What the Fastest Improving State in the Country for Education Can Teach Colorado

When Colorado Succeeds took 33 statewide business and civic leaders on a delegation visit to Tennessee last fall, our objective was to inspire the participants and prompt some new thinking.

While there are many great and innovative education and workforce development initiatives underway in Colorado, our state still has a lot to learn.

We decided to visit Nashville, because Tennessee is the fastest improving state in the country for education and a national leader in workforce development. Our goal for bringing this delegation to Tennessee was to create a space for business organizations from across the state to network, learn, and translate our knowledge, passion, and relationships into impact back home. Importantly, the trip also aligns with the urgent need to adapt Colorado’s education-to-employment pipeline to meet the needs of our rapidly changing workforce.

Delegation participants, from Grand Junction and Greeley to Denver and Florence, learned about the various education and partnership strategies Tennessee has employed to improve education outcomes and talent development.

It was a busy couple of days, highlighted by informative visits and boundary-pushing discussions. Highlights included:

  • A tour of Schwan Cosmetics to see their top-notch high school Mechatronics apprenticeship program in action
  • A panel discussion on “The Tennessee Story,” featuring key leaders who helped shepherd Tennessee’s education transformation
  • A tour of Maplewood High School’s career academies and a discussion with the school’s business partners
  • A conversation with Tennessee business and higher education leaders about innovative workforce initiatives and the role of business
  • A roundtable conversation with delegation participants about what’s happening in Colorado

We asked a few of our delegation members to reflect on the moments that inspired them most. Here’s what they had to say.

From Mark Tapy, apprenticeship program manager at Pinnacol Assurance

The visit to the Mechatronics apprenticeship program at Schwan Cosmetics allowed me to peer into the future. I run the apprenticeship program at Pinnacol, and we’re just in our infancy. Seeing a mature program that is having such a huge impact on the lives of kids, who are getting great hands-on experience, inspired me. It sets a standard for what I hope we can offer here.

Apprentices at Schwan have mentors who are with them every step of the way. They also document the skills they’ve mastered throughout their apprenticeship. This is their own personal record which they can use to market themselves in the future.

Schwan is a German company and apprenticeships are deeply embedded in German schools. But the Tennessee factory’s apprenticeship is just three years old, so that tells me we can make a lot of progress in Colorado in a short period of time.

I also learned that what we’re already doing as the largest site for Colorado’s CareerWise apprenticeship program is pretty terrific, and we need to show it off more. Observing the impact our visit to Schwan had on the delegation members made me realize that Pinnacol can also inspire people if we invite them to see what we are doing with our 21 apprentices.

From Diane Schwenke, president and CEO of the Grand Junction Chamber of Commerce

It is hard to come up with just one highlight of this fabulous trip. I loved the concept of the Tennessee Promise, which offers “last dollar in” scholarships that allow any Tennessee high school graduate to get an associate’s degree or certificate at a community or technical college. You just need to be a state resident, score 21 or better on the ACT, and have a decent GPA.

It is a bold initiative that Colorado should copy. It could move the needle by allowing Colorado high school graduates to get the credentials they need to earn a middle-class wage, and by preparing them for jobs local employers have to offer.

I also loved the fully developed Maplewood High School Career Academies, where industry comes in to work with teachers and students, and students go out to work real jobs that give them real-world experience.

I told our local school superintendent about what we saw and learned and was surprised to find that he feels the same way and has been sending his senior team to Tennessee to learn more. We are all excited to use this knowledge in our community.

From Mike Patterson, city manager of Florence, Colorado and chairman of Action 22

I was most inspired by the words of Clint Satterfield, director of schools for the Trousdale County School district, during “The Tennessee Story” panel discussion. What he said was so basic and straightforward as to seem obvious: engaged learners are successful learners. We have to work harder to make sure all of our kids are deeply engaged in the learning process.

Engaging kids in their learning doesn’t have to cost more money and it most definitely should not be a one-size-fits-all program. For some kids, internships and apprenticeships might be just the ticket. But for other kids, there may be a different direction that gets them excited – maybe something more focused on the classroom.

As soon as I got back to Florence I went and met with my school board chair, superintendent, and other school district officials and really listened to learn what they are doing. I urged them to adopt this model of student engagement and was pleased to hear that they are planning to head in this direction. I was also pleased with how open they were to the dialogue

The end result of the delegation visit for me is that I have now developed a stronger relationship with our school district. We can benefit mutually by working together.

These are just three examples of how our delegates are using what they learned in Tennessee to create impact back in Colorado. As these stories show, there is a tremendous opportunity for the business community to work alongside educators to help shape the future of education in our state. That’s what we we’re after, and what we hope future trips of this nature can continue to inspire.

photo of https://coloradosucceeds.org/wp-content/uploads/2023/11/MK-Final-1-v5-1229x1536.jpg-e1700093769561-292x300.webp
Madison Knapp