Community partnerships have significant impact on focus programs

Reading, ’riting and ’rithmetic? Think energy production, bioscience and visual and performing arts. These are just a few examples of the rigorous coursework offered by “focus academies” in St. Vrain Valley Schools’ high schools.

Focus academies are designed for high school students interested in a specific career to learn not only about the fundamentals, but to learn from professionals who work in the field as well. There are currently seven focus academies offered in St. Vrain. These focus academies include college preparatory and specialized instructional programs that work closely with business, community and academic partners to bring depth and expertise to the classroom.

Energy Education in Mead

Alain Valette, dean of students at Mead High School, is the coordinator for the new Mead Energy Academy. This year, 25 students are enrolled in the flagship class about the principles of energy. Valette said next year, more than 60 students are registered for the academy, which is doubled expectations.

“One thing that was important to Mead when we created this program was that it should be accessible to all students,” said Vallete. “We want the Energy Academy to be for students looking at four-year colleges, two-year colleges and those going straight into the workforce. Our intent is to prepare students for all kinds of jobs in the energy and energy-related industries.”

Strong external partnerships provide a foundation for Energy Academy students to apply rigorous academic knowledge to industry applications. Two geologists visit the school on a weekly basis to discuss scientific research, industry trends and how important math skills are in their daily operations. Partners such as Annadarko, Silicon Ranch, Solar City, Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association, and United Power also support initiatives such as equipment acquisition, field trips and a career fair.

“We are a very broad-based energy academy that teaches from a balanced approach that includes societal, economic and environmental perspectives,” Valette said. “We are always looking for new partners that can help us educate and inspire students to tackle the energy challenges of the future.”

Visual and Performing Arts at Skyline

Focus academies are leveraging partnerships with universities and colleges as well. These partnerships are helping students “bridge the gap between high school and college,” said Stephanie Texera, director of bands and performing arts coordinator of Skyline High’s Visual & Performing Arts Academy (VPA).

VPA has approximately 120 students currently enrolled, with 60 new applicants for next year coming from schools around the district. Focus academies “create lasting professional relationships between students and their possible future mentors and professors,” Texera said.

For example, the Skyline Jazz Band has an ongoing partnership with the Thompson Jazz Studies department at the University of Colorado Boulder, and the academy has partnered with the CU-Boulder eCSite program, which explores the crossover between computer science and visual arts. Other partners have included the United States Air Force Academy Chamber Winds ensemble and guests from the music education faculty at Colorado State University. This spring, renowned vocal jazz pedagogue Kerry Marsh from University of Northern Colorado will hold a clinic for the Alpine Vocal Jazz ensemble, and Skyline students will work with voice faculty from the University of Wyoming. The Visual Arts Department also partners with local businesses and organizations, including the Longmont Museum, Sun Rose Café, the Latino Chamber of Commerce and Arts Longmont for exhibits and visiting artist series.

Jennifer McLees, a visual arts teacher and visual arts coordinator, said this year the academy is inviting several colleges to review student portfolios, and the recruiters will in turn share valuable information about the benefits of attending these post-secondary institutions.

Medical and BioScience at Longmont High

Focus academies are also benefitting the greater community. For example, last year a group of students enrolled in Longmont High’s Medical & BioScience Academy (MBSA) worked with a University of Colorado bioengineering professor to design an assistive device for a disabled student, said Chris Chou, an AP biology teacher and MBSA program coordinator. Students partnered with a university researcher, learned about the challenges of the disabled and worked on an engineering project in which they developed new skills and learned how to use a 3D design program and 3D printer.

Chou said some MBSA students know they want to be healthcare professionals or conduct scientific research, while others simply want to explore career options. Coursework includes introduction in the foundations of healthcare, nutrition and wellness, anatomy and physiology, forensic science and a bioethics class. During their senior year, students participate in a semester-long internship or complete a senior capstone project. Past topics have included neurology, cardiology, radiology, emergency medicine, nursing, physical therapy, public health and speech therapy. At the end of the year, MBSA interns present their projects at a poster session, which is open to the public, so they can practice their public speaking skills to a varied audience.

“MBSA students might one day graduate from medical school or engineering programs and come back to work for local companies,” Chou said. “Some of the students who interact with our university partners might continue on to get a Ph.D. in science, pursue scientific research and find a cure for cancer or develop a vaccine to prevent deadly diseases. These partners are investing time, energy and effort in these students, who will be our future leaders in medicine, science and the community around us.”

MBSA partners include CU-Boulder, CU-Denver, CSU, IBM, Longmont United Hospital and Medtronic. MBSA students hear from corporate guest speakers and they have the chance for job-shadowing and mentorship.

“Through focus academic like these, students have the opportunity to see, hear, experience and learn about many aspects of these jobs – both the positive and negative aspects,” Chou said. “They are able to receive a realistic view of what it takes to make it into these fields and the education and skills needed to be successful.”