The Business Perspective: Innovative School Models and What We Can Do to Support More

Colorado Succeeds and our STEM Champions Network recently visited STEM School Highlands Ranch, a high-performing K-12 charter school in the Douglas County School District. Read below to hear what they saw, why it matters, and what we can do to ensure all of Colorado’s kids have access to great schools and experiences.

WHAT WE SAW: Engagement, Intentionality, Innovation & Collaboration

The students were articulate, engaged, and could communicate why they were learning particular skills.

We saw elementary students learning how to program robots, think in new and different ways, and learn at their own pace guided by caring and experienced teachers.

The visit to STEM was really insightful. There were so many interesting classes, and all were using technology where the kids were very engaged.

“Nothing engages learners like practical application.”

The use of technology was pervasive and implemented in an intentional fashion. You could tell that the administrators and faculty had worked diligently to design coursework that not only hit the content standards…but also incorporated the use of STEM. For example, students studying a foreign language were practicing science vocabulary through research on weather using a laptop, which they had to navigate in the new language.

Incorporating rural schools through The SYNK was amazing. Every child, no matter where they are located, should have access to the resources available to urban school students. These were high level opportunities, interfacing with other students around the world. What a great way to open up young eyes to the possibilities in our global economy!

WHY IT MATTERS: Access, Autonomy, and Attracting & Retaining Teachers

I think the primary barriers to integrating real world learning into the classroom tends to be access to resources, scheduling, and open partnership between both business and education. STEM School Highlands Ranch serves as a prime example of the type of educational design that sets up students to successfully access the skills and industry exposure they need to competitively enter the workforce.

The school benefited by being able to control their spending more than a traditional public school. By investing more in high-quality teachers, and having more control over hiring practices, they were able to quickly become one of the top performing schools in the state. We shouldn’t have to turn away ANY student who wants this caliber of education.

“During our visit to STEM School, I was reminded of the powerful role that autonomy can play within our education system. Too often, critics of charter schools point to unfair funding or access to financial resources as an explanation for the success of the charter model. Here at STEM School, funding and access to financial resources remains a significant challenge – and yet, teachers were enthusiastic, engaged, and inspiring while students were driven, ambitious, optimistic, and fulfilled. At STEM School, autonomy allows the school to be run to meet the challenges of a 21st century education, and at the same time, empowers educators and students to pursue their passions and authentically integrate their talents in the classroom.”

“I had no idea something like STEM School existed. When I grew up, it was a given that you attended the local public school, had basically no choice in your classes, and came out fairly unprepared for life or college. The students at STEM School were learning amazing skills that will help them grow in higher education settings and in the workplace.”

WHAT WE CAN DO: Advocate and Provide Expertise & Partnership

Colorado Succeeds and it’s business network of STEM CHAMPIONS  are advocating for policies and programs that support innovative school models, high-quality STEM education, and workforce development experiences for students. 

Our coalition:

Supported policies that provided students with more opportunities to develop essential skills:

  • Helped to pass the state’s first STEM Diploma program that incentivizes students to pursue STEM fields and careers
  • Created a program that provides financial incentives to districts when students earn industry credentials tied to in-demand jobs
  • Ensured technology skills were incorporated in the state content standards so all students would learn and master these skills
  • Authorized a grant program so that more teachers are certified to teach computer science education
  • Made it easier for industry to co-teach in the classroom

“There are so many ways that the world of work can intersect with the classroom and vice versa. I loved the innovative approaches to learning that directly tied to relevant career pathways. And, speaking with the students at STEM School, you could feel the pride they had in their work knowing that it was directly relevant to an industry or pathway of interest to them.”

“It is not memorization of facts and figures, but instead collaboration and critical thinking skills. Business leaders can assist teachers by sharing real world case studies and helping kids learn to be decision makers.”

As business leaders, we have to remember that at the center of our education system are people – educators, students, families. It’s impossible to discuss our vision for the future of education without meaningfully engaging with the people who are working and learning within the system every day. That’s the value school visits with Colorado Succeeds brings to our work and I encourage every business leader to see first-hand what’s possible in education by visiting the incredible educators and students across our state.

Supported policies that help public charter school students:

  • Passed legislation making Colorado one of the first states to require equitable student funding from all levels of government: local (school district), state, and federal. Before this legislation, many public charter school students did not receive equal funding as those of traditional public school students
  • Increased access to land and facilities to allow for the opening of more schools
  • Increased transparency of district-provided services to charter schools
  • Leveled the playing field for charters applying for capital construction grants

Provided funding for high-quality STEM education, technology, and work-based learning programs through The Succeeds Prize.

  • STEM School Highlands Ranch was a 2018 Finalist for the Excellence in Technology-Enabled Learning Award, for their “STEM the Gap: Rural Education Outreach” project with  Eads High School, Lone Star School, & East Central BOCES.
  • Sean Wybrant of Palmer High School in Colorado Springs won the 2018 Technology Enabled Learning Award for his innovative and collaborative model which brings together students from around the world to mentor each other and create “Modern Memorials” through virtual reality.
  • Educators from Green Mountain High School won the 2018 Innovation Education Award for their “Geometry in Construction” program which provides contextual, hands-on learning experiences to students as a way to learn math and give back to the community by building homes.

To learn more about ways to get involved or to attend a site visit with Colorado Succeeds, contact Madison Knapp.

Special thanks to the members of our business network who contributed to this post:

Micah Gurard-Levin
Liberty Global

Linda Peotter
Metal Trading Corp.

Mark Tapy
Pinnacol Assurance

Greg Vochis
Delta Dental of Colorado

Michele Warren

photo of
Madison Knapp