Becoming Extraordinary

  • Written by: Kerri McDermid
  • Photos by: Aaron Ford and Kerri McDermid

Superintendent, Don Haddad, Ed.D., speaks at the Discovery Education Forum on 21st-Century Education, hosted at the Innovation Center of St. Vrain Valley Schools.

Accelerating Innovation and Academic Excellence

How do you define extraordinary? For St. Vrain Valley Schools, ‘extraordinary’ is exemplified by people across the community who are committed to advancing our public schools. It comes from the P-TECH student who is entering their junior year of high school with their first year of college completed – the first in their family to take a college class. It is expressed by the elementary teacher who calls home after hours to check-in on a student who needs additional support. It is fostered by the aeronautics engineer who donates their time and expertise to mentor students and open pathways for learning and workforce development.

In St. Vrain, to be ‘extraordinary’ means to push the boundaries of academic excellence, focused determination, and innovation to achieve remarkable results.

Cultivating a Passion to Learn

Extraordinary opportunities abound across St. Vrain Valley Schools. Whether it is through technology integration, one of 70 instructional focus programs, specialized instruction, or industry connections, students, teachers, and staff are defining remarkable public education for the 21st century.

Thom Ingram, an instructional technologist at the Innovation Center who leads the Tech Team and teaches the Apple Technician Certification program, describes a significant shift in the way we approach teaching and education in the modern era. “When I was going through school, it was just about obtaining information, but that is no longer the goal,” said Ingram. “Everyone has a supercomputer in their pocket. The information is out there; it is now about how you use it, how you apply it, and how you add to it.”

With the rise of the internet and the ubiquitousness of devices, access to learning is prevalent through every thread of our daily interactions with technology. “Right now you can learn anything if you are curious. You can learn anything if you have somebody who can design an experience for you to go through,” added Ingram. “It is no longer sitting there and taking notes – those notes are already taken; it is applying them to real-world problems and real-world solutions.”

In St. Vrain, to be ‘extraordinary’ means to push the boundaries of academic excellence, focused determination, and innovation to achieve remarkable results.

Photo: Students learning to code with Questbotics at Timberline PK-8.

Designing experiences for students to apply knowledge and learning in authentic contexts has been foundational in St. Vrain’s journey to becoming an extraordinary public education system. An embodiment of this focus is St. Vrain’s nationally-recognized Innovation Center.

Developed through a $3.6 million Investing in Innovation grant and a $16.6 million Race to the Top grant, student learning at the Innovation Center transcends the traditional classroom and provides experiential opportunities that are developing today’s students into tomorrow’s leaders, innovators, and changemakers. Diverse, remarkable programs include state-of-the-art ventures into engineering underwater robots, designing and flying unmanned aerial vehicles (drones), producing and hosting live radio shows on KGNU, and programming virtual reality environments and artificial intelligence.

At the core of the Innovation Center’s curriculum – and across all schools in St. Vrain – is design thinking: a structured process for innovation, problem-solving, and invention that promotes divergent thinking alongside empathy and content knowledge. Students at all grade levels employ the design thinking process to learned content through authentic, problem-based projects. Becky Peters, Program Manager at the Innovation Center, shared one of her favorite design thinking student projects: a refrigerator that scans its contents and gives recipes and meal suggestions based on what is inside to reduce food waste. Student innovations have included everything from designing a cane for the elderly that shoots out sand to prevent a fall during winter weather to reimagining playgrounds and school libraries.

“Content knowledge increases as you go through life; you read more and amass life experiences, but I believe divergent thinking – and how we are building that capacity in students – is just as important,” said Peters. “When we encourage divergent thinking and its accompanying skills, while increasing content knowledge along the way, that is how people like Steve Jobs are born. You look at the world in a different way – you think, ‘I can fix that – it has already been designed but I can redesign it in a better way.’”

Another school in St. Vrain thrives at the intersection of divergent and convergent thinking. Soaring Heights PK-8 champions a school focus on STEM with an emphasis in neuroscience. Teachers at Soaring Heights use neuroscience to take student empathy and self-awareness a step further to strengthen emotional intelligence and more deeply connect students to their learning.

“Having vertical alignment from preschool to eighth grade has created an enormous growth mindset at Soaring Heights,” shared Anna Mills, the school’s Innovation Coordinator. “The shared foundation in neuroscience has enabled students to deeply understand how they learn best and also gives teachers a framework of understanding growth mindset as a whole. The more teachers understand how our students’ brains work, the more they are able to create a diversified classroom.”

Whether it is through neuroscience, STEM, innovation, or another focus program, St. Vrain Valley Schools is advancing excellence through extraordinary learning opportunities for students. “I do not think there are other districts who push design thinking and innovation as a paradigm of excellence for all students in the way that we do,” added Peters.

By the Numbers: Technology and Innovation

iPads throughout the district and approximately 10,000 Chromebooks.
increase in the number of students participating in competitive robotics over the past five years.
in potential college tuition savings from college credits earned by the Class of 2018.
credits required for graduation — among the most rigorous in Colorado.

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ST. VRAINNOVATION was produced in-house by the St. Vrain Department of Communications.
ST. VRAINNOVATION and other district initiatives are generously supported by these and many other community sponsors.

© 2017 - St. Vrain Valley Schools