St. Vrain Valley Schools is leading the nation in rethinking public education.

  • Written by: Kerri McDermid
  • Photos by: Jeffrey Sylvester and Matthew Wiggins

Innovation Center students testing their underwater robot, Thelma.

“There is no greater risk to public education than standing still when we should be moving forward.”

These are words commonly spoken across St. Vrain Valley Schools — a mantra that drives the district’s deeply ingrained culture to deliver academic rigor, high-quality teaching and transformative educational experiences.

It is this commitment to rethink education for the 21st century that is bringing national attention to the district. Educational leaders across the country are looking at St. Vrain to see what it is like to be in a district where innovation is an organizational core value.

In the past five years, St. Vrain has won 88 state, national and international awards for efforts to advance student achievement. In June, 2016, 125 teachers, superintendents, industry experts, policy makers, corporations and nonprofits visited the district for a behind-the-scenes look at the magic happening in St. Vrain classrooms.

Student tour guides took groups through classrooms where elementary students were exploring solutions to community issues with mentors from IBM and the University of Colorado. Skyline High School’s STEM Academy students showcased recent projects, and Innovation Center students highlighted both the technologies they bring into classrooms to support student learning and the products they have developed and are implementing in research studies or bringing to market.

A common theme across the day was that to successfully transform education for your community, you must be ready to embrace change, commit to infrastructure, be comfortable with the unknown and always put the interests of students first.

Infrastructure Creates Momentum

St. Vrain’s journey to national recognition began nine years ago when the STEM Academy was launched at Skyline High School. The academy was to serve as a “School of Choice” to better engage students, especially those at a moderate risk, to remain in school and pursue postsecondary education and careers in STEM.

The success of the STEM Academy provided the foundation to seek federal funding to further support innovation and STEM integration across the district. In 2010, St. Vrain Valley Schools was awarded a $3.6 million Investing in Innovation (i3) grant and in 2012, a $16.6 million Race to the Top grant.

The most visible result of these efforts was the launch of the Innovation Center of St. Vrain Valley Schools in 2012 — a program designed to provide transformative experiences that empower students to apply knowledge to professional opportunities that mirror the pace of innovation.

Addressing district leadership in 2015, Skyline High School alumna, Lauren Jury spoke of the success she had as a STEM Academy student and member of the Innovation Center tech team. She has been nationally recognized for her interests and work in information technology and is an emerging leader and mentor to other young women who are interested in computer science and IT.

Concluding her speech, Jury said, “I am just an ordinary girl who was given an extraordinary opportunity.” The weight of those words rang heavily in the room as the direct impact of St. Vrain’s efforts could be felt.

“Extraordinary opportunities” is the fire behind the Innovation Center’s success and drive to make a difference in the lives of their students.

One recent example of an “extraordinary opportunity” is the work a team of students at the Innovation Center are undertaking to save an endangered frog in Peru. Partnering with the Denver Zoo, nine students from Skyline High School, Olde Columbine High School and Niwot High School are working to develop an underwater robot that will aid in a study that examines the declining populations of the Lake Titicaca frog in Bolivia and Peru.

Thelma, their underwater device, can swim to twice the depth of a recreational SCUBA diver and is equipped with cameras to record lake conditions. This will provide valuable feedback as researchers work to understand environmental factors impacting the frog’s population.

Extending learning beyond traditional methods through connections with industry partners, entrepreneurship and cutting-edge technology is preparing students across the district to be the change-makers of the future.

St. Vrain Valley Schools has earned numerous, significant and nationally competitive grants that have impacted thousands of students across our district.

Students at Longmont Estates Elementary explore robotics with Cubelets.

Empowered Teachers and Engaged Students

On any typical day, the STEM classroom at Longmont Estates Elementary School is a hive of activity. From the outside, the scene may appear chaotic — cardboard rolls and pipe cleaners scattered across a table amongst Spheros, Cubelets and iPads. But as you look closer, the synergy of creative learning is magnetic as students use design thinking principles to prototype solutions that will create a better world — the conversations echoing from corner to corner serving as a soundtrack for modern transformative learning.

Recognizing the opportunity to better prepare their students for secondary and postsecondary success, Longmont Estates implemented their STEM focus and design thinking integration in fall 2015. The school was tasked with finding ways to successfully innovate daily learning to improve student achievement.

“When someone comes in and says you need to be innovative, it can be scary,” says Jessicca Shaffer, STEM Coordinator at Longmont Estates. “But in reality, teachers innovate every day. We may not call it that or think of it that way, but every time we do something and it does not work out right, we change it and make it better — that is innovation.”

For Longmont Estates, success comes in the form of teacher leadership. As part of the districtwide STEM and design thinking integration efforts, teachers across the district are collaborating and sharing ideas on how to continually engage students and advance the rigor of the standards-based curriculum.

“We work together as a team to make things better in all of our schools. This is teacher empowerment — teachers can make decisions for their classrooms and their schools,” says Shaffer. “We have been successful because it is not forced. This is something that educators across the district have really embraced because they have a voice and can take ownership in transforming learning in their classrooms.”

In its first year, Longmont Estates has already seen tremendous success and growth in their students’ academic skills and critical thinking. Instead of a science fair, the school hosted a widely attended innovation fair. Students are also taking their design thinking concepts home and using their personal time to create and build their own prototypes and projects. All of this translates to more engaged and more confident students.

“I tell my students that when we talk about innovation in the school, your goal is to make something that makes the world a better place or makes something easier for someone else,” explains Shaffer. “If you want to be innovative or creative, the whole purpose of that is to make things better. This really resonates with how they see their daily learning connecting to the real world.”

Focus on the Future

So what is next for St. Vrain Valley Schools? 2016 promises to be another banner year for advancing student excellence at schools throughout the district.

This fall, the district’s first Pathways in Technology Early College High School (P-TECH) class will meet at Skyline High School. The program, announced in December, 2015 is a first for the state of Colorado. P-TECH is a new type of school that brings together the best elements of high school, college and the professional world. The program allows students to earn a high school diploma, as well as an Associate of Applied Science degree in Computer Information Systems at no cost to students.

The program will include significant internship and mentorship opportunities with IBM, giving students a head start on their career after completing the program. Students begin the program in ninth grade, completing the program in four to six years.

This year will also be the second year of the Design Thinking Challenge — a competition designed to ignite innovation, create breakthrough ideas and celebrate the enterprising ecosystem of St. Vrain.

The challenge provides each team an opportunity to solve an authentic system challenge within their school environment. Each year, school faculty teams are invited to address a challenge that confronts their capacity to achieve St. Vrain’s mission of academic excellence by design.

Whether it is through teacher empowerment, additional infrastructure or new opportunities for students, St. Vrain is always looking to the future. Public education has possibly the greatest impact on our society. To ensure the success of our economy, our children and their future, St. Vrain Valley Schools is transforming how we prepare students to meet the challenges of the road ahead.

By the Numbers: Innovation in St. Vrain

Total resources in grants won by St. Vrain Valley Schools in the past five years to support classroom innovation
Total number of students impacted by the Innovation Center or the district STEM program in 2015-2016
Estimated number of ‘design thinking’ projects completed across district classrooms in the past year
Number of presentations made at state, regional and national conferences, or events highlighting the success of the innovative work going on in St. Vrain during the past three years

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ST. VRAINNOVATION was produced in-house by the St. Vrain Department of Communications. Funding for printing and distribution supported by:

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