STEM in Colorado

How one Colorado school district has embraced STEM as a way of life

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Cuauhtemoc Jesus Sanchez at Skyline High School in Longmont is one of the first Colorado students to be enrolled in a new P-TECH program.

LONGMONT — Cuauhtemoc Jesus Sanchez isn’t shy about why he’s enrolled in what might be one of the state’s most ambitious science, engineering, math and technology programs.


“I want to buy a house for my mom,” said the freshman at Skyline High School in Longmont, about 40 minutes north of Denver.

Sanchez is one of 50 students in the St. Vrain Valley School District to be enrolled in one of the the state’s new P-TECH programs. A similar effort also launched at Northglenn High School in Adams County.

P-TECH is a growing national effort that brings together public schools, community colleges and tech companies in an effort to provide traditionally underserved students a more robust education in science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM, and the promise of a good job.

The program is a natural fit for the St. Vrain Valley district, which for nearly a decade has devoted energy to STEM offerings with the aid of millions in federal tax dollars. Now, it is focusing more effort on serving its growing population of at-risk students — with P-TECH being one example.

“It’s going to be hard, but we’ll get through it,” said Marina Rivas, one of Sanchez’s classmates. “We’re very lucky kids.”

“We defined STEM”

In 2007, St. Vrain officials were looking for a way to keep Skyline’s mostly poor and Latino students in school. The four-year on-time graduation rate was just 77.4 percent, much lower than the district’s other high schools.

STEM in Colorado | A Chalkbeat special report

PART 1: Little access to STEM education
PART 2: St. Vrain goes all in on STEM
PART 3: What the heck is STEM?
PART 4: A scrappy STEM school with something to prove
FIRST PERSON: How my STEM education is going to help me get clean drinking water in Ethiopia
HOW I TEACH STEM: An award-winning science teacher shares her classroom practices.
HOW I TEACH STEM: An award winning fourth-grade teacher shares her classroom practices.
The Gay & Lesbian Fund for Colorado provided financial support for this series.

Patty Quinones, then principal of Skyline, went online and learned everything she could about this new trend in public schools: STEM.

STEM evangelizers then and now believe the model, which calls for more critical thinking and application than memorization and bubble tests, keeps students engaged and in school.

Quinones and her team of teachers and administrators contacted the University of Colorado’s School of Engineering and local industry officials to create what is now the STEM Academy at Skyline.

A $3.6 million federal grant, part of the Obama administration’s stimulus package following the Great Recession, paid for teacher training and technology upgrades at Skyline.

Students enroll as freshman and take four years of STEM courses that include explorations of structural engineering, renewable energy and robotics. Those who successfully complete the program — which includes a senior-year project that must be presented in front of a panel of industry experts — could lead to guaranteed admission to CU’s School of Engineering.

All district STEM offerings share the same philosophies: that learning is personalized for each student, and that students demonstrate their learning by creating products using a formal process.

“Teachers said they didn’t want to buy anything off the shelf,” Quinones said. “We defined STEM for ourselves.”

"When you get older, you’re going to have to code. … Like, if you want to build a robot to clean your room."Camila Carmona-Zavala, Indian Peaks student

The results so far have been mixed.

Nearly 10 years after STEM Academy’s founding, Skyline officials point to a four-year graduation rate that has jumped four points to 81.4 percent.

But the school, which serves more students of color than any other high school in the district, still has challenges. White students are enrolling in the Academy at a higher rate than Latino students, and the school’s math and science ACT scores have been flat since 2010.

Current Principal Heidi Ringer said she believes an expansion of STEM programs, especially at the elementary and middle school levels, will help turn the tide.


It’s a regular afternoon in Lila Kennelly’s second-grade class at Indian Peaks Elementary School. Students are working on a variety of computer-based projects, including using an online tool to design applications.

A student at Indian Peaks Elementary School in Longmont participates in a lesson about the nation's forests.
PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
A student at Indian Peaks Elementary School in Longmont participates in a lesson about the nation’s forests.

Camila Carmona-Zavala is struggling to get beyond the blank screen in front of her. But she knows why this work is important.

“When you get older, you’re going to have to code,” she said. “… Like, if you want to build a robot to clean your room.”

Since the creation of the STEM Academy, other STEM courses and opportunities have quickly spread to other schools in St. Vrain. Today, students at Longmont High are studying medical and bioscience. And Erie High has an engineering and aerospace program.

But the largest expansion of STEM in St. Vrain came in 2012, when the district won a $16 million federal grant to redesign many of its elementary schools — especially those that are in the same neighborhood as Skyline High and serve mostly Hispanic students from low-income homes.

As part of the redesign, each school hired a STEM coordinator to help teachers plan lessons and projects that demand students use knowledge in multiple subject areas. STEM is not isolated in a science block or math block, but talked about throughout the day.

“I think the change in the building itself is seeing students think differently,” Kennelly said. “It’s every subject all the time — which is the real world.”

Kennelly, a 30-year veteran, said the shift for both students and teachers has been difficult but rewarding. While the district has provided formal training as part of the transition, she regularly attends more casual meetings of teachers and STEM coordinators at a local brewery where teachers exchange tips about coding and robotics.

“For me, it’s been exhilarating,” she said. “I want to live in a world where every kid has an opportunity for a STEM education.”

P-TECH and beyond

It’s too soon to tell whether the changes at St. Vrain’s elementary and middle schools have made a difference academically for students. A change in state assessments also complicated matters, making comparisons difficult. But the district is all-in on STEM.

"Our picture-perfect is that in five years, 100 percent of these students will have an associates degree and be employed."Eric Bergen, IBM program manager for P-TECH

“Now that we have this big machine going, you’ll see better and better results,” said Patty Quinones, director of innovation for St. Vrain. “It’s gonna bust wide open in a couple of years.”

And district leaders believe the new P-TECH school at Skyline is just the first of many.

“We have huge numbers begging (for the program) at other schools,” said Regina Renaldi, an assistant superintendent.

But the district isn’t in a rush. Officials want to make sure that the program is successful.

Problems with the P-TECH model have arisen. One of the first P-TECH schools in New York City has been dogged by low college completion rates and infighting among the various partners that make up the program.

“Our picture-perfect is that in five years, 100 percent of these students will have an associates degree and be employed,” said Eric Berngen, a program manager for IBM who spends three days a week at Skyline.

District leaders hope they’ll be able to offer students more certifications and apprenticeships in the coming years. St. Vrain students can already earn an Apple certification to repair iPhones and laptop computers.

“We’re no longer satisfied with just graduating students,” Renaldi said.

As for Sanchez, he’s steeling himself for the next five years, the average time it takes a student to complete the P-TECH program.

“It’s going to be kinda hard,” he said. “We’re in college and we’re barely high school students.”

Correction: An earlier version incorrectly reported the name of Skyline High School.

Out of this World

Named for a renowned astronaut, this Colorado school took a break from classes to watch the solar eclipse

Students at Scott Carpenter Middle School take in the total solar eclipse. (Photo by Marissa Page/Chalkbeat)

Just minutes before the peak viewing window of the United States’ first total solar eclipse in 99 years, science teacher Randy Vanderhurst excitedly waved a model of Earth orbiting the sun before his class of 6th graders.

In his raspy, booming voice, he asked students — broken up into clusters labeled “Awesome” and “Brilliant” — to answer questions about how the eclipse works.

“Awesome, please tell Brilliant why you think the eclipse is going to move across the country,” Vanderhurst told his students at Westminster’s M. Scott Carpenter Middle School.

When the moment finally arrived Monday, hundreds of kids at Scott Carpenter flooded out the school’s back doors and onto a large field. They carefully placed their red and black Eclipse USA glasses over their eyes to examine the sun, which looked like a bright orange sliver through the lenses.

Echoes of “Whoa!” and “That’s so cool!” scattered across the field. One girl was more dismissive, suggesting it was all a waste of time.

Nationwide, people clogged parks and drove in throngs of traffic to get their best glimpse of the “Great American Eclipse,” which arced across the country from Oregon to South Carolina. To make the phenomenon a teachable moment, educators across the country prepared special lessons, projects and safety plans — and Colorado teachers were no exception.

Scott Carpenter Middle School had special cause to pay attention: It is named after a Boulder-born astronaut who became the second American to orbit the earth. The school has long emphasized planetary science in its curriculum, making the eclipse a must-see event for its over 500 students.

Principal Tom Evans said once a teacher drew the impending eclipse to his attention in July, he set to work right away securing “legit” eclipse glasses for everyone in the building to safely view the event.

Over the Denver area, the eclipse reached about 93 percent totality, making Scott Carpenter’s lawn a decent viewing spot.

“It’s pretty cool we don’t have to travel to see it,” said Manuel, an 8th grader at the school.

Jeff Sands, who teaches 7th and 8th grade science, said students did not seem to be testing their luck by starting directly in the sun, which during an eclipse could lead to permanent vision damage.

“You’ve got 30 kids in a classroom and it’s kinda hard to keep track of them all,” Sands said. “These guys seem to be pretty responsible, though. I’m pretty impressed they’re listening to us.”

After a little more than 20 minutes of viewing, Evans, the principal, started directing the meandering middle schoolers back to their classes. He said he felt the logistics went “smoothly.”

Once all the students returned inside, they settled in to write reflections on the eclipse, and where they hope to be the next time such a celestial event passes. The next visible total solar eclipse over the United States will come in 2024, when the 6th graders at Scott Carpenter will be seniors in high school, Evans said.

“Scott Carpenter was an individual who obviously at some point in his life looked up at the sky and drew some inspiration,” he said. “It’s only fair that we give these kids the same opportunity because who knows, this may have sparked their interest as well.”


Colorado schools make plans to view — and teach — the solar eclipse

Students at Linden Elementary School in Oak Ridge, Tenn., try eclipse glasses. (Chalkbeat file)

This coming Monday should be, by all accounts, a normal day of school. But for three hours, the planet will go dark — and Colorado teachers are seizing it as a teaching moment.

On Monday, as Denver Public Schools starts and students in other Colorado districts settle into the first few weeks of the school year, the moon will blot out regularly scheduled programming as the United States experiences a rare total solar eclipse.

From launching balloons to constructing “sun funnels,” science teachers across the country have big plans for the “Great American Eclipse.” Although Colorado does not lie in the so-called “path of totality,” our view shouldn’t be bad, either. 

The eclipse is expected to reach 92.3 percent totality over Denver from after 10 a.m. to around 1 p.m., and schools throughout the state are setting aside time for students to view it safely.

“There’s kind of a new push in science for what is called phenomenon-driven science education,” said Renee Belisle, the grade 3-8 science curriculum specialist for DPS. “Through understanding those events, we understand more of the world around us. Kids can observe this phenomenon and then they can start to generate explanations for why this happens.”

Several districts have ordered or received donations of solar eclipse glasses to help students safely view the phenomenon. Belisle said DPS received a donation of 20,000 glasses to distributed “as equitably as possible” among 93,000 students.

Jeffco Public Schools is urging its students to view the eclipse indirectly through pinhole projectors.

“We offered a strong recommendation to all of our schools to view the eclipse using an indirect method of viewing,” said Matt Flores, Jeffco’s chief academic officer. “As we all know staring directly at the sun is never a good choice. Those glasses, though they have a filter… can still do some damage to a student’s eye.”

Other schools are trying to immerse students in eclipse-viewing and related activities for the day. Students at several area schools, including Cherry Creek High School, will be taking field trips to Wyoming, where the eclipse will be visible in totality over a 67-mile swath of the state.

Belisle said one DPS elementary school is holding an all-day back to school picnic so students can be outside for the entirety of the eclipse.

Officials from most districts said they granted autonomy to schools so they could design curriculum and pick activities around the event that best serve their students. But they all expressed excitement to kick off the school year with the grand display of planetary science in action.

“We hope that it opens their minds up quite a bit more about the beauty of science,” said Richard Charles, Cherry Creek’s director of STEM and innovation.