Superintendents: Colorado schools must evolve to prepare students for a changing economy

In a rapidly changing economy, Colorado students will need skills that they can apply across a range of fields. But state systems don’t always encourage schools to provide career training or the so-called soft skills that will help students adapt over time.

That was the message from five rural, urban, and suburban superintendents who spoke Monday on a panel at an annual superintendents forum hosted by the Denver-based Public Education and Business Coalition. Their discussion focused on the intersection of business and education — particularly how schools could help students prepare for meaningful careers.

Speaking alongside the incoming executive executive director of Clayton Early Learning, Becky Crowe, and attorney Craig May from the Denver-based firm Wheeler Trigg O’Donnell, the district leaders described innovative experiments in school systems around the state — from helping high school students obtain specialized industry credentials to training parents to advocate for their children to measuring how well schools are turning out students with “grit” or perseverance.

The superintendents were Rico Munn of Aurora, Lisa Yates of Buena Vista, Scott Siegfried of Cherry Creek, Thomas Tucker of Douglas County, and Pam Swanson of Westminster.

Several superintendents also said that the state accountability system, with a focus on student performance on math and literacy tests, doesn’t recognize efforts to provides vocational training or develop soft skills that will prepare them for work; that rural districts struggle to provide some opportunities that are common in urban and suburban districts; and that all districts lack the resources to focus on students’ social and emotional health.

Here are four key takeaways we heard at the superintendents forum:

Some skills will always have value.

Tucker said even as the district looks for ways to new ways to collaborate with business partners, “there are things that will not change.”

“Those are the essential skills we first called the 21st century skills: collaboration, communication, critical thinking skills, literacy, and so forth,” he said. “Regardless of what the landscape is for the next 10, 20, 30, 50 years, those essential skills always be necessary in producing a graduate who can be successful and be a great citizen.”

Colorado needs major fiscal changes, but they won’t come quick or easy.

In opening remarks at the forum, Gov. Jared Polis said the state needs fiscal reforms to “fundamentally make this state more governable for future governors, for future legislators” who want to make additional investments in such areas as education, water infrastructure, and transportation.

Cary Kennedy, Polis’ senior policy advisor for fiscal issues, also addressed the forum. She said the governor is always asking whether policy proposals before him will “make Colorado more affordable for families.” In the years to come, she said, Polis would push for expanded access to free preschool and limited tuition increases at public universities.

Kennedy said part of the solution lies in a broad tax reform that didn’t get much traction this legislative session. She also touted a request that will go to Colorado voters in November to allow the state to keep all revenue from existing taxes, instead of issuing refunds to taxpayers when the economy is strong. If the referendum passes, a third of any additional money would go to K-12 education, but the amounts likely would be modest.

Larger solutions that allow the state to make big investments in education will likely take many years and require building a consensus that has proved elusive, she said.

Citing an analysis showing that Colorado spends $2,300 less per student than the national average when cost of living is taken into account, Kennedy said that disparity “is denying kids opportunities from career and technical education to behavioral health services. It’s real, and it impacts every single student in every single school district.”

Changing the trajectory of children’s lives starts before they’re born.

The Clayton Early Learning Center’s Crowe said that investing in public education starts well before kindergarten. Students who enter kindergarten without attending preschool are several years behind, she said, but that interventions that would make a real difference start “literally prenatal.”

“We know now so much more from neuroscience around brain development and what happens for kids who are living in trauma and living under extremely stressful circumstances that if we can actually get at those challenges, support those families, support pregnant moms, we have got an incredibly different trajectory for kids as a result,” Crowe said.

Tucker recalled that as a child growing up in a small Arkansas town, he attended free full-day preschool and kindergarten. Such opportunities — only now becoming reality in Colorado, in the case of kindergarten, and still not widely available, in the case of preschool — allowed him to reach the position he holds today, he said.

School districts are trying new things to prepare students, but those efforts need more support.

Munn touted his district’s micro-credentialing program, which allows students to receive dozens of industry-recognized credentials and certifications in a range of skills, as well as a new partnership with Colorado State University that provides affordable college for more Aurora students.

Yates, of the Buena Vista district, said rural districts struggle to match those kinds of opportunities. They don’t have the same variety of business partners in their communities, and they don’t have the resources to offer lots of different pathways.

“With limited resources rurally, it’s difficult to make a lot of options for students. We could have a welding certificate program, but that means we’re not going to have hospitality. There’s an economy of choice, so that ability for students be adaptable to whatever opportunity is coming next is really what our focus is.”

But in comments echoed by other superintendents, Yates said the state accountability system needs to evolve to better measure the work schools are doing to develop character traits that will help students succeed on the job.

“What gets measured and gets reported is what gets done,” she said. “As long as what we’re doing to have students that are hardworking, that are committed, that communicate, that are creative, until that gets measured and reported, I think we’re going to stay stuck where we are.”