When a School District Breaks the Mold to Build a World Class Education System

To get a sense of how profoundly the St. Vrain Valley School District is transforming education, one need only pay a visit to the district’s academic summer camps and talk with students. At one end of the age spectrum, nine-year-olds Uma and Madelynn, rising fourth-graders, proudly show visitors a prototype of SMILE, a “non-bullying social media app” they’re designing with two teammates under the supervision of a district teacher.

“It censors out bad words and mean stuff,” Uma says, pointing to a poster board of sketches the team has developed.

“It also helps after you’ve been bullied by giving you things that make you smile, like funny cat videos,” Madelynn adds.

The two girls are enrolled in St. Vrain’s two-week Innovation Academy for a Smarter Planet, a program for elementary school students the district has run in partnership with IBM and the University of Colorado since 2010.

At the other end of the spectrum and about five miles north, newly minted Silver Creek High School graduate Rhett Sandal is hard at work at the district’s Innovation Center, teaching beginning robotics to a group of elementary school students. Under Sandal’s supervision the students programmed robots to pick up plastic balls, walk them across a room, and place them on a low shelf.

Sandal has been immersed in St. Vrain’s Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) programs since seventh grade. This fall he will be attending the University of Colorado Colorado Springs and majoring in computer science.

In addition to developing the summer STEM curriculum and teaching, Sandal and a group of his peers have been building BiBli robots for use in Longmont libraries. BiBli is a project of a start-up robotics company called Robauto. Sandal has not only worked on the robots, he has helped develop the company’s marketing and social media strategy.

“All of this has been incredibly helpful to me,” he said. “It’s much more than just school; working on a physical product, going to market with it, having deadlines. It has accelerated my learning.”

Rethinking What Learning Looks Like

These vignettes illustrate the huge strides the suburban school district has taken over the last eight years in retooling itself to produce graduates ready to thrive in the modern world and workplace.

“The stars have aligned here” in recent years, said Brandon Shaffer, St. Vrain’s executive director of legal/government affairs, community outreach, and P-TECH. He credited strong leadership from Superintendent Don Haddad, the school board, and the teachers’ association for working together to build a forward-thinking district.

“It’s a remarkable mix,” said Shaffer, former president of the Colorado State Senate.

This year, 240 St. Vrain elementary school students are enrolled in the four-hour-per-day, two-week Innovation Academy, which director Becky Peters describes as “engineering summer camp.” Students spend one week at an IBM training center in Longmont, and the second week refining their prototypes at Skyline High School.

The district strives to keep the program affordable and offers reduced-priced options for low-income students.

The story of St. Vrain’s nationally recognized transformation dates back to 2007, when the district opened a STEM academy at Skyline High School. Early on, the STEM Academy planning team led by Principal Patricia Quiñones (now executive director of innovation programs) established a partnership with CU Boulder’s School of Engineering. Together, they identified the skills students need in order to be successful at the college level and backward mapped them to the Colorado Academic Standards. They also forged an agreement under which STEM Academy students with good grades and high test scores are guaranteed admission to CU’s College of Applied Sciences.

Based on the success of the STEM Academy, the district decided to think big and raise money to offer STEM education to all students, from kindergarten through 12th grade, in the Skyline High School feeder pattern, and to provide hands-on learning opportunities for students at the newly created Innovation Center.

To realize these ambitious plans, St. Vrain in 2010 applied for and won a $3.6 million Investing in Innovation (I3) grant from the U.S. Department of Education. Then, in 2012, the district beat out schools from across the country to earn a $16.6 million federal Race to the Top grant. Providing STEM for all Skyline feeder students and opening an Innovation Center would “improve graduation rates and post-secondary readiness for students through personalized programming,” district officials said.

In both cases, IBM played a key role in helping St. Vrain develop their proposals, and pledging to be a key industry partner. IBM has been in the Gunbarrel area since 1965, and has worked with the school district for those 50-plus years. But in the past seven years, the partners “took it to a whole new level,” said Ray Johnson, the company’s corporate citizen and corporate affairs manager for Colorado and a member of Colorado Succeeds.

“We are big on STEM, and on workforce development in general,” Johnson said of IBM. “One of our goals is to get these kids excited, at a very young age, not just in STEM but in school in general.”

Efforts like the Innovation Academy foster an awareness, even in young students, about the “career potential” in STEM fields, Johnson said. It also helps promote vital workplace skills, notably critical thinking, working in groups, and team-building.

Real World Learning In Practice

Underpinning Sr. Vrain’s entire STEM program is the Stanford University Institute of Design’s Design Thinking approach. Design Thinking continues to provide the foundation for St. Vrain’s STEM strategy.

At the Innovation Center, which opened in 2011, students apply the 21st century skills they are learning to real-world problems and challenges. Student designers like Sandal receive $10 per hour to work on STEM-related projects including web development, application development, and robotics for industry partners and the school district.

“The Innovation Center is a bridge between what you know and what you’ve learned and real-world application,” Quiñones said. “Students [told us] they wanted to connect with the field and connect with expertise in the industry. That was our focus when we [started STEM Academy] and it continues to be a focus now [at the Innovation Center].”

Innovation Center students also have the opportunity to earn credentials that open doors to gainful employment at an early age. Earlier this year, several St. Vrain students who are earning industry credentials came down to the state legislature to support HB-1289, which would help other schools create and expand similar programs. The bill, which recently became law, provides incentives to schools when students earn an industry credential tied to in-demand jobs, finish a rigorous workplace training program, or pass the AP computer science exam. Students from the district testified about how the opportunities provided by St. Vrain have impacted and shaped their futures.

St. Vrain’s STEM-for-all focus has shown quantitative results as well. Since Skyline’s STEM Academy opened its doors in 2008 with a group of 40 students, enrollment has grown exponentially. STEM Academy has a current enrollment of 442 students and boasts over 250 graduates, approximately 40 percent of whom have gone into a STEM-related post-secondary program.

The district also emphasizes career and college planning. In the Skyline feeder pattern (the focus of the Race to the Top grant), the majority of students in grades five through 12 have Individual Career and Academic Plans (ICAPs). ICAP programs aim to help students discover passions and set goals early in their school careers, and plan systematically for how they will achieve those goals either in post-secondary education or in certain career paths.

Industry Partnerships: From Apple to Otterbox

The Innovation Center continues to grow. This year, 225 student designers will work on STEM-related projects using the Innovation Center’s state of the art equipment, including an Electronics Lab donated by SparkFun, a Robotics center, multiple 3D printers and a laser printer, and a state of the art Apple computer lab for Apple Tech I and Tech 2 coursework offerings.

Since the Innovation Center opened, students have collaborated with industry partners on projects ranging from designing mobile phone apps to building websites to redesigning the life jacket to automating operations in a restaurant.

St. Vrain’s STEM work is supported by over 50 industry partnerships, including Otterbox. Through a collaboration with the Ottercares Foundation/Otterbox, a group of students designed and manufactured the company’s holiday ornament. Over the course of several weeks, students went through the entire manufacturing cycle from design to production to packing and delivering the product. It is this type of real-world application of 21st century skills that makes the Innovation Center such a powerful learning experience for students.

In addition to the opportunities available via the Innovation Center and partnerships with local businesses, St. Vrain will also open one of Colorado’s first P-TECH schools this fall. The program, a partnership with IBM and Front Range Community College, allows students in grades 9-14 to earn an Associate of Applied Science degree in Computer Information Systems and Geospatial Technology, at no cost.

It is clear that St. Vrain is quickly becoming a national model for industry collaboration. This has helped the district transform itself in order to prepare students for an unpredictable future. Given the path St. Vrain is already on, we’re confident its students will thrive in the post-secondary world of today and tomorrow.

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Shannon Nicholas