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Southwest Colorado nonprofit building pathways from classrooms to careers

Collaborative seeks to introduce students to possible career paths based on their skills and interests
Bayfield High School student Izak Donelan, 15, checks the programming on a laser cutting and engraving machine, which was purchased with the assistance of the Southwest Colorado Education Collaborative. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

Meet the board

The board of directors to the Southwest Colorado Education Collaborative is led by board president Kevin Aten, superintendent of Bayfield School District.

Board members are Tom Stritikus, president of Fort Lewis College; Sam Dosumu, executive dean of Pueblo Community College’s southwest campus; La Titia Taylor, director of education in the Southern Ute Education Department; Troy Dyer, president, Veritas Fine Homes; and Nick Olson, program manager, Southwest Conservation Corps.

Five school districts have teamed up with two colleges to form an educational collaborative aimed at introducing students to possible career pathways based on their skills and interests.

The Southwest Colorado Education Collaborative was formed by Bayfield, Durango, Ignacio, Pagosa Springs and Silverton school districts in partnership with Fort Lewis College and Pueblo Community College to help rural students find a pathway into a career they will enjoy and succeed in.

The collaborative nonprofit was formed in 2019 with a focus on providing rural students with industry insight and experience that would inform them of what direction they want to take their professional lives.

When the COVID-19 pandemic struck, the collaborative applied for and received a $3.6 million federal grant that helped the nonprofit organize its plans and lift its pathway programs off the ground.

It currently focuses on two primary career pathways, environmental science and building trades, although a goal for the collaborative is expanding into other subject areas.

Jessica Morrison, executive director for the collaborative, said each of the five school districts in the collaborative possess unique student populations that carry their own cultures and interests. She described the collaborative as a hub for teachers, students and industry leaders.

Curtis Gillespie, an instructional technologist at Bayfield High School, helps students Rowan Underwood, 14, left, and Chris Frazee, 13, with their nightstand projects during a woodworking class at the high school. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)
What is Career X?

The collaborative’s Career X program allows students to job-shadow industry professionals, practice with industry tools and explore internship or apprenticeship opportunities.

During a job shadow, students get to meet and talk to workers, observe them on the job and develop their own curiosity about the industry they are being immersed in.

The job shadows are meant to let students gauge their interest in the career featured. Do students want to learn more about the career field they job-shadowed? What questions did they develop about that field?

Bayfield High School student Madison Poulton uses a drum sander in Curtis Gillespie’s woodworking class at the high school. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

Durango High School students from Sean Sharp’s carpentry class job-shadowed workers from Veritas Fine Homes in Edgemont Highlands on Nov. 17.

Workshops were set up on the construction site so students could get a feel for the different activities unfolding there. In one workshop, students practiced gauging grade or slope changes as part of a land survey process builders use to determine how many stairs need to be installed from the roadside to a door.

One of Sharp’s freshman students, Charlie, said it was interesting to see how Veritas Fine Homes’ construction workers approach framing and similar woodwork on a developing home.

Students’ hands-on experience doesn’t end with job shadows. The next step is participation in mobile learning labs that are being developed by the collaborative in coordination with industry leaders from the five districts.

Bayfield High School student Gary Wright, 17, uses a drill press in Curtis Gillespie’s woodworking class at the high school. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

The mobile learning labs rotate through each of the five collaborating school districts, giving students the chance to practice with tools and equipment used in various industries.

The collaborative’s current rotation is a machining and fabrication lab that includes three pieces of equipment: a 3D printer, CNC (Computer Numerical Control) scanner and laser cutter and engraver.

The collaborative’s environmental science pathway will use what Morrison called outdoor classrooms. Students will have the chance to conduct research and analyze their results in real-world settings.

She said engagement from industry leaders is key to making the Career X program run smoothly because of the insight they can provide about what kind of training or experience is needed in their industry today.

The mobile learning labs give teachers the chance to integrate their own curriculum or lesson plans into the hands-on environment.

Sharp said Southwest Colorado Education Collaborative’s Career X program works in tandem with his own curriculum to expose students to the trades.

“Kids like to interact, use their hands and work kinesthetically,” Sharp said. “Get them on a job site, let them see what we’re doing out here.”

The collaborative is working with FLC and PCC to develop “concurrent education” enrollment pathways to two-year and four-year college degrees.

Students might not acquire a four-year bachelor’s degree through concurrent education, Morrison said, but they might be able to earn a certificate from one of the participating colleges demonstrating they have the technical skills to enter the workforce.

Building new interest in vocational careers

Troy Dyer, president of Veritas Fine Homes and collaborative board member, said he realized about 15 years ago that the building trades industry is facing a dire labor shortage.

He knew he wanted to build things after he’d been through high school and “a very short tour of duty in college.” But the same passion he felt for the building trades was missing in his old peers and young people coming up.

He said he’d participated in a few trades’ training programs, but they don’t compare to the Southwest Colorado Education Collaborative.

“Now that we’ve got some funding and some things, it’s great,” he said. “This is the steam I wish we had 15 years ago, because we are late.”

Dyer said he is passionate about letting kids know there are alternatives to college and the military.

Later, Dyer said he wants parents to know that construction workers and contractors aren’t “dirt bags.”

“That’s important to me,” he said. “I want them to know. Encourage your kids to get their hands dirty and be productive.”

Curtis Gillespie, an instructional technologist at Bayfield High School, describes how the CNC engraver and wood-turning machine works. The wood-turning machine was purchased with the assistance of the Southwest Colorado Education Collaborative. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

In Dyer’s experience, for every five construction workers who retire around the age of 60, one new worker enters into the field. That one new worker usually enters into building trades out of necessity, he said.

The typical age range for new hires at Veritas Fine Homes is late 20s to early 30s, he said. They are entering the field as beginners because they tried a different career path first.

Dyer referenced the Biden administration’s infrastructure bill that was signed into law in mid-November.

“They’re talking about all this infrastructure money and how they’re going to create jobs – there’s no one to do the jobs,” he said. “You’re creating jobs for people that don’t exist. The focus needs to be on that first.”

He phrased his point another way: “You can’t build a house and then slide the foundation underneath it.”


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