“I was dyslexic, and my third-grade teacher taught me to read. She altered the course of my life.”
Educational leaders from across Colorado shared personal experiences like these, as well as their aspirations for K-20 education, during an event in November.
The discussion was co-hosted by Wipfli and the Denver Business Journal to explore how Colorado can give children the education they deserve and provide companies with qualified workers. In the long term, educators said successful education programs can be a major economic driver for the state.
The conversation covered the state of education in Colorado, student and school districts’ financial needs, artificial intelligence (AI), policy support and industry collaborations.
So, how would Colorado educators change education in the state? This is their wish list:
Fewer financial barriers for students
Many community college students only attend class part time because they have families to provide for, plus there are rent and transportation costs on top of their tuition. Students are facing headwinds that prior generations didn’t have to navigate, and they need more support to complete their degree programs.
Participants said short-term and summer Pell Grants could help students take more credit hours each semester — which would build important momentum toward degree completion. Even then, they said Pell Grants don’t cover the inflated cost of fees and books, so more money is needed for student scholarships.
Educators would also like to see more higher education courses offered concurrently with high school education. Kids who take college-level courses while in high school can save on tuition later. However, not all school districts are able to cover the dual enrollment costs so students can participate. They said schools and families need additional resources to fill that gap.
More emphasis on skill development
Participants are hearing that businesses don’t need as many workers with four-year or graduate degrees as they once did. Today’s employers are more interested in skills than degrees, they said.
Some participants would like education to take a similar stance. They said strict credentialing requirements keep some passionate and skilled instructors out of the teaching profession. Schools need more people who “know their stuff” and can teach key skills earlier in students’ academic journeys.
Schools also need to spend more time on “soft skills.” Some programs are cutting fundamental skills like team building and communication to speed up time to completion. Schools need to find the right balance — they need to produce workers right now and prepare students to get to a manager or executive level later.
Employers want to hire people with critical thinking skills who are good communicators — and that’s true for plumbers and high-level executives. These skills are overlooked because they are “soft and squishy” and hard to measure. Schools are held to too many metrics and key performance indicators that are based on productivity, rather than whole-person skill development.
Updated accreditation systems
Educators said they are trying to prepare children for a new world while beholden to an antiquated accreditation system. They’d like to see clearly defined accreditation standards that also give schools some autonomy to meet unique community needs. For example, instead of rewarding graduation rates, they’d like to see measures around how schools prepare their students for meaningful employment.
More business and community involvement
Pathways in Technology Early College High School (P-TECH) programs are a win-win for students and employers. In some districts, students are leaving high school with micro-credentials, industry certifications and even associate degrees.
With additional business support, more students could graduate from high school ready for employment. Rural schools need more business support from the Front Range in this area since rural communities typically have fewer industrial partners.
The business community has a unique perspective on workforce needs — and often moves faster than school processes allow for. Educational leaders need to partner with industrial leaders to design programs that work for students, parents, the school system and employers.
Effective school boards
School boards have become highly politicized — and many of the hot-button issues driving school board elections are related to politics and ideology, not education. It’s important to have viable and effective boards, participants said. Boards can be a voice for their communities and help schools find innovative ways to meet local needs.
Business training for superintendents
School districts have thousands of employees and dozens of contractual partnerships. Essentially, they are large companies. Some participants think districts would benefit from more business training at the superintendent level. Having a clear vision for public education is important, they said, but schools also need people who can execute the vision.
By adopting a business mindset, school districts could leverage economies of scale to decrease costs, for example. Business training could also help districts make a stronger case for more educational funding.
AI has the potential to increase or close equity gaps, depending on how it’s implemented in schools.
Some schools are using AI to manage student enrollment and for teacher training to create more opportunities for inclusion. For example, students who speak English as their second, third or fourth language are being coached to use AI as a tool.
To help ensure AI doesn’t widen disparity gaps, school boards need to update their policies around students, faculty and technologies, and districts need to offer professional development for teachers. Faculty need to be aligned on when and how students can use AI, for example.
“AI is like a freight train barreling down the tracks. You can be a passenger or you can be the conductor,” one participant recounted. “We need to decide as an institution that our people are — at the minimum — passengers utilizing the benefits of AI.”
How Wipfli can help
Administrators and boards are facing more challenges than ever, from regulations and cyberattacks to a labor shortage and inconsistent funding. Wipfli is here to help you navigate all these issues — and make faster, more informed decisions. Learn about our services for education.
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We are grateful to the following people for sharing their time and insights at our event:
Beryl Durazo, executive director, Front Range Community College Foundation; Leslie Bogar, former middle school teacher and current deputy executive director, Colorado Association of School Boards; Dr. Jubal Yennie, executive director, Colorado Association of School Boards; Dr. Gabriel Castaño, vice president of enrollment success and student management at Front Range Community College; Chris Gdowski, superintendent, Adams 12 Five Star Schools; Jenn Landers, executive director, Colorado Young Leaders; John Wolfkill, executive director, Community College of Aurora Foundation; Don Haddad, superintendent, St. Vrain Valley School District; and Kelly Brough, vice president of strategic partnerships, Colorado Mesa University.