Moderator Bryan Grossman, editor-in-chief of the Business Journal, introduces leaders of eight school districts at the superintendents panel.

Superintendents from eight school districts are taking a regional approach to workforce development by partnering with businesses and other districts through the Pikes Peak Business & Education Alliance.

Most of the districts represented at the Feb. 20 superintendents panel discussion at The Pinery at the Hill are associated with the alliance, which helps business fill skills gaps while giving students opportunities to launch meaningful careers. More than 200 people attended the superintendents panel, presented by the Business Journal and Kaiser Permanente.

The regional alliance “really does leverage many more opportunities than any of us could do individually,” said Walt Cooper, Cheyenne Mountain School District 12 superintendent. “I’m excited about the opportunities as it grows and expands to students across the region, to give students a leg up as they step out into the workforce.”

Colorado Springs School District 11 Superintendent Michael Thomas agreed.

“We recognize that with 16 or so [school] districts, we have to find ways of collaborating and looking at the bigger picture,” Thomas said. “We have to work in partnership with businesses so we can offer alternative pathways.”

PREPARING NEW WORKERS

The superintendents talked about their districts’ individual and unique efforts to prepare students to enter the workforce.

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“We have to be very creative,” said Wendy Birhanzel, Harrison School District 2 co-superintendent.

Birhanzel cited the Dakota Promise, a partnership with Pikes Peak Community College through which qualified D2 students can receive a full two-year scholarship.

She said D2 also is working with students to develop the relationship skills businesses are seeking in their employees.

“They need those skills,” Birhanzel said. “Those are just as important as if they can prove the Pythagorean theorem.”

Widefield School District 3 has strong partnerships with both the regional alliance and the MiLL Academy, a hands-on learning lab that trains students in construction trades and welding, Superintendent Scott Campbell said.

“Those programs start kids at a young age learning the skills to be effective in the workforce,” Campbell said.

More than 100 local and international partners are associated with the MiLL, which provides $3.5 million worth of equipment for students to use as they learn construction skills.

“Those kinds of relationships are a return on investment,” Campbell said, adding that D3 has pursued grants that have allowed it to expand offerings in biomed, computer science and related STEM fields.

“We do the best we can with the little that we have,” he said.

Preparation for the workforce starts “way before high school,” Manitou Springs District 14 Superintendent Elizabeth Domangue said. She recently attended a first-grade tea party where students learned about manners and hospitality and wrote thank-you notes afterward to the parents who served them.

“I believe that’s what we want the workplace to be like, too,” she said.

Lewis-Palmer District 38 has partnered with businesses to craft internships for students to help them find their purpose and passion, Superintendent Kenneth “K.C.” Somers said.

The district also celebrates innovation through unique classes such as geometry in construction. Now in its second year, the class includes building greenhouses so students can apply what they’ve learned.

“Next, they will build a tiny house,” Somers said.

Tom Gregory, superintendent of Academy School District 20, said the district offers students opportunities to experience many different fields.

They can choose college preparatory programs, the International Baccalaureate program, certification for construction trades, emergency medical technician training “and everything in between,” he said. “It’s incumbent on us to expose kids to as many different options as are out there.”

Brett Ridgway, chief business officer at School District 49, said the district aims to launch students into workplace success “by being a portfolio district. We deliver different styles [of learning] so students can choose the best opportunity for them.”

D49 incubated the business and education alliance, which now includes 14 school districts as members and associates.

“We were happy to spin that off,” Ridgway said. He noted that District 49 has a team leadership model with three chief officers rather than a single superintendent.

In D11, 3,000 students are participating in career programs including a biomedical track and a new aviation pathway.

“Our mission is to empower the whole student to make a profound impact on the world,” Thomas said.

FUNDING, DIVERSITY, GROWTH

The superintendents fielded questions about funding, diversity and growth.

Birhanzel said D2 is putting funds to work from the $180 million bond issue voters approved in November 2018 by upgrading every school and rebuilding one school.

Part of successful learning is “being prideful of school,” she said. “We really work to make sure students feel that.”

In the same 2018 election, voters in D38 rejected a mill levy override and a $36.5 million bond issue and tax increase for capital improvements including building a new elementary school. Voters also nixed a pared-down $29 million bond issue last year.

“We’ve had a difficult time for the past 20 years, hearing about the success of our neighbors,” Somers said. “We’re looking to learn and really understand what we are dealing with from a funding perspective.”

The failure of bond issues in two consecutive tries has caused some soul searching in the fast-growing and overcrowded district.

District leaders are asking, “What do we aspire to be as a community? Who are we?” Somers said.

“We are working really hard right now, and we’re taking our time — not necessarily rushing and saying we have to go back again next year,” he said. “We want to make sure we’re engaging the community, developing a plan with the community and prioritizing what’s best and most important.”

In D11, the county’s largest and most racially diverse school district, “we recognize we have to see and hear every student and every family,” Thomas said.

“We are weeks away from introducing the first equity policy in the board [of education],” he said, “and we will be hiring an equity supervisor” to make sure the district is responding to the needs of every student and demographic.

D20 facilitates collaboration among teachers about what is working for individual underperforming students, Gregory said.

“There is a lot of data out there, and we’re making that accessible to teachers,” he said. “Another piece is understanding what the data is telling us about what is working,” as well as “making every one of our students feel they have a place in the classroom.”

Planning and partnerships are key to handling explosive growth in D49, Ridgway said.

Managing a system with 26,000 students that is growing 3 percent a year requires “not only reaching students when and how they want to be taught, but efficiencies with blending programs and online programs,” he said.

“In theory, we could be adding another school every single year,” he said. “But high schools are incredibly expensive to build, so it’s planning ahead — not just the next school but three schools out.”

Partners such as the district’s six charter schools are helping. Those schools represent a significant number of students, and three more will be opening next year, Ridgway said.

CONSOLIDATE: YES OR NO?

While acknowledging that joint efforts such as sharing broadband services can help school districts operate more efficiently, the superintendents said they do not currently favor consolidating districts.

“A lot of things happen where kids are not the center of attention when you get that large,” D2’s Birhanzel said. “If we consolidated, I think … students in Southeast would be underserved. It’s better to serve our community’s needs.”

Several superintendents said their communities’ desires would drive that conversation, but D20’s Gregory said, “nobody inside the district has ever come to me and said, ‘Tom, I think we should consolidate.’”

“I think it comes back to who we are and what we want to be,” District 38’s Somers said. “Ultimately, if we are doing a good job, if it’s not broke, don’t fix it.”