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‘Portrait of a Graduate’: What do students need to succeed?

Durango School District asks businesses, community leaders for feedback
Durango High School students Joe Baldwin, 17, Anabella Parker, 14, and Nicholas Best, 16, work on their 600-square-foot tiny home design in their drafting class. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

Durango School District 9-R has turned to business and community leaders to determine which skills and attributes it should imprint on students to prepare them for an evolving Durango labor market.

Superintendent Karen Cheser calls the collaborative project “Portrait of a Graduate.” The school district is seeking feedback through February about how to orient its lesson plans, programs and initiatives to best promote skills that will have the highest impact on student workforce readiness.

Student Maggie Williams, 16, works with a sewing machine in her Durango High School fashion design class. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

But before a program can be implemented, the district must determine the key skills and dispositions it wants to prioritize. It needs to define what an ideal graduate would look like.

Some of the skills and traits suggested by local leaders included critical thinking; collaborative problem-solving and adaptability; curiosity; creativity; innovation and an entrepreneurial mindset. They also preferred social competency, interpersonal skills, conflict resolution and self-advocacy.

The goal is to condense the ideas into five or six “competency skills and dispositions” that will guide the district, Cheser said.

Joseph Burns, culinary arts teacher, talks with students who had baked pretzel rolls in class at Durango High School. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

The superintendent described those five to six points as the district’s “north star” that will align efforts across the district.

“Our world is changing,” Cheser said. “More and more people sort of have to find their niche even if they work for an employer and are not starting an organization or a company themselves. They still have to be entrepreneurial.”

The project kicked off Nov. 29.

One point of conversation between the school district and community leaders is that younger, elementary students might end up in careers or jobs that don’t exist now.

How can students prepare for jobs if they don’t know what those jobs are? By being given a template of skills that they can apply to their professional lives regardless of the context of a specific career.

Curiosity is a major element that business and community leaders want to see in high school graduates, said Kyle Hanson, president and CEO of Timber Age.

Hanson thinks forecasts about young children today working never-before-heard-of jobs a few decades from now, or sooner, speaks to the idea that we live in a very dynamic and unpredictable world. A strong sense of curiosity would be essential to navigating that world.

For Timber Age, a small-staffed company that creates cross-laminated timber panels used for buildings, the ability to adapt and learn with the times is crucial. Hanson wants employees who understand that.

“Because the world is changing around us, that means the needs of customers are changing, and what people understand about what they need is constantly changing,” he said.

Durango High School student Elijah McCrady, 14, designs a 600-square-foot tiny home in his drafting class at the school. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

Hanson also wants students who are courageous in the face of failure. Making mistakes or handling unexpected results can be a valuable learning experience, he said. He used Timber Age itself as an example.

Timber Age is the product of years of ongoing conversations before the company was founded. Those conversations circled the problems of forest health, the high cost of living in Durango and the lack of steady, skilled-labor, blue-collar jobs, Hanson said.

“Our hypothesis was this product could be a way to be able to help address creating some new jobs that didn’t exist before,” he said. “Creating a locally produced building product that might be able to lower housing costs. And also, to provide an outlet for ponderosa pine, which would allow our forest to get healthier.”

Hanson said he and his colleagues spent a lot of time exercising their curiosity and exploring the success their idea could feasibly achieve.

“We went from an idea to making CLT (cross-laminated timber) and having people investing in us and the state granting us money to build a greater and improved factory in basically two years,” he said.

Internships and hands-on work are another subject Hanson wants to explore. Timber Age just started featuring one student from Big Picture High School as an intern a few weeks ago, Hanson said.

Timber Age process technician Sean McCleary said the company’s internship provides a “great opportunity to use their hands and learn skills that will transfer into a lot of different professions.”

He added that the chance to work with Timber Age’s staff of six people also provides a strong lesson in communication.

“We are all very honest and open at Timber Age. Just showing them what a healthy work situation looks like,” he said.

Timber Age Value Stream Manager Matt Betts prioritized project management.

“Not just the mechanical side of it (a project), not just how to build it, but also how to plan it, how to schedule it and how to lead it,” he said.

He said foundational understanding of project management will make students’ lives much easier in the future.

Ariana Rohlas, 15, works on her redesign skirt in her Durango High School fashion design class. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

Durango Police Chief Bob Brammer said it is a little tougher to determine the “portrait of a graduate” from a police perspective because of the gap between high school graduation and a job on the police force – a 17-year-old graduate can’t join the force until at least age 21.

That aside, Brammer said he has noticed some underdevelopment of social competency skills and perhaps an over-reliance on technology among young police recruits.

“I think people just become over-reliant on technology and devices,” he said. “That distancing between people.”

The current national concern or trend around law enforcement is the ability to communicate. Officers need solid communication skills, he said.

Brammer said in a crisis situation, communication can help identify the nature of the situation and de-escalate it.

The police chief said local recruits give the department legitimacy through trust.

“That’s why this (the school district’s project) is so important of an initiative to be able to bring on,” he said.

Brammer said the “portrait of a graduate” meetings bring a “grand opportunity” for new perspectives, especially with the intent of keeping kids local in Durango while preparing them to succeed.

Meeting participants also identified possible “hard” and “soft” skills that would benefit students and employers.

Hard skills include handwork and collaborative problem-solving. Soft skills include the ability to empathize and work with people even while disagreeing with their opinions.

Cheser said there will be opportunities in “Portrait of a Graduate” meetings through February for feedback from teachers and staff members, parents and students and other residents.


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