Lunchbox? Check. Backpack? Check. Notebooks, pencils, calculators. Triple check! There’s nothing quite like the helter-skelter cycle of the back-to-school bonanza. Teachers and staff at the Durango Adult Education Center have been busier than ever, but it’s not because they needed lesson plans prepped or handouts updated. In fact, it’s because we expanded services to Montezuma County!

After U.S. Census statistics revealed that over a quarter of adults in Montezuma County either lacked a high school diploma or spoke English less than very well, the DAEC took swift action to offer day and evening high school equivalency classes, as well as evening English as a Second Language (ESL) courses outside of Durango.

The expansion called for additional staff, additional funding, and lots of complex, logistical problem solving. As the newly hired Resource Coordinator, Al Huckins might also be called the conundrum conqueror! Her first order of business: finding suitable sites for DAEC classes. The Tennessee native who transplanted to Durango back in 2011 summoned her sweet Southern charm and swiftly teamed up with local groups and organizations like Southwest Colorado Community College (SCCC) in Mancos and the Southwest Open School (SWOS) in Cortez.

“It’s been so great partnering with people who are passionate about alternative education in the community,” Huckins asserts. “And the new teaching crew is running on high levels of enthusiasm.”

To hear Huckins describe the hustle and bustle of last week’s registration events is to feel an electric hum in the air. “The ESL program is filling up and the calls are coming in with lots of questions about the high school equivalency classes,” she notes.

Libby Baumchen, ESL Manager, points out that last fall’s ESL pilot program undoubtedly contributed to this fall’s bumper crop of new students. She credits word-of-mouth testimonials for creating a real buzz about the quality of the DAEC’s award-winning instruction.
“We are so excited to address this need,” says Baumchen. Studies show that immigrants with poor English skills earn almost 18% less than fluent speakers[1]—a devastating shortfall for too many households.
Besides making sure that all the classrooms are stocked or that the technology functions properly, Baumchen says she and other DAEC teachers prioritize welcoming the new and returning students to that first day of class.
“We want them to know this is a safe place for learning,” she notes, emphasizing how students who are free to experiment and make mistakes learn better. “We also want to instill a self-motivating, self-starting energy so that they incorporate what they learn into daily life.”
Stephanie Moran, High School Equivalency Program Manager, echoes Baumchen’s sentiments. “It takes real courage to come back to learning,” says the 31-year teaching veteran who added the Colorado Adult Education Professional Association’s 2016 Adult Leader of the Year Award to a career already studded with honors. Moran points out that one or more systems did not successfully serve learners early in life. The fact that they are willing to try again is a testament to their resilience.
She says, “I want students to have a sense of belonging from that very first day. I hope they say: I belong here. Wow, this is my place. These people understand me. I’m glad I came back.”
Deep-seated values such as these ultimately create a whole new back-to-school supply list. Textbooks? Check. Humanitarian spirit? Check. Passion for literacy as a gateway to creating positive change? Check. Core beliefs that all people have inherent worth? Super check!
For more information about classes in Montezuma County, please visit or email Al Huckins at
High school equivalency classes run Mondays -Thursdays 12-3 p.m. at SCCC and 5-8 p.m. at SWOS.
ESL classes are also Mondays -Thursdays 5-8 p.m. at SWOS.
Although classes officially started Monday, August 28th, the DAEC will maintain an open, rolling enrollment to accommodate anyone still interested in joining a class.
[1] 2015 Household Data Annual Averages & Science and Education Center of North America