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Gillette Wild forward Declan Young takes a breather in between the action during a game earlier this season.

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College districts to start separation talks
Officials from Gillette, Sheridan and mediators will meet Oct. 23 to work on agreement

At least Pax the Pronghorn is safe.

In its soft re-branding of the Gillette Community College District, trustees have said the Pronghorn mascot is here to stay. Beyond that, many other components of establishing the new district remain up in the air.

This past week was as indicative of that as any. But the murky overlap between the new district and Northern Wyoming Community College District may just be the bumpy byproduct of forming the first new community college district in Wyoming since 1968.

“It’s a unique situation,” said GCCD board Chairman Robert Palmer. “There’s not a playbook, unfortunately, for this.”

Last Friday, hours after trustees appointed Janell Oberlander as the interim president of the new district, she was removed from her position as vice president of Gillette College by the NWCCD.

With that change, Oberlander is now the interim president of the GCCD. However, NWCCD still employs all Gillette College employees, who no longer report to Oberlander.

It’s as confusing as it sounds.

Oberlander’s former position of vice president of Gillette College has not been replaced and those who directly reported to her have been reassigned. Her access to NWCCD phones and email were also disconnected this past week.

Although it came as a surprise to some extent, trustees have said it was not completely unexpected.

“I think it’s the natural evolution, it’s the transition process that we’re going through. ... It removes her from being a vice president of (NWCCD), because you can’t be both,” Palmer said. “We’re continuing to make progress with the things we need to do as a new district.”

And there are still many things to do.

Later this month, the details of how to navigate the transition of Gillette College from district to district may be clarified when representatives from both sides of the Powder River meet to discuss terms of a memorandum of understanding.

That agreement is expected to set the terms of Gillette College’s split from NWCCD while it continues to establish itself as an independent district.

The list goes on

With a district president in place, GCCD can move forward with seeking its accreditation through the Higher Learning Commission. Generally, accreditation can be a three- to five-year process, but with Gillette College’s existing programming and infrastructure in place, officials have said it could fall on the shorter end of that spectrum.

“As a board, we can’t do that ourselves,” Palmer said. “We have to have the professionals in place to do that (seek accreditation).”

As the college board’s sole employee, Oberlander can add to her administrative staff to work through the ongoing and upcoming transitional years.

The board approved a $1.02 million preliminary budget to cover the district expenses through the rest of fiscal year 2021-22, which runs through June, and into the beginning of the next fiscal year. A mill levy amount has not been set at this point and would not go into effect until fiscal year 2022-23.

A committee of trustees were tasked with reassessing the district’s branding. They have said the pronghorn mascot is not in jeopardy and are reevaluating the district’s seal and logo in a “soft re-branding” of the college and district.

Arguably the most pressing matter is coming to an agreement on the memorandum of understanding between the two districts. A full-day workshop to discuss those terms is scheduled for Oct. 23 in Buffalo.

A precursor to that meeting occurred last Friday after Oberlander was appointed interim president. Both sides agreed upon a mediator to broker negotiations between the two districts.

In the meantime, Gillette College employees and faculty are still employed through NWCCD. Also, Gillette College is expected to continue receiving accreditation through NWCCD while it seeks its own accreditation, which could take up to five years.

Although details and specifics will be hashed out as the memorandum of understanding conversations develop on Oct. 23, Palmer is optimistic the broadly discussed themes suggested by officials from both districts — of student success and working together — continue to be prioritized.

“Now we want to make sure those words become part of the dialogue we have as the MOU is formed,” Palmer said. “They become words that are part of the document that says how we’re going to move forward and share information.”

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Dual-language immersion teachers from Spain find home in Gillette

It’s been a few years since Miguel Burgos first came to the United States. He didn’t know what to expect when he landed in New Mexico to be a teacher.

“When I came to New Mexico, it was like, ‘Do you know how to swim?’” Burgos said. ‘“Go ahead.’”

And with that, he made a tossing motion, as if he were throwing something into a body of water. His point was clear: Sink or swim, he was pretty much on his own.

mmoore / News Record Photo/Mike Moore 

Fourth grade students in Miguel Burgos’ DLI classroom practice the pronunciation of “murcielago” at Rawhide Elementary School Sept. 29. Burgos came from Spain to teach in the Campbell County School District’s DLI program, now in its sixth year.

Burgos had come from Spain. He served his students in New Mexico for three years before returning to Spain. Once there, it wasn’t long before he began to feel pulled back to the U.S.

He signed up for the program with the Ministry of Education in Spain that helps place teachers into dual-language immersion programs all around the world. When he landed back in the U.S. the second time, it was in Gillette. And already he can tell a big difference.

Burgos was the latest teacher to come from Spain to Gillette to teach in one of the Campbell County School District’s two DLI schools. He’s now teaching third and fourth grades at Rawhide Elementary.

The benefits of the DLI programs in the district have been celebrated since it first began at Stocktrail six years ago and then expanded to include Rawhide.

mmoore / News Record Photo/Mike Moore 

DLI teacher Miguel Burgos fields questions while he and students both speak Spanish during story time at Rawhide Elementary School September 29.

Those stories have always focused on what the students are gaining, how competitive they’ll be in a world shrunken by globalization.

But what about those teachers who make such learning possible? Those teachers who leave their homes behind and come to America, where English is a challenge and their job requires them to speak their native Spanish exclusively, are the engine that drives the program along.

To hear the teachers like Burgos tell it, the programs in the two schools in Gillette are fundamentally different from those happening elsewhere — not in content, but in the way they’re administered.

That’s due, in large part, to the schools’ principals, Bertine Bahige at Rawhide and Keri Shannon at Stocktrail. The principals, other teachers and community members have created a family of sorts, a home away from home, to help the incoming teachers hit the ground running so they can focus on what matters most — educating the students.

mmoore / News Record Photo/Mike Moore 

DLI teacher Miguel Burgos plays four square with students outside of Rawhide Elementary School September 29.

Jumping through hoops across the Atlantic

A teacher coming from Spain has to jump through many hoops to teach in Gillette.

“I remember a lot of paperwork,” said Cristina Mina, a Rawhide teacher from Spain now in her second year of the program. “First with the Spanish government. There is an official program. You first apply in November.”

Paperwork begat more paperwork, and once accepted into the program by the Ministry of Education, the teachers were then invited to interview with prospective schools. After the interviews, the principals let the Ministry of Education know to whom they’d like to offer employment.

Then began the visa process for the teachers through the U.S. embassy in Spain, which can sometimes run into bureaucratic red tape. While the visa process is progressing in Spain, the principals are working on necessary steps here in Wyoming.

The principals have to work with the Wyoming Department of Education to get the teachers three-year exemptions so they can teach without having to go through the normal steps of qualification for an educator in the state.

Dozens of other intermediary tasks have to be completed on both sides of the Atlantic and finally teachers have to buy a ticket and get to Gillette.

Despite all that work, the principals and incoming teachers have made only fractional progress towards getting the teachers settled.

mmoore / News Record Photo/Mike Moore 

Students peer out the window of a departing school bus as DLI teachers Miguel Burgos, at left, and Cristina Mina chat at the conclusion of school at Rawhide Elementary Sept. 29.

Help the teachers, help the students

The message from the principals to the teachers is a simple one.

“We are here to partner so we can make the program successful,” Bahige said. “And the program’s success depends on you, and if we cannot take care of you as a person, the program is going to suffer.”

It takes great effort for these principals to take care of their people so their programs can thrive.

First and foremost, they try to find their new teachers a place to live. But even that process begins before the teachers arrive. Not only are they helping connect them with apartment complexes in town, they’re also coordinating host families so the teachers have somewhere to stay when they first arrive.

mmoore / News Record Photo/Mike Moore 

Miguel Burgos picks up his one-year-old daughter, Blanca Burgos-Alonso, as wife Marta Alonso, at right, smiles upon Miguel’s return home following a day of teaching.

“Sometimes we reach out to families in our schools, sometimes it’s friends,” Bahige said. “A couple years ago, it was my siblings, like, ‘Hey! You have an extra room?’”

Beatriz Fatela, a teacher from Spain now in her third year at Rawhide, said it was incredibly beneficial to be able to save that money when she first arrived. She guessed she stayed with her host family for about 10 days.

In her third year, she was able to pay that kindness forward.

“This year, I host Miguel and his family,” Fatela said.

With the short-term living arrangements settled, the principals and host families travel to the airport to meet the teachers as they get off their flights.

After they recover from their travels, the teachers tackle a long to-do list.

One of the first things to do is get them a bank account, Bahige said.

Next comes the apartment. Bahige said they’ve seen a lot of success finding apartments at Remington Village, Mountain View and Indian Hills.

Miguel Burgos found that help to be priceless because trying on his own had not been fruitful.

“I tried, for example, to apply for an apartment,” he said. “It was impossible. I didn’t get anything. And I tried.”

mmoore / News Record Photo/Mike Moore 

Marta Alonso plays with son, Hector Burgos-Alonso, 4, in the living room of their home September 29.

“My preference is to make the person as independent as fast as possible, although our hosting families will gladly have them for a month,” Bahige said. “But my own goal is within two weeks’ time, that person is established in their own place and that’s one less thing to worry about.”

Then there’s the car.

“There are no buses in Wyoming,” Bahige said. “We have to find you ways that you can get from point A to point B.”

The principals don’t only help the teachers find a place to live, but they help them furnish it as well.

“Again, we work with our community, our families, our staff. ... We become like a warehouse,” Bahige said. “During the summer, I can’t park in my garage or Keri can’t park in her garage, because we collect all of those resources. A couch, a kitchen table, dishes and things of that nature.”

Then they host a party of sorts and invite the teachers to browse the furniture and select what they need.

“Thank goodness Keri Shannon has horses, so we put all of that stuff in her big ol’ horse trailer and we do deliveries,” Bahige said. “I have a couple of siblings, so they come up there and we carry couches and get everybody in their apartment.”

After all this, they still haven’t really talked about the school year yet.

“Once we get them situated that way, then Keri and I sit down and talk about the structure of the program,” Bahige said. “We explain that during the interview process, but we know it’s ...”

He stopped mid-sentence. Then he just made a “whoosh” gesture over the top of his head. In the midst of all the bureaucratic and logistical challenges, it was easy for the details about the actual school day to take a backseat. Luckily, these are experienced educators. They just have to adjust to an American classroom.

mmoore / News Record Photo/Mike Moore 

DLI teacher Miguel Burgos guides Nalle Niles and Penelope Nygaard outdoors after a long day of WY-TOPP testing for recess September 29.

It takes a village

The principals know that they might have to sell prospective teachers on the benefits of Gillette.

“The advantage that we have is our teachers,” Bahige said. “They’ve come here and experienced the hospitality, they’ve had the opportunity to work in both our schools and our school district. They’ve become that voice. It’s one thing if I share it. I might be biased. It’s another thing if another teacher says it.”

Eduardo Guillen returned to Pamplona, Spain, in June 2020 after two years at Rawhide.

He not only raves about the quality of life in Gillette, but he speaks from experience when he warns that bigger, glitzier cities might not equate to a fulfilling teaching experience. When he came to Wyoming, he’d already been to the U.S. to teach school. That first stop was in Los Angeles.

“My dream was to live in California,” Guillen said on a call from Pamplona, eight hours ahead of Gillette time. “I made my dream come true, but it was tough. I was at an inner city school with metal detectors.”

He had practically no support.

“With my second call of duty, I was looking for a place where I could, in a way, go back to my roots as a teacher,” Guillen said.

He found that in Gillette. Now, incoming teachers turn to him for advice.

“‘Must be a really freezing place?’” Guillen said. “‘Is that the far west? What about the people? Were they friendly to you? People think that maybe that is a very conservative part of the country.’”

These are just some of the questions he gets. But it’s his pleasure to answer them. He can’t say enough good things about his experience.

mmoore / News Record Photo/Mike Moore 

A student’s scratch sheet of paper to help them through the WY-TOPP assessment sits on a desk in DLI teacher Miguel Burgos’ classroom September 29.

‘We’re so lucky’

Miguel Burgos is the one of the first teachers to come to Gillette with the program and bring a family with him, which adds a whole new level of difficulty for a new teacher trying to acclimate to life in the United States, in Wyoming, in Campbell County.

After the school day concluded, Miguel’s wife, Marta, and their two kids — 4-year-old Hector and 1-year-old Blanca — came to visit. While Blanca napped in her stroller and Hector watched cartoons on an iPad, Marta described life in Gillette for the few months they’ve been here.

“I think he’s struggling with his classmates’ names,” she said, looking over at Hector. “Last week, he came and say, ‘You know, we’re saying my name wrong the whole time? It’s not ‘ector, it’s Hector.’”

She switched beautifully from the Spanish pronunciation, with its silent h-sound, like “ehhh,” to a flattened, unaccented Americanized English pronunciation with a hard h-sound.

One could imagine her little boy doing the same and would be hard-pressed not to smile.

Marta, herself a teacher for three years in New Mexico and a physical therapist back in Spain, is waiting until she can be permitted to work. It will take two or three months, and she hopes to work in the school district in some capacity.

She told about the first day of school, on which Hector had come out of the building and seemed sullen. She worried like any parent would. But it turned out that he was just tired, and after a bit of rest at home, he was back to normal, a happy and exuberant little boy.

Perhaps Hector’s first day of school can be seen as symbolic for the experiences of numerous teachers from Spain. There are tough days, no doubt about it, but they get better and better until the only word to describe them is “good.”

“I miss friends and family,” Mina said. “Maybe how we related to each other. That’s different. How we meet friends.”

Lucia Fernandez, a teacher from Spain now in her second year at Rawhide, described how the requirements of the job itself made acclimating to American culture harder than one might think.

“It’s so difficult to learn English because we talk all the time in the Spanish,” Fernandez said. “Speaking English is so difficult.”

The teachers on the Spanish-instruction side of the DLI program never speak in front of their students in English.

They miss Spanish cooking and other comforts of home.

But each of them overwhelmingly raves about their experiences here.

“The most important difference is that here people are happier,” Marta said. “So that’s helpful. And people try to help you. Or just at least ask you — I feel like when they ask, they want to know how we’re doing, if we need something.”

Fernandez said the teachers feel supported by the community.

“I think here people is authentic,” she said. “And they have a commitment to education. When you are in the supermarket, people ask you “Oh, you are a teacher?” Yes, I am a teacher.’ They love our profession.”

Miguel said the same.

“In my case, I would like to emphasize how well treated we have been or we have feel since the beginning,” Miguel said. “Not only in the school, not only in the community, but everything. I don’t have any bad experiences. In every place, I have been treated really, really good.”

Bahige is proud of how his teachers at Rawhide have assimilated into the wider community. To him, that’s the whole point of this sort of exchange and the DLI program, too.

“They really, really want to be a part of the community and really want to be engaged that way,” Bahige said. “The whole concept is not just coming and teaching. You’re exporting your culture, and you’re importing our culture. They come here, they’re bringing their culture and they want to be involved in the community. When they go back, they’re going to bring back the American culture, not just from the academic standpoint, but also in our communities.”

Green tomatoes await being sent away to a buyer as Bob Jordan removes his tomato plants from a greenhouse Wednesday at the conclusion of the summer season.

Fourth grader Traeger King, 9, of Prairie Wind Elementary gets and up-close look at a soil sample at Bell Nob Golf Course.