St. Vrain Valley shines as model of innovative curriculum done right
By Amy Bounds, Staff Writer, Times-Call
Patty Quinones doesn't want to know what kids want to be when they grow up, but instead what problems they want to solve in their lifetimes.
"We want kids to be very, very prepared for their futures," said Quinones, the St. Vrain Valley School District's assistant superintendent of innovation.
She spoke Thursday at Discovery Education's fall forum, hosted at St. Vrain Valley's new Innovation Center. St. Vrain first started working with Discovery Education in 2015 on its digital curriculum.
About 130 teachers, principals and administrators from 27 Colorado school districts, plus a couple of colleges, registered to attend the one-day event.
"Our mission is to improve student learning outcomes and connect practitioners together to share what they're doing," said Jason Barnes, vice president of partnerships at Discovery Education.
He said St. Vrain Valley stands out for its commitment to provide the same opportunities to all students.
"A challenge is how you do the work and scale it, so it isn't certain kids or certain ZIP codes," he said.
Participants included Michell Ansley, curriculum and instruction director at Littleton Public Schools. Her district is designing a building similar to St. Vrain's Innovation Center.
"We really want to use St. Vrain as a model," she said.
At the forum, Superintendent Don Haddad gave a keynote speech on the importance of public education, then students led tours through the center.
The tours showcased the robotics area, the aeronautics lab, the makerspace, the entrepreneurial zone and a future biotechnology lab.
The Innovation Center offers classes, such as aeronautics, that allow high school students to earn professional certification and college credit.
Students also can work at the Innovation Center, getting paid to work on projects for local businesses and governments. The Innovation Center currently employs about 75 high school students.
Amanda Giuliani, STEM coordinator at Longmont's Skyline High School, shared information about St. Vrain's Pathways in Technology Early College High Schools, or P-TECH, program.
Students who successfully complete the program — they have up to six years — graduate with an associate degree and the opportunity to interview for jobs at IBM and other tech companies.
The program is in its third year at Skyline, with Frederick High planning to add the program next school year.
"Industries love this," Giuliani said. "Kids are coming out with a four-year degree from Princeton, but they can't do anything. Here, they come out with skills."
District officials said they also plan to work more with elementary and middle school students now that they have the space, offering the makerspace for field trips and providing coaching and professional development for teachers.
After the tours, participants listened to a student and business partnership panel that included current and former students.
Michelle Tran, a senior in Skyline High School's STEM Academy, talked about using the Innovation Center's Tech Lab to become Apple's youngest certified Mac technician at 14 years old.
Her college plans include majoring in pre-med and business.
The main lessons she's learned working on teams at the Innovation Center are to learn from failures and to take the opportunities that are presented to her.
"It's life lessons," she said.
Liliana Arredondo, a freshman at the University of Colorado's business school, said her work on real-world projects helped her stand out when applying to the business school and helped her line up internships.
Plus, she said, it helped her narrow what she wanted to study in college.
"By the time we go to college, we won't have to spend thousands of dollars taking classes we don't like or switching majors freshmen year," she said.
Aidan Sesnic, an aeronautical engineering sophomore at CU, said getting hands-on experience solving real-world problems at the Innovation Center taught him how much he enjoyed engineering — and gave him the motivation to slog through tough classes.
"It's the best motivator you could possible have to why math and physics matters," he said.