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Promising Practices: More Options - Full Story

Colorado's stories of promising practices

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Green Mountain High School (Jefferson County School District)
Canon City High School (Fremont County RE-1 School District)

 

If 17-year-old Kaylee Jones from Cañon City attended a typical high school, she likely would be in class at 10 a.m. on a Monday morning with the rest of her classmates.

But every weekday morning, Kaylee dons scrubs at St. Thomas More Hospital a few blocks from her school and shadows a registered nurse on her rounds. Kaylee, a senior, is part of Cañon City High School’s robust internship program that is putting about 100 students into internships for school credit.

The program is a remarkable collaboration with the small community, where dozens of local businesses offer students chances to explore real world working experiences before they graduate. It’s an example of innovative postsecondary programs being established throughout Colorado, where secondary schools are trying different approaches to prepare students for life after high school.

“This internship has been an awesome opportunity that most people don’t have,” said Kaylee, who after working in the hospital realized the medical profession wasn’t for her and now will pursue a teaching career. “I didn’t have to spend all of that money in medical school to find out what I really wanted do.”

Colorado map showing Jefferson County and Fremont School Districts

Blue down arrow

Jobs requiring training beyond high school are growing three times as fast as jobs that require only a high school diploma, according a Georgetown University study. By 2020, three out of four jobs in Colorado will require education beyond high school. Additionally, 36 percent of students entering college are unprepared for college-level work. Simply stated, high school students need more options and training to prepare for both college and careers after high school.

In 2007, the state legislature passed House Bill 1118, requiring the creation of state high school graduation guidelines in an effort to better prepare students. The State Board of Education adopted the guidelines in 2015. The intent of the legislation was for students to be able to articulate their accumulation of skills to show what they know.

This year’s freshman class is the first to fall under the new guidelines, which include a menu of rigorous courses and ways students can demonstrate their readiness for college and work.

Local school districts select from this menu to create a list of options that students will use to show what they know in subjects that reflect Colorado standards and essential skills for the college and career-ready student. The Colorado Department of Education supports more options for high school students with the goal of getting 66 percent of the Class of 2022 to earn a postsecondary credential, certificate or degree within five years after graduation.

Throughout the state, high school students are enrolling in college-credit courses, attending community colleges, taking courses aligned to future careers, getting professional certifications or credentials, participating in mock interview sessions, completing capstone projects and participating in the working world through internships and apprenticeships.

After a law was passed in 2009, all Colorado students create Individual Career and Academic Plans (ICAP) with the intent of guiding them in the exploration of career, academic and postsecondary opportunities.

“I have learned so many different things here,” said Lorin Tedesko, a Cañon City senior who interns at the Fremont County probation office. “Every student should have this opportunity. You have to experience it so you know what you want to do later in life.”

Green Mountain High School

High schools around the state are looking for ways to transform themselves, creating new systems and improving pathways. One of the more effective transformations happened over the past 10 years in the steep hills of Lakewood.

A decade ago, Green Mountain High School, a neighborhood school in Jefferson Public Schools, found itself losing students to other nearby schools. To the south were high-performing D’Evelyn High School and a newly rebuilt Bear Creek High School. To the northeast was also a newly remodeled Lakewood High School. Meanwhile, Green Mountain High was losing up to 130 students every year to neighboring schools.

“You look at Bear Creek and Lakewood, they have tennis courts,” said Colleen Owens, principal of Green Mountain High. “I am in a 45-year-old building. Our tennis courts have cracks. We don’t even have a track. It all motivated us to be big and bold.  We were looking at not having any kids left in our school if we didn’t do anything.”

In November 2007, Green Mountain staff convened a two-and-a-half-day conference on what to do about the school. About 125 people joined the conversation, including community members, school board members, city officials, business leaders and students. Committees formed to research different models.

Owens, then a teacher, headed a committee that sought to find the best models for teaching students essential skills – abilities necessary to succeed in today’s working world, such as collaboration, digital literacy, critical thinking and problem-solving. At every turn, the committee kept hearing about academy model programs.

The academy model provides smaller learning communities within a school. Students choose “academy” pathways that match their interests. Advanced Placement courses align to pathways within the academies. For example, a student choosing an arts academy would take English classes and math classes geared toward an art focus.

Green Mountain officials found only one academy-style school in Colorado, Castle View High School in Douglas County. The high-performing school opened in 2006 with the academy model that was adopted by its first principal, Lisle Gates.

“When you go to the academy model it shrinks the size of the classroom and the school,” said Gates, who is now retired. “You have a school of 1,500 kids, but suddenly you have school settings where you have 300 or 400 students. The staff gets to know the kids in a much deeper way. You can pull the staff and kids into a finer focus on the interests of the students.” 

Green Mountain officials began working closely with Castle View teachers and administrators to establish Green Mountain High’s Academy program. Electives were redesigned to line up with the school’s four academies: arts, humanities, performing arts; business and global studies; health and human services; STEM (science, technology, engineering and math).

Within those academies, students can select from 14 different pathways to delve deeper into specific yet complementary disciplines. Students in the class of 2021 must earn 23 credits to graduate in Jeffco. They can earn some of these credits through academies, which offer   up to four credit hours. The idea is to make the learning relevant and give students knowledge and training to figure out what career area they want to focus on, said Owens, who became the school’s principal in 2011.

“It is all about exploring options,” she said. “You look at our pathways, they are so broad. It’s not saying, ‘This is the career and major you are going into.’ But these are what you could go into.”  

In addition, students get real-world work experience through job shadowing or internships. During school, students work on their resumes and engage in mock interviews with community members. They also are encouraged to complete a senior capstone project, a student-directed research project with an external mentor designed to illustrate their educational expertise. If students do coursework related to a specific pathway, it is printed on their transcripts.

The Class of 2013 was the first class to graduate from Green Mountain’s Academy program. Only 26 percent of the graduates finished a pathway and 16 students completed a senior capstone. Last year, about 80 percent of the graduating class finished a pathway and 47 students completed a capstone.

The school’s enrollment has stabilized, and its ACT scores improved from a composite average of 20.9 in 2009 to 22.4 in 2016, the last year Colorado juniors took the ACT.

Casey DeField, a 17-year-old senior, had planned on pursuing a law career. But when she began taking legal-related courses in her pathway, she didn’t enjoy them. She then took an animal science class and realized a passion for agriculture. In 2015, the school added an agriculture pathway, and it has since become one of the most popular pathways.

DeField eventually became president of the district’s first FFA program and will attend Colorado State University with a plan to become a high school ag teacher. Owens said she will hire her when she finishes at CSU.

“This gives us a lot of opportunities to play around with what we want to do,” Casey said. “I now know what college I want to go to and what classes I want to take.”

The school has become a model for how to build academy systems, drawing administrators from around the region and other states to examine the program. Owens has some advice for schools thinking about starting the model.

“They need a dedicated staff, and it has to be tailored to your community,” she said. “Do not make a Green Mountain High School program. You really need to look at your community.”

Green Mountain recently was awarded a district grant to start a program to carry the concept down to earlier grades. The idea is to create a K-12 academies program in its feeder schools, Owens said.

“We’re going to look at being intentional through kindergarten to help our students prepare for career and college the whole time, not just in high school,” she said.

Cañon City High School

Cañon City High School Principal Bill Summers was one who traveled to Green Mountain to look at its academy program. Summers had decided his rural school of 1,079 students needed a clearer postsecondary focus.

In Fremont County, more than half the jobs are in the corrections industry. Nine state prisons and four federal prisons are located in the county. Summers wanted to show his students that there are options other than working in the prisons.

Summers had graduated from the high school years ago and joined the military. Overseas, he lived in communities that had much different takes on how to prepare students for life after high school. While in Switzerland, his daughter was entering high school. Summers was impressed by how the school prepared students for career or college. They had academies, similar to Green Mountain High School.

In 2017, Summers and his staff visited Lakewood to see how Green Mountain’s system works. For the 2017-18 school year, Summers introduced the program to his students.

The four-year advanced learning series incorporates AP coursework into the curriculum, allowing students to accrue AP college credits while earning endorsements in particular disciplines. Like in Green Mountain, students pick a career-aligned pathway in health and business; science, technology, engineering, agriculture, and math (STEAM); skilled trades, security, and industry; arts, hospitality, and education; or an open pathway.

 Within the pathways, students can select from numerous different careers that delve deeper into specific, yet, complementary disciplines.

“Essentially half-way through their freshmen year, students pick a career and we schedule them into classes that best support that career through their sophomore to senior years,” Summers said. “We just want to tie their interest and passions to their high school. It answers that age-old question of, ‘Why do I want to learn this?’”

Students already are learning from their internships, where they are working at the hospital, probation office, the Cañon City Daily Record and in city departments. Students at Cañon City High must earn at least 30 credits to graduate. The internships can provide them up to two credits per semester.

The program is particularly impressive because of its scale. In a community of roughly 16,000 people, about 90 employers have signed up to be a part of the program that also includes students from nearby Florence High School. Regional internship coordinator Lisa Tedesko is in charge of placing the students in internships throughout the region.

Alyssa Goodwin, an 18-year-old senior, has an internship with Tezak Heavy Equipment, which operates two of the largest rock quarries in southeastern Colorado. Goodman’s job involves working to determine the amount of rock material needed for high-scale projects.

“This has given me an insight into how the working world works,” said Alyssa, who wants to pursue a career in engineering. “And I’m getting a grip on what I want to do.”

Danny Tezak, president of the company, said he is happy to be helping out the youth of the city.

“We have been doing a poor job of preparing our kids for the working world,” he said. “I’m glad we can give our students this real world working experience. Anything we can do to expose these kids to career paths helps.”


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