Partnerships Creating Pathways

  • Written by: Hilary Sontag
  • Photos by: Aaron Ford

St. Vrain alum, Michelle Tran, talks about how her experience in St. Vrain prepared her for future success.

In classrooms and offices across St. Vrain Valley Schools, you are likely to encounter an African proverb whose sentiments run deeply throughout our system: “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” As a district, St. Vrain’s most important role is to give students a strong competitive advantage so they can compete for any job, anytime, anywhere. While the district’s vision is clear, it is far from a simple task. This level of academic excellence is achieved not only by exceptional staff, but also by local, national, and international partners who leverage their expertise and resources to provide unique opportunities for students.

St. Vrain Valley Schools has become a magnet for partnership, with dozens of companies, hundreds of mentors, and numerous philanthropists investing in St. Vrain’s vision for innovation. In 2018 alone, the district has garnered almost $5 million in competitive grant awards and has more than 100 industry, higher education, philanthropic, and government partners. From student wellness to aerospace, partners are accelerating the district’s progress and serving as a catalyst for excellence across St. Vrain.

Training Scientists for the 21st Century

Students like Michelle Tran, now a freshman computer science major at the University of Colorado Boulder, can speak to the benefits of partnership first-hand. While Michelle was a student at the Innovation Center of St. Vrain Valley Schools, a hub for industry partners and hands-on work, the majority (if not all) of the teams she worked on had partners, either through company outreach or individual mentors who came in to help students learn about all of the technical details that would be difficult to learn otherwise.

“Having mentors with experience in industry was probably the most valuable thing to me personally – not only did our mentors provide technical insight, but they also told us a lot about their personal experiences as someone who works in the field of computer science,” says Michelle. “It’s that kind of engaging opportunity with people currently in the field that makes student experiences in St. Vrain – and programs like the Innovation Center – so special.”

In addition to rigorous extended learning and mentorship opportunities, students at the Innovation Center gain valuable experience through employment that focuses on designing and engineering solutions for industry and community partners. Among the Innovation Center’s many programs is computer science and robotics, where student participation has exploded, increasing by more than 500 percent over the past five years. As industry’s use of technology accelerates, computer science has become known as a “fourth literacy” – and St. Vrain’s schools are keeping pace.

“When we first started, computer science was more hit or miss – only a small number of students had computer science available to them,” says Axel Reitzig, the district’s Computer Science Coordinator. Over the past ten years, the program has expanded rapidly, with more than 1,200 St. Vrain students taking a computer science class in the 2018-2019 school year alone.

Recognizing the many opportunities to enhance computer science education in St. Vrain, businesses, individual volunteers, philanthropists, and government agencies have rallied around the cause. SparkFun, Sphero, and Modular Robotics were three early partners, providing professional development for teachers, equipment, and working with St. Vrain teachers to develop lessons. An early partnership with the University of Colorado Boulder and the National Science Foundation paired graduate students with classroom teachers to help non-computer science teachers broaden their understanding of the field.

Since then, partners for computer science have ballooned, with the program earning five competitive grant awards since January 2018 alone. Recent grants from Google and the Colorado Department of Education are supporting professional development to advance computer science instruction in St. Vrain. The REC Foundation recently funded a matching grant to support robotics equipment and training, effectively doubling the speed of robotics expansion in the district. Long-time partners like IBM and Apple provide hands-on workforce training in the form of Apple Certifications at the Innovation Center and a P-TECH program, where students can graduate with an associate degree at no cost to the student. New partners like LogRhythm and the National Security Agency are providing mentors, training, and equipment to support the expansion of cybersecurity coursework and after-school clubs. And, the Innovation Center’s dozens of corporate partners continue to work with students and teachers to create hands-on learning experiences alongside industry mentors. As a result of this greater team’s hard work, St. Vrain is now a model for computer science across the state – and the U.S.

“Having mentors with experience in industry was probably the most valuable thing to me personally – not only did our mentors provide technical insight, but they also told us a lot about their personal experiences as someone who works in the field of computer science.”

Michelle Tran, 2018 Niwot High Graduate

Photo: The first cohort of P-TEACH students get ready to visit the Future Teacher Expo at CU Denver.

Inspiring the Next Generation of Educators

While technology is a centerpiece of the Innovation Center’s work, innovation spans across all disciplines. The Innovation Center is also home to St. Vrain’s new Pathways to Teaching (P-TEACH) program, designed to give students a head start on careers in the teaching profession. Through partnerships with the University of Colorado Denver (CU Denver) and Front Range Community College (FRCC), St. Vrain Valley Schools is creating their own pipeline for high-quality teachers of the future.

For public educators, preparing the next generation of teachers is one of their highest callings. “We hope that by recruiting students early in their educational careers, they will be inspired not only to teach, but also to come back home and teach in St. Vrain,” says Dr. Diane Lauer, Assistant Superintendent of Priority Programs and Academic Support. The program will support the interests of students like Allie Nicholson, a sophomore at Frederick High School who was inspired to become a teacher after being asked to help at an elementary school sports camp. “I said yes, thinking it would be a good way to get out of the house before summer ended. I did not realize what kind of impact that these camps would have on me,” says Allie. “Each week I met more and more kids, making more and more bonds. To this day, I still have some of the kids running up and giving me hugs whenever they see me. When I taught and helped these kids learn, I realized this is what I want to do for the rest of my life.”

Providing college-level coursework is an important element of the program’s design, so partnering with higher education was critical. Thanks to partnerships with CU Denver and FRCC, P-TEACH students will have the opportunity to earn up to 21 college credits during their two years in the program, including 12 credits in education-specific courses. That said, “the P-TEACH program is more than just a set of concurrent enrollment courses. It is a bridge into a four-year degree and a career where St. Vrain high school students can become teachers and leaders in their community,” says Dr. Barbara Seidl, Associate Dean of Teacher Education and Undergraduate Experiences at CU Denver. “CU Denver shares the same commitment to ‘growing’ diverse teachers for diverse communities.”

St. Vrain and CU Denver are co-developing a course sequence that prepares high school students for teaching careers, particularly in critically important positions like special education, culturally and linguistically diverse learners, early childhood, and STEM. Not only will students gain college credit, but they will also have a formal classroom internship, helping St. Vrain teachers manage classrooms of eager learners in preschool through high school.

The grantmaking community, also seeking to grow teacher pipelines, recognized the promise in St. Vrain’s model. Two recent grant awards from Early Milestones Colorado and the Colorado Department of Higher Education are supporting P-TEACH’s pilot and rapid expansion. “Early Milestones is excited to be working with St. Vrain Valley Schools to implement innovative solutions to address the need for a well-qualified and diverse early childhood workforce. The strong community partnerships and flexible approach used in P-TEACH holds promise for long-term, systemic, and sustainable change, which we hope will lead to the spread of best practices throughout Colorado,” says Jennifer Stedron, Executive Director of Early Milestones Colorado. In addition to these generous contributions, other important programmatic partners have invested in P-TEACH in a variety of ways. Mathematica Policy Research is supporting ongoing evaluation and continuous improvement of the P-TEACH model, ensuring that it delivers on its promises. The LENA Foundation is collaborating to support P-TEACH student teachers around scientific advances in early childhood development. Finally, the Community Foundation is helping P-TEACH to reach its equity and diversity goals, creating a pipeline of teachers whose demographics mirror the St. Vrain community as a whole.

Public education has the power to transform both individual lives and communities, especially when coupled with the power of partners. In St. Vrain, organizations large and small are creating rich learning experiences for students like Allie. “This program will help me get into the college of my choice and be completely ready to change someone’s life,” says Allie. “I’ve always wanted to do something to help people and this is it.”

By the Numbers: Partnerships and Grants

industry certifications earned by students in the 2017-2018 school year.
district-level partners. This number does not include many additional partnerships throughout our schools.
received in competitive grant awards since January 2018.
For every $1 invested in early childhood education, the U.S. economy sees a return of $8.60.

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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.

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