Many years ago, Bruce Wagner was giving a presentation at a public school in Denver about the value of becoming a technician.
“After we did that presentation, the guidance counselor from that school stood up and said, ‘See, this is the reason you need to go to college, so you don’t have to take a job like that,’” Wagner said.
Wagner, now president and CEO of local Caterpillar dealer Wagner Equipment Company, recalled the experience during the groundbreaking Monday of the Community College of Aurora’s newest building, which will be a hub for STEM education.
That counselor’s ethos has persisted for a long time as parents, teachers and policymakers have for decades emphasized the importance of a four-year college degree to unlock the potential for a higher paying career and more stable future.
But as the price of higher education soars and construction and other manual labor industries continue to face notable shortages, many are once again promoting the benefits of alternative pathways.
A focus on STEM and career and technical education has seen a groundswell of interest locally, as both Aurora school districts and CCA all bring more opportunities into the classroom for students to work with their hands and get industry experience before they even graduate high school.
School officials say the programs are a response to a desire from students and their families for more innovative learning experiences, as well as a desire to connect students with well-paying careers that they can enter with or without a four-year college degree.
“What you’re trying to do is provide programs for the different ways in which students learn and in the areas that they are interested in,” APS chief of staff Mark Seglem said of the district’s approach to pursuing new learning opportunities.
As part of its ongoing facilities plan, Blueprint APS, the district is opening seven magnet schools in each region of the district focused on a different specialization. The first two, focused on visual and performing arts and entrepreneurship, opened this school year and will both place an emphasis on project-based learning and partnerships with outside businesses and organizations.
It’s also in the early stages of creating several P-TECH programs, one of which will be located in CCA’s new building. Pathways in Technology Early College High Schools (P-TECH) is a six-year educational program in partnership between a high school and a higher learning institution and an industry partner where students receive a high school diploma, an associate’s degree and hands-on work experience in a specific field.
The model was introduced to Colorado in 2015 when then-governor John Hickenlooper signed a bill authorizing Colorado schools to establish a limited number of P-TECH programs. There are currently 20 P-TECH programs operating in the state, according to the Colorado Department of Education. Programs are in districts including St. Vrain, Adams 14, Douglas County and Greeley and specializations include cyber security, environmental studies, welding and biochemistry.
P-TECH programs are open to all students “with a special focus on encouraging enrollment of students who are socio-economically and racially diverse, first generation college students, English language learners, and students with disabilities,” the department says.
Seglem said that’s part of what drew APS to the model, along with a desire from the district’s community for more career and technical education (CTE) options.
“A lot of the research shows that P-Tech programs are very attractive to Black and brown students,” he said.
It’s also a way to engage students who have struggled to connect with school in the wake of the pandemic.
“Post pandemic we’ve seen a little bit of a dip in students’ engagement in school,” said Mackenzie Khan, the strategic development advisor for APS. “Being able to give them something that is specific to their wants and needs as far as work related skills, being able to come out of a program so ready to advance their careers and education we think will be a really strong way to re-engage students that may have lost interest in learning.”
The district initially planned to create its first P-TECH on the campus of North Middle School focusing on healthcare as part of the changes being made during Blueprint APS. Then, Community College of Aurora president Mordecai Brownlee heard reached out to see if the district would be interested in pursuing some kind of partnership as part of the creation of its new STEM building.
The district thought that it would be the perfect opportunity for another P-TECH, particularly because CCA is located in the APS region zoned to have a STEAM-focused school.
“It made complete sense for us to just fall into that opportunity,” Khan said.
The Center for STEM, Power Mechanics and Applied Technologies is the first new building CCA is constructing in over two decades. The 54,000 square foot building will house the college’s diesel power mechanics program, the only public associate’s degree program in diesel mechanics in the state. It will also be a home for the college’s other STEM programs and will house the BuildStrong Academy, a nonprofit that partners with CCA to boost the number of people in Colorado’s construction industry.
With construction now underway, it is scheduled to open in mid-2024 on the CentreTech campus, with its inaugural class of students arriving for the fall 2024 semester. Between CCA’s own classes, BuildStrong and the P-TECH, it will serve more than 3,000 students a year.
Bobby Pace, CCA’s vice president of academic success, said Monday that it was hugely exciting to see the building break ground after being in the works for so long. The college first started work on the plans for a new building in 2019.
Initially, Pace said he was worried about how the delays caused by the pandemic would affect the design for the building but that it actually allowed CCA to be much more intentional about some of its plans. When it was initially being developed the building was just going to be a space for the college’s own STEM programs, and did not involve the partnerships with CCA or the Buildstrong Academy.
At the groundbreaking ceremony, a who’s who of industry partners and local elected officials praised CCA for the work it does in the community and the importance of creating a pipeline to more industry jobs. Aurora-area state legislators Rhonda Fields and Mike Weissman, who have promoted access to higher education while in the legislature, were both in attendance.
Weissman has worked to expand concurrent enrollment for students, which a significant number of APS students take advantage of to take classes at CCA and Arapahoe Community College while still in high school. In a Friday conversation with The Sentinel, he said creating more opportunities for students to access affordable educational opportunities is imperative.
“We know that not enough employment options are open to people based solely on a high school diploma and the cost of a four-year degree is prohibitive in a lot of cases,” he said. “I think it’s on all of us to grapple with that challenge.”
The P-TECH program at CCA will focus on construction management, and will work with local construction company Oakwood Homes as its industry partner.
Khan said that the district chose construction management because it’s something students have expressed interest in and because it’s an industry that will have a significant number of job openings in the future.
According to district documents, the National Association of Homebuilders estimates that between 2018 and 2028 construction jobs in Colorado will increase by over 50,000.
In an August school board meeting, district CTE coordinator Jennifer Jasinowski said that the district’s two current construction programs are at capacity, signaling an appetite for the P-TECH.
“The current programs that we have, they’re full,” she said. “And when you talk to the students they’d like to take more.”
Each P-TECH is expected to serve about 250 students. The programs are small by design due to the intensive amount of industry mentoring and other resources each student receives, Jasinowski said.
According to board documents, CCA will add about 2,100 square feet to its proposed building plan to accommodate the program, which will include a student center, private office spaces and conference rooms. APS will contribute a one-time cost to the building expense, which is anticipated to be between $882,000 and $966,000. At the meeting, Superintendent Rico Munn said the district is exploring whether it can use some of the money it received in federal pandemic relief funding for the contribution.
After hearing about the proposed program, the board voted to give the district approval to pursue a formal agreement with CCA. The district will then present that to the board for formal approval sometime this fall, and submit its application to the state department of education by Dec. 1, which will then give its final decision on approving the P-TECH.
Board member Nichelle Ortiz, who attended CCA before becoming the first person in her family to receive a bachelor’s degree, spoke in favor of the program and reminisced attending the community college with her children in tow.
“Students don’t know what they can’t see,” Ortiz said. “Seeing these buildings in our neighborhoods spark interests, spark dreams. Community colleges in our communities are definitely always worth the investment for me.”
At the groundbreaking ceremony, current CCA students said they are excited about the building and hope it will help CCA stand out from other educational institutions in the area.
“It’s super exciting to see our community growing and empowering our students to meet their goals,” CCA Student Government Association president Anthony Luevanos said.
APS and CCA officials both voiced excitement about the partnership as well.
“We have truly felt like a partner in doing this,” Seglem said. “We’re very excited and very optimistic that this is going to be a terrific program.”
At the groundbreaking, Munn said that the pandemic has been “devastating” for APS students and that the P-TECH program is one way the district is able to create more opportunities for students after a series of difficult years.
“In education we are in the hope and opportunity business,” he said.
Innovating careers outside of the usual decrees
In the neighboring Cherry Creek schools district, the word for alternative paths to careers is “innovation.”
Cherry Creek’s Innovation Campus is entering its fourth year in operation as a unique learning opportunity for Aurora students.
The high school operates seven pathways that students can take throughout their four years on campus that will prepare them to receive an industry certification. Tracks include healthcare, manufacturing, transportation and hospitality, among others, and students have the opportunity to complete hands-on projects like building tiny homes and operating the school’s own in-house restaurant.
CCIC was designed so that upon graduation, students will be able to either enter immediately into the workforce or pursue their specialization with a four-year degree.
David Williamson, who teaches aviation, went to college for two years before deciding it wasn’t for him.
“When I was there I had no idea what I wanted to do,” he said.
He ended up working in the aviation industry before eventually returning to the classroom, this time as a teacher. The program is FAA certified, and upon graduation students receive a certificate that allows them to start working some aviation-related jobs right away or to go to college to build out their credentials.
Williamson said interest in the program has remained high since the school opened. Students are drawn to the hands-on aspect, he said. One of his favorite parts of teaching is getting to see students learn how to create things in real time.
“To see somebody go, ‘oh, I get it now,’” is a great feeling, Williamson said.
Senior Zachary Moore said the experiential learning aspect is what drew him to CCIC.
“I’m not just taking notes in a classroom. I’m actually doing something,” he said. Moore hopes to work in the aviation industry after graduation before ultimately pursuing his goal of becoming an aerospace engineer.
Senior Alec Tenorio said that a previous love for aviation is what initially drew him to the CCIC, and that he appreciated the opportunity to learn if the field was the right fit for him while he was still in high school, instead of in college where it would cost time and money to switch trajectories.
That didn’t end up being a problem for Tenorio, however.
“I love it,” he said of the program. “I wouldn’t be happier anywhere else.”