Rural school districts in Colorado are being seen as a big part of the solution when it comes to the coming labor shortage that is being predicted in a wide variety of employment areas, including construction, education, health care, hospitality and transportation.
As a way to address this issue, the Colorado State Board of Education earmarked $22.4 million of its ESSER III funding for a Rural Coaction Grant that is helping 17 coalitions of districts and BOCES – representing an estimated 50,573 rural students – to collaboratively build and expand student pathway opportunities, career-connected learning and career partnership programs in rural areas.
Among those, Northeast Colorado BOCES received $2 million and Ignacio School District in southwestern Colorado received $1.99 million from the grant.
Northeastern Colorado BOCES uses grant to implement vision
“Our school districts are using Rural Coaction funds to implement programs they’ve wanted to implement for their students for years, but limited resources have made it so that they’ve not been able to do so,” said Tamara Durbin, executive director of the Northeast Colorado BOCES. “All of our schools are small, our socio-economic status is low, and our biggest challenge is distance, since our schools are often very far apart. We’re addressing all of this through the Rural Coaction funding.”
Northeast Colorado BOCES includes 12 school districts – Akron, Buffalo, Frenchman, Haxtun, Holyoke, Julesburg, Lone Star, Otis, Plateau, Revere, Yuma, and Wray – and the combined number of high school students is about 1,500.
“The goal is for each student to be college- or career-ready upon graduation from high school, and so we are offering concurrent enrollment for those pursuing college, and also support for students to acquire a trade or industry certificate,” she said.
“My feeling about Rural Coaction is that we’re changing lives,” Durbin said. “This grant has allowed us to really provide opportunities for students that they didn’t have, but also that they maybe didn’t even know about to begin with. It’s just the right thing to do, and it feels really good to be able to do so much more than we could before. Not to mention that we’ll be filling a truly dire need for skilled labor in the next few years.”
The $2 million has helped to pay for additional teachers, as well as materials and equipment so that each district can implement its vision, Durbin said.
For instance, Akron and Plateau school districts have created construction programs, with Akron also offering welding. Julesburg offers science, technology, engineering and math STEM courses in its Destination Career Academy Direct pathway, along with online career courses remotely in health fields and criminal justice.
“What’s great about the Julesburg program is that they’re reaching out to students in other districts, and so if someone in a different district wants to get industry certification in, say, phlebotomy, they can just pay the course fee to participate, so it’s really opening up doors,” Durbin said.
“The Rural Coaction money is also helping some students to pay for laptops or class fees, which is sometimes a huge barrier for our students,” she said. “This is a really big deal, for so many to have this kind of access.”
Meanwhile, funding from the grant helped Holyoke School District implement a Homegrown Talent Initiative in partnership with the Colorado Education Initiative and Colorado Succeeds, focused on preparing students for careers in agriculture and business. The goal, Durbin explained, is for the other 11 districts to be able to access the HTI resources, as well, allowing for job shadows and internships for the students interested in those fields.
“Our partnerships with our community colleges, Northeastern Junior College and Morgan Community College, have also been vital in helping us make concurrent enrollments work, too,” she added, sharing that there are about 360 students enrolled in the concurrent enrollment track. “These programs also give our students the ability to learn more about a chosen field and decide if it’s something they want to pursue further.”
Ignacio School District partners with Southwest Colorado Education Collaborative
Creating career pathways is also a primary objective for Ignacio School District in southwestern Colorado, which received $1.99 million from the Rural Coaction Grant that will serve 5,300 students.
“Ignacio is serving as the fiscal agent for the work that is being carried out by the collaborative,” said Jessica Morrison, executive director of the nonprofit Southwest Colorado Education Collaborative. “The collaborative already had two pathways in place, targeting the industries of building trades and the environment, and so we’re using the structure that we built for career pathways and are sharing capacity resources. The next two pathways will be education and the sciences.”
SCEC launched a series called Building Our Shared Future, events that bring together K-12 students, educators from higher ed and members of the targeted industries to collaboratively determine what the needs are within the career and college pathways.
“We’re looking at issues like, what is the equipment that needs to be purchased, what are the skills that students need to learn to engage in those pathways, and what are the certifications and concurrent enrollment courses that are stackable?” Morrison said.
“We’re building this through participatory community engagement across the entire region. In the spring, we’ll be helping school districts with program approvals, determining what courses need to be offered next fall so that all students have access, and then we’ll deal with the procurement of equipment, followed by soft launches of the work-based learning opportunities, including job shadowing and summer programming. That’s our first year of Rural Coaction.”
The second year will drill down deeper, she said.
“We’ll be looking at, OK, we have equipment, and we have students in this career and college pathway, and have built a strong Level One, now how do we push into Level Two and Three with internships, what refinement is needed?” Morrison said.
In addition to the two pathways, the nonprofit also is creating a regional work-based learning database system that will be a “one-stop shop to connect them all in one location,” she added.
“Industry is feeling tapped out and overwhelmed by requests, so the idea of having this database will provide one system for industry to know what they’re getting in terms of things like student engagement and how they’re going to access that,” Morrison said.
For now, Ignacio’s grant money has gone primarily to staff time and the implementation of events in the southwest region, but some day-to-day application has also begun. For instance, Ignacio’s woodshop classes have begun to design equipment that will travel in a storage container from school to school to serve students in the trade programs.
“What I love about this grant is that I get to see kids working with people who are very much entrenched in the industries, and so the kids are making connections right away,” said Ignacio’s Superintendent Chris deKay. “They’ll come out with a three- or four-year certificates in the field they’re interested in, but they’ll also have made connections already with the people who could hire them.”
DeKay adds that in an ideal world, juniors and seniors in Ignacio would have been working in trades that interest them from their freshman years on, giving them years of practical experience that would make them imminently hirable.
“Over the course of time, I really think that there's potential for something amazing, you know, as far as serving kids are walking out of school with the skills they need to do,” deKay said.