Authentic learning gives students a head start
CASTLE ROCK – Some of the most powerful learning opportunities can happen when students are encouraged to follow their passion wherever it might take them.
Douglas County School District (DCSD) knows that when students venture outside of the classroom, connecting with experts in the field and solving real-world problems, the results are highly engaged students and sustainable learning—learning that sticks.
At many DCSD schools, students are now engaging in “passion projects,” where they are empowered to develop their skills and knowledge through an interest. For instance at Mountain Ridge Middle School students in the iLab program are given time to develop a project with the goal of enacting change in the community around them.
At other schools, technology is playing a role. For instance, middle and high school students are developing award-winning apps, students are developing architectural plans for their school’s renovations and at least two middle schools have produced full-length films.
Even school gardens and chicken coops are helping to provide hands on lessons in science, sustainability and even financial literacy. For instance, students at Heritage Elementary sell the eggs produced by the hens they care for and the proceeds benefit the school.
Examples of Authentic Projects
At the high school level, DCSD students have the opportunity to conduct graduate-level bioscience research, train with firefighters, and to collect meteorological data through weather balloons.
To a certain extent this type of learning has always been a part of secondary education through Career and Technical Education programs, but here in Douglas County these opportunities have multiplied and grown.
“We have so many options for students,” said DCSD’s Career and Technical Education Coordinator Sheri Bryant. “They can choose from all of our Career and Technical Education pathways and concurrent enrollment opportunities.”
Bryant says she and the schools are passionate about ensuring students have authentic experiences, which will prepare them for life after school.
“As a CTE administrator, I have an obligation to really partner with my own teachers and encourage them to push the envelope,” explained Bryant. “We want to make a student’s education engaging as well as helping kids see and answer that question that they ask, which is ‘why are we doing this?’ When we are able to have students not just do architectural drafting out of a text book, but we can say here is a project that was written for you by this particular architectural firm, or having that architectural firm come in—that really takes that learning and that educational learning and lifts it off the page and makes it a reality.”
She says whether or not the students end up pursuing opportunities in a particular field, it can provide them with critical skills they’ll need.
“We are not expecting that every kid in a CTE class is going to pursue that particular major, but we know that we are creating that pathway for them to have a vision of what that world of work looks like,” Bryant said. “When we are partnering with various industries to provide internships and work experience credit, students can take what they are learning in the classroom on that very day and they can apply it at their job in a restaurant or a retail environment, seeing it in action.”
For some students it might be a chance to find out if a specific career is for them.
“It is giving them a lot of ‘touches on the ball.’ That is what I call it. They can make a much more informed decision on whether to continue on that pathway or to continue to look,” Bryant said. “It is unfortunate when you know how much money has been invested in the post secondary education, when we are able to put kids out there at an earlier stage.”
If they are on the right track, these opportunities often provide students with a head start on the competition.
“They often come back as an alum and are able to articulate what those high school and concurrent enrollment courses meant for them, and how those experiences gave them a competitive edge against their colleagues in the industry,” Bryant said. “We have had students come back and tell us that because of the courses they took in marketing or in business law or in accounting, it made it possible for them as a freshman to be part of the sports marketing program at the University of Missouri or to get an internship at a international fashion design firm like UGG in New York City. We’ve had students working in the U.S. Justice Department.”
The CTE teachers work hard to establish relationships with industry representatives, so that students receive authentic opportunities in class now and connections for their future careers.
Bryant also encourages students to participate in Career Technology Organizations, like FBLA, DECA, and SkillsUSA, because in addition to honing important skills, they often provide additional interactions with industry leaders, which can make a big difference when students are trying to get a foot in the door at a company.
“[During a hotel management and lodging competition last year] one of the judges was the GM at the Vail Marriott and he gave his card [to a student] and told her that when she graduated high school, that spring, she had a summer internship waiting for her,” Bryant said. “It was an incredible experience for her to see the career pathway that she wanted.”
Concurrent Enrollment saves DCSD Parents Money
The best part of many of these opportunities is that they provide concurrent enrollment, which means students earn both high school and college credit.
“When many of our students leave high school they are leaving with a minimum of three credits, if they’ve taken at least one course—but we have many students who are well over 15 credits up to 30 credits by the time they graduate from their high schools,” Bryant said. “While chronologically they are a college freshmen on paper, many are entering as sophomores.”
Having to take fewer courses in college can make a big financial difference for Douglas County families. According to Bryant, during the 2014-15 school year DCSD families saved approximately $4.8 million through concurrent enrollment.
“Our students are really getting an incredible bang for their buck. Their time in the classroom is being used wisely to give them that competitive advantage,” Bryant said.