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The St. Vrain Valley School District annually publishes a magazine which it mails out to everyone in the area. This is one of the entries from the magazine.
In the 20 years that I have been a part of St. Vrain Valley Schools, I have seen the world completely transform at a rapid pace. From my first year as a Principal at Niwot High School, watching 9/11 unfold alongside our students and staff, to assuming the superintendency at the start of the 2008 recession, to managing significant disruption during the 100-year flood in 2013, and now leading a public education system in a global pandemic, our system has been faced with many Rubicon moments, and together, we have bravely crossed over those challenges and emerged stronger.
Education today is incredibly complex for our children and society, and much more significant than anything we have ever experienced. Today’s high school students were coming into the world at the same time Apple introduced the iPhone, Facebook and Twitter launched, Hadoop opened the world’s largest open-source software platforms, Amazon launched the Kindle which could hold a library of books on a single device, and Github opened and gave everyone access to one of the world’s largest repositories of software development. The power and speed of microchips doubled every 18 months, and with IBM’s launch of Watson, artificial intelligence signaled a new era of infinite possibilities.
Around that same time, 13 years ago when I assumed the superintendency, our district also began a process of critical change. As the world around us was moving at an incredible pace, our leadership team – together with our teachers and staff, students, families, and community – took stock of our purpose to determine whether we were on the right trajectory to ensure the advancement of our students, community and society. Our community recognized that we needed to ensure that our system was not only providing students with a high-quality, rigorous education, but that it was effectively preparing students to compete on a global scale for jobs that didn’t yet exist.
Toward this end, we began a process of momentous transformation bolstered by significant support from our community. Since 2008, through the passage of two bond measures and two mill levy overrides, our community has invested $976,744,501 in our schools, and today, we are beginning to recognize significant returns on our greatest investment – advancing the future of our children, nation, and world.
A high-quality public education system is a catalyst for powerful economic development that attracts industry and jobs to our area. The quality of a neighborhood school has an enormous influence on property values, and is one of the most important factors in a home buyer’s decision regarding where to purchase a home. Our local median home sale price in 2021 is $530,000, an increase of almost 50 percent over the past five years.
High-quality public schools also have other significant economic and social impacts. Over the course of a lifetime, a high school graduate earns $331,000 more than a student without a high school diploma, and $754,000 more if they have an associate degree. If Colorado had reduced its dropout rate by 50 percent last year, the long term benefit for those students would have been over $1.4 billion in increased earnings and economic gains.
As the quality of a community’s public education system increases, their productivity, income, social stability, and economic development also rise, while crime rates, healthcare dependence, and public service costs decrease. For every $1 invested in early childhood programs, taxpayers see an average return of $13 through increased workforce productivity and reduced future costs of crime and government assistance, and for every high school graduate, the net economic benefit to the public is $127,000. Accordingly, in the past four years, the 8,654 students who have graduated from a St. Vrain high school will contribute $11 billion back to the economy.
Our transformational shift over the past 13 years has been focused on maximizing the returns on our community’s investments into our schools, while also giving our students a strong competitive advantage for future success. To achieve the greatest impact, we instituted a number of strategies as we looked forward to long term gains. We aligned the curriculum, instruction, assessment, and technology across our system to capitalize on economies of scale, while also fostering more effective and higher-quality learning environments for our students in accordance with Colorado’s Academic Standards. We added high-quality preschool and full-day kindergarten to every school community. We redefined our view of rigor and high-quality opportunities for all students by adding a full slate of Advanced Placement (AP) classes at every high school, strengthened our International Baccalaureate Programme, and introduced honors courses, Algebra and Geometry at the middle school level.
In 2010, St. Vrain Valley Schools was awarded a $3.6 million Investing in Innovation (i3) grant with the top score in the nation, scoring higher than Harvard and other nationally recognized institutions, and in 2012, St. Vrain was selected as one of only 16 school districts in the United States to receive the highly-prestigious $16.6 million Race-to-the-Top grant. We invested this $20.2 million into transforming the Skyline Feeder and launching our build-out of STEM programming and a portfolio of 70 instructional focus programs across the district, including academies in aerospace and engineering, biomedical sciences, business, energy, medical and biosciences, leadership, STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics), and visual and performing arts.
These investments also led to the opening of our Innovation Center, first as a 6,000 square foot garage serving students in the Skyline Feeder, to the 2018 opening of our new 50,000 square foot cutting-edge facility that provides thousands of students across the district with the opportunity to engage in real-world learning and work experiences in some of our economy’s fastest growing industries including aerospace, computer science, artificial intelligence, robotics, design, cybersecurity, and entrepreneurship.
The Class of 2021 was beginning kindergarten at the start of this time of extensive growth and transformation. They are the first cohort of students to go through their entire educational journey benefiting from these strategic investments, and we are seeing strong returns on advancing success for all.
As we have increased rigor, we have seen significant gains in student achievement. Over the past ten years, St. Vrain’s overall on-time graduation rate has increased 14 percent while the on-time Hispanic graduation rate has increased 31 percent. Fifth grade reading and math achievement continues to increase, outpacing the state, with even larger gains in our Hispanic student population. St. Vrain Valley Schools was 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 for increasing access to AP courses for all students, and in the past five years, our number of AP exams taken has increased 62 percent with scores also increasing greatly. We have also experienced a 201 percent 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. Accordingly, the Class of 2021 had the opportunity to start their postsecondary education with approximately 32,000 college credits on their transcripts, potentially saving their families over $8.1 million in tuition costs.
We have built over 100 industry and corporate partnerships that provide resources, knowledge, and learning opportunities for students, teachers, and staff. This has been pivotal to the successful launch of our three P-TECH programs in computer information systems, biochemistry, and cybersecurity. P-TECH, or Pathways Through Technology Early College High School, brings together the best elements of high school, college and the professional world, allowing students to earn a high school diploma as well an associate degree at no cost to the student. St. Vrain was the first school district west of the Mississippi to open a P-TECH school in 2016 at Skyline High School which was recently featured in the book Breaking Barriers by Stan Litow, former Vice President of Corporate Citizenship and Corporate Affairs at IBM, and current Innovator in Residence at Duke University.
St. Vrain Valley Schools has also become a destination district and sought-after community, contributing to the large amount of growth and economic development in our region. Student enrollment has grown 24 percent from approximately 25,000 students in 2008 to 32,000 in 2021, while enrollment in private schools has decreased over 50 percent since 2008. Over the past 10 years, the number of students from outside districts opting into St. Vrain Valley Schools has increased 112 percent, for a net increase of approximately $2.7 million. The full build-out plan for St. Vrain Valley Schools includes 76,550 students, and since 2008, 18,268 new housing units have been added in our geographic footprint.
As the largest employer in the region with over 5,000 employees, St. Vrain has created almost 1,000 new full-time jobs in the past 13 years, while also greatly increasing teacher and staff pay and benefits. We have also opened 12 new schools, completed large expansions on 17 additional schools, and added 1,342,634 square feet of learning space across all of our communities, alongside other essential upgrades to our facilities.
Over the past two decades, we have also significantly restructured our finances and the manner in which we invest our resources. By strategically aligning our budget to our values and operating from a conservative and targeted approach to resource investment, St. Vrain Valley Schools went from bankruptcy to one of the strongest financial positions of any school district in the state and nation. Over the past several years the district’s bond rating has increased to AA+ and refinancing of the 2016 bond saved taxpayers approximately $30 million. Additionally, in the past four years, we have been awarded almost $24 million in grant dollars, furthering advancement opportunities for our teachers, students, and staff.
The well known Chinese proverb, “the best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago, the next best time is now,” speaks to the significance of intent and time to advance positive outcomes that enhance and advance our world. When we choose to plant a seed, we are looking to the future with hopeful optimism that our efforts will provide a future benefit that will improve our lives. We invest in the things that matter to us, but also in what we believe will provide the strongest returns.
Public education is America’s most significant investment and – second only to parenting – is the greatest contributor to the future of our world. The quality of our schools impacts and strengthens our economy, public health and safety, national security, the quality of our service industry, residential and business property values, public health, our democracy, and so much more. While the full return on investment and its benefits are often not seen until decades in the future, we will continue to invest our resources to advance the future of not only today’s generation but also tomorrow’s.
As we look to the future and prepare for our next Rubicon moment, I know that our system will be well positioned to meet the demands of any challenge, and continue to advance academic excellence by design.
- Carnevale, A.P., Rose, S.J., & Cheah, B. (2014). The College Payoff. Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce.
- Hanushek, E.A., Ruhose, J., & Woessmann, L. (2015). Economic gains for U.S. states from education reform. National Bureau of Economic Research Working Paper No. 21770.
- Epstein, D. (2011). Investing in Education Powers U.S. Competitiveness. Center for American Progress.
- Levin, H.M., et. al. (2007). The costs and benefits of an excellent education for all of America’s children. Center for Benefit-Cost Studies in Education (CBCSE), Teachers College, Columbia University, New York.