When asked to describe a typical school day, many students will paint a familiar picture consisting of a core of English, math, social studies, and science courses, along with physical education, a foreign language, and perhaps a creative arts elective. After the final bell rings, they likely attend clubs or extracurricular experiences that align with their interests and passions.
Though still relevant for many students, that picture of what’s “typical” is beginning to change. Take, for example, a high school student we’ll call Emily, who might describe how she navigates traditional classes in the morning — and then spends the other half of the “formal” school day at an internship at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, where she builds on a passion for STEM. Then, she hops on RTD to the Curious Theatre Company for the latest rehearsal of The Humans, honing her interests in theater.
Now, consider Max, an eighth-grader in rural Colorado, who may navigate a similar set of core courses in the morning — and then may pursue an apprenticeship at the historical society, where he is assisting in the design of a new exhibit on the American frontier. Max then can walk to Town Hall, where he is leading a youth empowerment initiative to address entrenched local issues.
Max and Emily are experiencing the type of authentic, community-based learning experiences that some students in Colorado benefit from today, but all young people should be able to access. To realize this vision, we must not only define the supports required to provide these opportunities, but then spread them to other parts of the state. Fortunately, we can build upon an encouraging blueprint, one that reinforces that learning does not only have to occur in schools — but can also unfold at our local libraries, theaters, parks, and businesses.
This is a model that works in both urban and rural areas. Of course, places like Denver and Boulder have access to a rich network of urban assets, but there is a similarly robust — though different — network of community-based learning opportunities in the 80% of schools across the state that are located in rural areas. Schools can tap into the resources provided by the farming and ranching sectors, vibrant environmental ecosystems, and small businesses, providing students with hands-on opportunities to develop skills for fields as diverse as environmental science, welding, and finance. These represent critical options in areas where schools are grappling with a range of obstacles including more limited funding, aging facilities, higher-than-average administrator turnover, and acute teacher shortages.
Take students in the town of Campo, in the far southeast corner of Colorado, for example, who are leveraging assets already in their communities to realize a widespread passion for the creative arts. They have engaged in dance sessions led by volunteers at their school gym, discovered hidden talent for a variety of musical instruments to form a rock band, explored their creativity in cooking through a “Chopped” competition, experienced first-hand the art of quilting from a 87-year-old community volunteer, and honed their acting and backstage craft at the community theater — opportunities that all unfolded as part of a broader “learning day.” In another example on the other side of the state, highly-qualified coordinators support young people at Delta Vision Academy in shaping and following individualized learning pathways that include a mix of virtual, in-school, and community-based experiences.
Administrators are creatively finding and using funds at their disposal to make these arrangements work in pockets of Colorado. Unfortunately, these are outliers; most of our current public education funding streams support school-based programs and related services, narrowing what’s available for students. Policymakers must rethink equitable education funding to ensure that students and their families can use the vast variety of resources at their disposal to shape individualized learning pathways.
To realize this vision, we must not only boost funding, but bolster partnerships. For example, museums and cultural institutions are a boon for Colorado’s communities and can be a place for learning out of the school building. We must also restructure how funding is distributed; for example, Colorado could build off of the Aurora-based Options program model, which assures homeschool parents access supports and resources from schools that are paid for by per-pupil funds. The state can also explore the DiscoverU approach, which covers all up-front costs for student activities—and then uses an online platform that provides families with the opportunity to re-pay at their convenience; anytime and anywhere.
These are the kinds of new approaches needed to develop a blueprint for student-centered learning, the kind that supports the mix of opportunities our students need, whether they are available in school, the county, or even online. While this approach is starting to emerge in Colorado’s rural and urban schools, it is time to enable more administrators, schools, and districts to offer these opportunities to all young students across the state.
Nikki Johnson is the superintendent of Campo School District RE-6 in the Pueblo region, and Tony Lewis is the chair of the Board of Directors at ReSchool Colorado and leads education innovation work at the Donnell-Kay Foundation.