Students at the Roy J. Wasson Academic Campus can earn credentials in the automotive industry before graduation as part of the D-11 workforce skills classes.
Students at the Roy J. Wasson Academic Campus can earn credentials in the automotive industry before graduation as part of the D-11 workforce skills classes.

The region’s educational landscape is undergoing purposeful change, and those changes could mean a better-prepared workforce.

In a growing number of communities, to include Colorado Springs, nontraditional educational opportunities have expanded conventional learning, which has been criticized for turning out students with a vast array of basic knowledge but few applicable, real-world skills.

Some experts say allowing students to “self-identify” career pathways leads to more engaged learning and allows for highly specialized coursework that can begin in high school — and sometimes even earlier.

“Students have to have a four-year plan in place when they start their ninth-grade year,” said Dan Hoff, director of career and technical education with Colorado Springs School District 11. “Not because we want them to lock in for four years. They’re not making a four-year commitment, but now they’re reflecting on … how to be best prepared for success — whether that’s employability or a post-secondary [education].”

 ‘Multiple barriers’

Pikes Peak United Way is on the front line of addressing regional workforce shortages. But the organization’s focus goes beyond how the county’s drought of skilled employees affects corporate bottom lines.

Many students who didn’t receive the appropriate support, training and education as middle school and high school students are now caught in a cycle of poverty, said Jason Wood, CEO of Pikes Peak United Way. And the resulting economic impact is significant.

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“There is a cost to doing this kind of work,” Wood said of creating a system that buttresses the region’s future workforce. “I will say though, the cost of inaction is much higher than the cost of action.”

Wood said supporting the county’s thousands of jobless and unskilled 16- to 24-year-olds over their combined lifetimes could cost the region’s taxpayers billions of dollars.

Opportunityindex.org, which provides a snapshot of social and educational opportunities at the state and county level, gives a measurement of that demographic.

The index, which is “designed to help local communities connect economic, academic, civic and other factors that support increased opportunity and economic mobility,” reports 13.6 percent, or 11,960, El Paso County residents between the ages of 16-24 are not in school and don’t have jobs. That is higher than the state average of 11.5 percent, and that demographic has increased regionally by 2.6 percent since 2011.

“We know from research … those individuals who don’t make it out of poverty by age 26, meaning some post-secondary education or credential … the likelihood of them escaping poverty is dramatically reduced,” Wood said.

To address those issues, Pikes Peak United Way has, since 2013, led the Cradle to Career initiative for the Pikes Peak region. More than 60 business and community leaders have discussed ways to collaborate on meeting workforce and educational needs, Wood said, adding Cradle to Career focuses on creating awareness and bridging the opportunity gap for “young people in the region who face multiple barriers to career exposure.”

The initiative also allows those who dropped out of high school or who have a high school diploma or a GED to “reclaim education pathways” and facilitate continued education, he said. Pikes Peak United Way is working to ensure at-risk youth and young adults can complete post-secondary credentialing necessary for today’s labor market.

“What are the jobs of tomorrow that primary employers are looking for?” he said. “[Job creation] is not a role of United Way. It’s the role of the Regional Business Alliance and is a part of economic development, but if we’re going to work with low-income individuals and move them into [a career] pathway, we have to know where the primary jobs are and what post-secondary credentials they need. At the same time, we need to make sure those post-secondary credentials are available for them.”

Deana Hunt, senior vice president of community impact at Pikes Peak United Way, said one of the organization’s primary focuses moving forward is creating mutually beneficial connections — to include internships and apprenticeships — between employers, educators and students.

“One thing we’ve heard from school districts is they want to connect youth with opportunities in the community. They just can’t ask their teachers to do one more thing. … We’re looking at getting volunteers in place … to help with those connections.”

Evolved learning

Faced with years of declining enrollment, Wasson High School, one of District 11’s older campuses, graduated its last traditional class of seniors in 2013. The school has since been rebranded the Roy J. Wasson Academic Campus, now operational from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m., five days a week, and filled to capacity, Hoff said.

Those using the campus have a vast range of backgrounds and goals: High schoolers pursuing free, early college credits; online learners; nontraditional night-school students; English-language learners who want to teach their own children literacy; and students who have decided to pursue a skilled trade rather than a four-year degree. High school students even have the option of pursuing career-specific training and can earn certification in high-demand fields — including those in agriculture, hospitality, cybersecurity, automotive services and education.

“We’ve created a menu of opportunity that allows a student to self-identify and build out their entire education, instead of being told they need to take [a particular] sequence of courses,” Hoff said, adding counselors meet with students to ensure they stay on track. “Kids today are identifying either their post-secondary educations or careers way earlier than when we were kids.”

And Hunt said self-identifying educational and career pathways is possible because institutions like District 11 are growing increasingly introspective and flexible.

“Local school systems are doing a great job in seeing where their gaps are,” she said. “More and more are willing to look at those [gaps] and try new things. They’re being more innovative and recognizing testing doesn’t necessarily work for all students.

“We can still do better. I’m not saying our school systems are failing all children, because they’re not. But it’s great they are willing to look at what they’re doing and see how they can change.”

Editor’s note: This is the second of a three-part series focused on how local educators are addressing growing workforce needs in the region. The final installment will be in the Nov. 6 edition of the Business Journal.