IGNACIO – Three years ago, five school districts decided to join forces and form a nonprofit with the specific goal of reworking how high school academics operates in Southwest Colorado. The educational system was failing many students, and it was a problem in every part of the region. The most affected of these students were those in rural areas, some attending schools in towns so small that grades K-12 are all crammed into one building.
“We don’t see a lot of opportunities once we graduate,” said Silverton senior Selene Rhoades. “There are only five seniors in my class this year. We live in a small tourist town. That’s all we know. There isn’t much else.”
Students in rural areas across the country already struggling in school fell even more behind during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to Harvard University’s Education Department. When schools shut down in 2020 and classes went online, many students were unable to attend their courses as a result of having weak signals or no internet access at all. Their academic performance began to suffer even more, and Colorado’s rural students were no exception.
Jessica Morrison, executive director of Southwest Colorado Education Collaborative, knew there would never be a better time to reach out to other struggling school districts and begin implementing strategies specifically designed to get those students back on track.
“There is one thing we all have in common in these districts,” said Morrison, “and that is bringing equitable access in education to every student.”
On Friday, 105 members or contributors to the Southwest Colorado Education Collaborative met at Ignacio High School with one goal in mind: bring more career pathways to students of isolated communities of Southern Colorado. Show them the possibilities of an education in environmental science or the hospitality industry or construction or education. Show them there are career paths in both higher education and vocational education and build those pathways with the partnership of the leaders in the actual industry.
“We want to be able to provide the same kinds of resources to every student to build their skills regardless of their zip code,” Morrison said. “Part of the process is sharing equipment and other physical resources with each other for a more project-based learning curriculum.”
One thing several school districts will be sharing is an environmental science van equipped with its own lab, so teachers can take their students into the field to collect and analyze rainwater, snow and other natural elements, in part to study the effects of climate change. The high-tech van has been purchased with some of the $8 million from the grants SCEC has obtained, one of them a $3.8 million funding from RISE (Rural Innovation Stronger Economy).
The key to sustaining SCEC’s momentum will be the combined efforts of those in education desperate to bring the same quality of education available in urban areas to students in rural areas, and those in local industrial and business industries that recognize the necessity in building a strong workforce out of the younger generations, as employment numbers continue to dwindle.
“I saw the labor shortage coming,” said Troy Dyer, president of Durango’s Veritas Fine Homes, who has been an ardent supporter of Southwest Colorado Education Collaborative for years. “I’ve seen it coming for a while. You can see it in our population. Most of our residents are over 40.”
Dyer views SCEC as a logical progression in education for those in the southwest.
“This whole thing is amazing,” he said. “It’s been pretty eye-opening. There’s a lot of opportunity in every sector. Subcontractors have already begun hiring students right out of high school. This all should have happened 10 years ago.”
Those representing education and Southwest Colorado’s workforce met in separate classrooms over the duration of the day, grouped by their vocation. Teachers met in one classroom, environmental science in another, hospitality and tourism in another, etc. The participants were asked specific questions posed by SCEC members and through group collaboration, brainstormed solutions to problems specific to their field and also predicted potential issues with bridging the gap between their industries and the education of rural students.
“Some of these kids might have a lot more going on in their lives than just not doing well in school,” said one of the participants during a lively environmental science classroom discussion. “That needs to be addressed. There could be lots of reasons why they’re not showing up for class.”
“You have to meet the students where they are,” said Fort Lewis College Director of Career Services Jeff Saville in the education session, “not where you want them to be.”
Selene Rhoades, one of the only students in attendance, was asked to give an opening speech before the day’s activities. She expressed gratitude toward what SCEC has done for her as a rural student.
“Through this, I’ve been able to take classes in Durango my senior year,” Rhoades said. “I’m going into education, so it’s nice to be able to take those specific classes.”
Rhoades already knows exactly what subject she wants to focus on when she becomes a teacher.
“I want to teach science,” Rhoades said with a smile. “Maybe chemistry or geographical.”
Rhoades sees clearly the need for nonprofits like Southwest Colorado Education Collaborative.
“More districts should be doing something like this,” she said. “Kids need to be shown more opportunities. More career paths. They need to know there’s more to what they can do when they graduate.”
The newest addition to the nonprofit collaborative is the Dolores School District, under the leadership of Superintendent Reece Blincoe. Blincoe, a Texas native, saw a similar collaborative effort between education and industry in the rural Lone Star State district he once taught in.
“I’ve been doing this kind of thing my whole life,” Blincoe said. “I was a career tech teacher. We were always working with limited financial and material resources.”
Blincoe does not see much difference between the students he taught in the remote areas of Texas and the ones in Dolores.
“A lot of these kids don’t know where the target is,” Blincoe said. “Only three out of 38 seniors (in Dolores) had any kind of plans for college. They have no idea what to do once they graduate. SCEC is developing systems to address this. We need to show the kids where the target is. Get them where they need to go.”