Partnerships Creating Pathways

Partnerships Creating Pathways
Innovation Center student operating an underwater robot.

In classrooms and offices across St. Vrain Valley Schools, you are likely to encounter an African proverb whose sentiments run deeply throughout our system: “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” As a district, St. Vrain’s most important role is to give students a strong competitive advantage so they can compete for any job, anytime, anywhere. While the district’s vision is clear, it is far from a simple task. This level of academic excellence is achieved not only by exceptional staff, but also by local, national, and international partners who leverage their expertise and resources to provide unique opportunities for students.

St. Vrain Valley Schools has become a magnet for partnership, with dozens of companies, hundreds of mentors, and numerous philanthropists investing in St. Vrain’s vision for innovation. In 2018 alone, the district has garnered almost $5 million in competitive grant awards and has more than 100 industry, higher education, philanthropic, and government partners. From student wellness to aerospace, partners are accelerating the district’s progress and serving as a catalyst for excellence across St. Vrain.

Training Scientists for the 21st Century

Students like Michelle Tran, now a freshman computer science major at the University of Colorado Boulder, can speak to the benefits of partnership first-hand. While Michelle was a student at the Innovation Center of St. Vrain Valley Schools, a hub for industry partners and hands-on work, the majority (if not all) of the teams she worked on had partners, either through company outreach or individual mentors who came in to help students learn about all of the technical details that would be difficult to learn otherwise.

“Having mentors with experience in industry was probably the most valuable thing to me personally – not only did our mentors provide technical insight, but they also told us a lot about their personal experiences as someone who works in the field of computer science,” says Michelle. “It’s that kind of engaging opportunity with people currently in the field that makes student experiences in St. Vrain – and programs like the Innovation Center – so special.”

In addition to rigorous extended learning and mentorship opportunities, students at the Innovation Center gain valuable experience through employment that focuses on designing and engineering solutions for industry and community partners. Among the Innovation Center’s many programs is computer science and robotics, where student participation has exploded, increasing by more than 500 percent over the past five years. As industry’s use of technology accelerates, computer science has become known as a “fourth literacy” – and St. Vrain’s schools are keeping pace.

“When we first started, computer science was more hit or miss – only a small number of students had computer science available to them,” says Axel Reitzig, the district’s Computer Science Coordinator. Over the past ten years, the program has expanded rapidly, with more than 1,200 St. Vrain students taking a computer science class in the 2018-2019 school year alone.

Recognizing the many opportunities to enhance computer science education in St. Vrain, businesses, individual volunteers, philanthropists, and government agencies have rallied around the cause. SparkFun, Sphero, and Modular Robotics were three early partners, providing professional development for teachers, equipment, and working with St. Vrain teachers to develop lessons. An early partnership with the University of Colorado Boulder and the National Science Foundation paired graduate students with classroom teachers to help non-computer science teachers broaden their understanding of the field.

Since then, partners for computer science have ballooned, with the program earning five competitive grant awards since January 2018 alone. Recent grants from Google and the Colorado Department of Education are supporting professional development to advance computer science instruction in St. Vrain. The REC Foundation recently funded a matching grant to support robotics equipment and training, effectively doubling the speed of robotics expansion in the district. Long-time partners like IBM and Apple provide hands-on workforce training in the form of Apple Certifications at the Innovation Center and a P-TECH program, where students can graduate with an associate degree at no cost to the student. New partners like LogRhythm and the National Security Agency are providing mentors, training, and equipment to support the expansion of cybersecurity coursework and after-school clubs. And, the Innovation Center’s dozens of corporate partners continue to work with students and teachers to create hands-on learning experiences alongside industry mentors. As a result of this greater team’s hard work, St. Vrain is now a model for computer science across the state – and the U.S.