On a recent visit to Colorado Springs, Gov. Jared Polis praised School District 11 and Pikes Peak Community College for innovations that will improve educational achievement and help fill workforce gaps.

Polis, who has made education a cornerstone of his administration, attended a D-11 kick-off event and toured PPCC’s new Center for Healthcare Education & Simulation on Aug. 8.

The governor joined Mayor John Suthers and about 4,000 D-11 students, staff, faculty, administrators, families, boosters and community members at the Broadmoor World Arena for a ceremony designed to unveil the district’s new strategic plan, including a bold mission statement, core values and logo.

“We dare to empower the whole student to profoundly impact our world,” the mission statement proclaims.

Superintendent Michael Thomas told the assembled crowd that the message is more than superficial.

“It is OK to take risks in D-11,” he said. “It is OK to step out of your comfort zone in D-11 if that is what it takes” to ensure student success.

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At about 27,000 students, the district is the 10th-largest in the state, according to the nonpartisan research organization Niche.com. And with 3,440 employees, D-11 is the county’s sixth-largest employer, district data show.

Thomas called on each of those employees to embrace the district’s bold new vision, as well as its guiding strategies. They require the district to:

• Cultivate a collaborative culture that promotes intentional, mission-driven change;

• Align its actions to a shared understanding of and commitment to the strategic plan; and

• Guarantee an ecosystem of equitable practices to meet the unique needs of all.

“If we truly mean to serve all kids, all means all,” he said to a roar of approval from the crowd.

D-11 ‘A little bit ahead’

Last year, Polis ran for the state’s top seat on a platform that included funding full-day kindergarten for all public school youngsters. That proposal became law in May, ensuring that what started as a $175 million budget allocation would become a permanent part of per-pupil funding.

“D-11 is a little bit ahead of the state. You already had free full-day kindergarten,” Polis told the cheering crowd. “Now, thanks to the fact that the state will be funding it, it frees up $5.7 million for District 11 to pursue other priorities. Funding kindergarten also opens up an additional 160 daycare-preschool slots funded for District 11.”

In districts that didn’t offer free kindergarten, Polis said, first grade teachers reported an “enormous difference” in performance and preparedness between children who had been to full-day kindergarten and those who had not.

“If we truly care about the persistent achievement gaps based on income, geography and race, giving every child a strong start will make the biggest positive difference in that, and our communities will continue to work to improve early childhood education here in Colorado,” Polis said.

With the youngest students squared away, Polis prioritized: working with middle and high schools to close achievement gaps and identify at-risk students to try to reduce drop-out rates, and improving opportunities for high school students to pursue concurrent enrollment.

All of that makes it easier for kids to achieve, Polis said.

PPCC’s health care boost

After leaving the D-11 rally, Polis and his entourage headed for PPCC’s Center for Healthcare Education & Simulation, which will house all of the college’s allied health programs.

Those programs include two- and four-year nursing, surgical technology, pharmacy technology, EMS training, dental assisting and medical assisting.

Polis donned a reflective vest and hard hat to tour the facility, a former semiconductor manufacturing plant at 1850 Cypress Semi Drive that the college is converting into classrooms, office space and interdisciplinary simulation labs where students will work in real-life surroundings.

Phase I of the renovation, including nursing simulation labs and additional spaces to accommodate the nursing programs, EMS temporary space and two general purpose classrooms, will open Aug. 26, when classes convene for the fall semester.

After completion of Phase II in 2020, PPCC’s pharmaceutical technology, EMS, surgical technology, dental assisting and medical assisting programs will move into the building.

PPCC students have the highest pass rate in the state on nursing board exams, and the institution is aiming to graduate 150 nurses per year, Polis learned.

Polis saw a nursing simulation lab that is being set up like a hospital room, with a window on one side where instructors can view students in realistic, high-pressure situations.

Clinical training space in hospitals and other facilities is limited, and PPCC students will be able to complete up to half of their required clinical training in the simulation labs.

“We think this is the future of health care education,” PPCC President Lance Bolton said. “We have an emergency room physician that was talking to us recently, and he compares it to training pilots. In the simulator, nobody gets hurt, and you know what to do in a real crisis. Same thing in health care.”

Tatiana Bailey, director of the UCCS Economic Forum, told Polis that about 5,200 nursing positions are chronically open in the Pikes Peak region each year and that RNs top the list of vacant positions.

PPCC will be able to train an extra 325 students per year in all health fields beginning in year three.

“When you look at even going from 100 to 300, that is a significant bump,” Bailey said.

Asked about his top takeaways from the tour, Polis said, “It’s great to visit Pikes Peak Community College and see the new facility really just opening in a couple of weeks. What they have is so much demand for programs like nursing and pharmacy tech. Because these are good-paying jobs, they’re going to get hired right away.

“They just haven’t had the capacity to even serve that many kids. So with this increased capacity, they’ll be able to enroll more students to prepare them to be nurses and health technicians and pharmacy techs and all those health care fields which are just booming.

“It’s not ‘if you build it, they will come;’ they came, and they had to build it for them,” he continued. “I mean, the students are just lining up. … What a great place to come and get your community college degree.”