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Out of the public school grows the greatness of a nation.” These famous words from Mark Twain’s 1900 address to the Public Education Association still carry significant weight more than 120 years later. It is widely accepted that a quality education system is a primary prerequisite for the future success of our children, but some may not readily and fully realize the crucial role public schools play in the strength, growth, safety, health, and well-being of our society.
In the United States, approximately 90% of our population either currently attend or have attended a public school. Accordingly, we believe that second only to parenting, our education system has the greatest impact on our citizens, economy, public health and safety, national security, our residential and commercial property values, workforce readiness, innovation, creativity, our democracy, and so much more.
Our public schools have long been a catalyst for progress, having an immeasurable impact on the strength and advancement of our nation. Our educators should be celebrated and revered for the amazing things they do to advance our children as individuals and our country as a whole. Public school graduates become our nation’s doctors, service industry workers, first responders, engineers, teachers, scientists, and leaders who provide the backbone of our country.
In Colorado, public education has long been a priority, specified in the state’s original 1876 constitution. “The general assembly shall, as soon as practicable, provide for the establishment and maintenance of a thorough and uniform system of free public schools throughout the state, wherein all residents of the state, between the ages of six and twenty-one years, may be educated gratuitously.”
However, somewhere in the national debate, some appear to have lost sight of the impact and importance of a strong, high-quality public education system. Today, we are experiencing environments that continue to focus on somewhat antiquated standardized measures of progress, while the world around us continues to accelerate at an unprecedented rate. Now, schools must be ready to keep pace with industry to prepare students for future jobs, many of which do not even exist today. We can no longer ask students what they aspire to be when they grow up, but rather, we must ask them what problems they want to solve and what advancements they want to lead for our world and nation.
In earlier times, when our education system was characterized by traditional instructional practices, we’d read a chapter in order to prepare for our unit exam, we’d encounter eight or nine questions, we’d attempt to mimic back what we’d read, and ultimately, we’d receive our letter grade. Today, children are expected to empathize with a problem, ideate a solution, prototype and test it, and revise it. Students must be able to work together effectively in teams, communicate clearly about what they’re thinking, have the perseverance to stick with it until they find a solution, and predict what might be coming next. When things change, they must demonstrate that they, too, can adapt. These are the durable, critical-thinking and advanced skills that we should be promoting among our students in Colorado and beyond. Originally, an expanded knowledge base was the goal in order to help citizens make more informed decisions. Now, the world is much more complex, and innovative practices and solutions are required to tackle the daunting challenges of the 21st century.
It is imperative that we understand the rapid pace of change and, accordingly, prepare our students to be successful in our complex, globalized, highly-competitive economy. St. Vrain Valley Schools has spent more than a decade cultivating a relationship with our community that has been the nexus for implementing systemic and strategic change. This has forged a path toward transformation from being a school district on the brink of bankruptcy to being one that is nationally and internationally recognized for student achievement, innovation, and parent leadership.
Academic Excellence by Design
Since 2008, St. Vrain has become a nationally recognized school system, in large part due to outstanding teachers and staff, parents, business leaders, elected officials, and school and district leaders. Through this transformation, we have launched over 70 diversified and rigorous instructional focus academies and programs across all 60 of our schools. These include academies in Aerospace and Engineering, Energy, Medical and BioScience, Leadership, International Baccalaureate (IB), STEM, Biomedical Sciences, and Visual and Performing Arts, along with a 55,000-square-foot, state-of-the-art Innovation Center and 45-foot, high-tech mobile STEM lab, all supported by our Apple 1:1 technology with robust technology infrastructure, including the second-fastest internet service in the United States through our partnership with NextLight.
This has also provided the opportunity to rapidly elevate our educational programming and student learning opportunities in advanced technologies such as artificial intelligence, cybersecurity, virtual and augmented realities, automotive technology, welding, and advanced manufacturing fields such as optics, electronics, and machining. Furthering our mission, we have also launched three Pathways in Technology Early College High School programs, known as P-TECH, in which students earn their two-year associate degree simultaneously with their high school diploma, at no cost to our students. Our current P-TECH programs offer degrees focused on computer information systems, cybersecurity, and biochemistry – with a fourth P-TECH focused on business launching in 2023.
We are also continuing to leverage technology to implement new programs and further provide students with access to high-quality, rigorous coursework and instruction through the implementation of a systemwide Advanced Global Interactive Learning Environment (AGILE) telecommunications program, which will allow students in any of our high schools (as well as students outside of St. Vrain) to receive synchronous, real-time instruction in courses that include advanced world languages, micro and macroeconomics, computer science, and more, all from their home high school location.
As we have increased rigor, innovation, and technology integration, we have realized significant gains in student achievement. Over the past 10 years, St. Vrain’s overall on-time graduation rate has increased 14%, while our on-time graduation rate for Hispanic students has increased 31%. Over this period, we also increased our graduation requirements to have among the highest credit requirements in Colorado and beyond. Further, fifth-grade reading and math achievement continues to increase and outpace the state, with our Hispanic student population demonstrating even larger gains.
Additionally, St. Vrain Valley Schools is one of four Colorado school districts, and one of 373 nationwide, out of approximately 14,000 school districts, to make the College Board’s annual Advanced Placement (AP) District Honor Roll list for increasing access to AP courses for all students. In the past five years, our number of AP exams taken has increased 62%, with scores also increasing greatly. We have experienced a 201% increase in the number of concurrent-enrollment college classes taken by our students in the past seven years and added new opportunities for students to receive college credit through our CU Succeed programs.
Throughout this journey, we have been supported by over 120 leading business and corporate partners, such as Apple, IBM, Boeing, Lockheed Martin, OtterBox, UCHealth, Seagate, Cisco, Agilent, United Power, Amazon, Google, Stapp Interstate Toyota, and more, who assist us in understanding the future of workforce readiness and relevancy, as well as influence and develop the curriculum necessary to provide our children with a world-class education. These partners, and many more, have also provided us with industry experts to mentor our students and inspire them toward their future endeavors.
Our Future is in Our Public Schools
Colorado has a significant opportunity to define a strong vision for public education in order to create a system that leverages the best of our resources, knowledge, innovation, and human capital to ensure a stronger tomorrow for our communities, state, and nation.
We believe that students are not simply a statistic or a test score, but their full potential should be recognized and their passions cultivated and ignited. Our schools serve as much more than a place to learn. While this is extremely important, they are also pivotal in supporting student health and well-being, including counseling and health services and access to food and other basic needs. Measurements of success should align with the values and goals that Coloradans envision for their public education system and with the skills that students need to be successful, contributing citizens in an accelerated and complex globalized economy.
The conversation regarding the future of our schools should be preceded and accompanied by a clear, articulate vision for a better future, in alignment with the fundamentals of an excellent education – and resources should also be in alignment with that vision. A new system should include considerations of a district’s socioeconomic data, the rigor of its graduation requirements, the number of Career and Technical Education (CTE) pathways, technology access and infrastructure, quality of early childhood education offerings, rigorous course offerings that include AP and/or IB concurrent enrollment opportunities, the quality of individualized instructional supports for all students (including those with special needs), the health of the district’s finances, the quality of the schools and other district facilities, student safety measures, the ability to recruit and retain high-quality teachers, robust co-curricular activities, and perhaps more.
Schools are a place where students can advance to their full potential and discover what they value in a safe environment that encourages movement beyond their comfort zone. Schools should be places of agile learning that empowers self-expression, creative analysis, gratitude, deeper and higher-level thought, innovation, and emotional intelligence to best prepare our students for success in our complex, globalized world. All of these measures should constitute the foundation, not the ceiling, in every one of the 178 school districts in Colorado.
The future of Colorado is largely dependent on the quality of our public schools. In St. Vrain, we have created a system that leverages the best of our resources, knowledge, innovation, and human capital to ensure a stronger tomorrow for our community, state, and nation, in order to advance the promise of future generations.