out by Aspen Valley Prep school counselor Theodore Bernard, who is better known on campus as “Mr. B.”

“There’s no secret sauce,” said Bernard, his eyes and ears constantly aware of his surroundings in case a student is in need. “I’m just present and I’m around. If you walk by me, I’m saying hello. If you don’t say hello back, that’s OK, I’ll keep trying. I’ll give them high-fives, elbow-bumps, fist-bumps, or even just eye contact. We’re their biggest cheerleaders.

“The one consistent thing they will always have, especially for those who don’t have a stable home environment, is the team we have at school. We want every student to feel welcome here.”

Watch this video to learn more about Aspen Valley Prep’s student-first approach to education.


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