Three years ago, a group of educators from school districts and higher education institutions across the Southwest embarked on a journey to explore the landscape of their region’s current rural educational resources.
Along this journey, they heard the rallying cries from industries hungry for a skilled future workforce, and identified that this region was ripe for innovation and creativity. They started discussing how rural areas could effectively prepare the future workforce with the limited access to educational resources that were present.
Then the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic hit, and while this life-changing event has continued to create hardship and expose fractures within our country, it also created an opportunity for these individuals to transform their discussions into action. Through the awarding of a $3.6 million RISE grant, the Southwest Colorado Education Collaborative was born. A nonprofit organization supporting five school districts (Ignacio, Bayfield, Silverton, Archuleta County and Durango School District 9-R) and two higher education partners (Fort Lewis College and Pueblo Community College) to share resources, build partnerships with industry leaders and design a path for rural students to engage in relevant career pathways.
As the new executive director for this organization, I am excited for the opportunity to cultivate partnerships in our region focused on sharing educational resources for student opportunities. For years, our traditional model of education has limited resources to students, often based on their home residence; this new approach allows our region to share educational resources and creates spaces for students furthest from opportunities to engage in career pathways with future-ready workplace skills.
Sharing of resources takes work. As a mentor of mine wisely told me in the beginning days of this job, everyone likes the idea of collaboration, but people do not realize that the word labor is embedded in the word. As humans, it is in our nature to move into a scarcity-mindset when it comes to resources, and yet as I embark on this new endeavor, I have watched leadership from across the Southwest focus on breaking down silos and engaging with each other to support all students in all school districts.
Through our two initial career pathways of building trades and environmental sciences, we have engaged teachers across all districts to design authentic programming for students to develop their interests and skills. Both CTE teachers and environmental science advisers have already convened in professional development sessions to learn from each other and train on how to think about supporting students with interests in these pathways. Additionally, we deployed our first of three mobile learning labs that will travel to all five school districts this year, allowing students to work with cutting-edge technology and have hands-on experiences related to these career industries.
Last month, we had a successful field trip for interested students to engage in wetlands preservation on Molas Pass with our support partner, Mountain Studies Institute. In addition to this field trip, we also provided our two building trades job shadows with industry partners Nunn Construction and FCI Constructors to interested students in Ignacio and Bayfield school districts. These work based learning initiatives support engagement for students to explore the world of work and become ignited with the idea that their strengths can lead to careers they are interested in pursuing.
For more about the Collaborative, visit www.swcoedcollaborative.org.
Engaging stakeholders at every level is another important element of creating a new model of collaboration. Through our partnerships with industry leaders, we are learning how to build relevant coursework within the classroom. Our partnerships with FLC and PCC allow for this information to be transferred into concurrent enrollment classes within the career pathways and the building of stackable credentials that students will be able to obtain while in high school. We are already seeing the successes of launching these higher education courses through the first FLC asynchronous environmental studies class being taught to students within the school districts we serve.
This multilayered collaborative approach is on the forefront of creating adaptable solutions for rural areas that have limited access to resources. Our diverse communities in the Southwest are at the table imagining a future where they can continue to hold each of their unique identities while also focusing on a regional approach where all rural students are served through a sharing of resources.
I feel very fortunate to be given the opportunity to lead the work of drawing a new map on how we think about serving students in our rural areas. I am even more impressed with the many educators, administrators and industry leaders who are already all seated at the table ensuring the foundation we are creating for this future partnership model is successful. The collective vision in the room is that all students in our Southwest region deserve equal access to opportunities to build their futures. Through our labor we are already building a foundation for a different way to engage in education to support all students. I look forward to continuing to discuss in future columns how this collaborative approach supports all communities toward greater access to resources for our next generation.
Jessica Morrison is executive director for the Southwest Colorado Education Collaborative.