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Students working at High Tech Early College in February 2017
Photo courtesy Denver Public Schools

An A+ in Innovation

These Colorado public schools are breaking the mold with unique offerings, programs, and ideas.

Between standardized tests and budget cuts, headlines about public schools can feel a little grim. Don’t be fooled: There’s plenty of great stuff happening in public education in Colorado. Just take a look.

For Healthy Cafeteria Food, the Nation Looks to Boulder

In Boulder Valley School District, Chef Ann Cooper serves up scratch-cooked meals made with locally grown produce. Known as the “Renegade Lunch Lady,” Cooper—a classically trained chef—has been Boulder Valley School District’s director of food services for nine years, overseeing the creation of more than 13,000 meals served in 50 schools daily.

“When I got to Boulder, it was a typical school menu,” Cooper says, pointing to frozen chicken nuggets and grilled cheeses in plastic bags. “Now we have salad bars in every school, and 95 percent of our food is made by scratch.” Food that can’t be made on-site is sourced from local suppliers who adhere to Cooper’s high standards, by ditching high-fructose corn syrup, artificial dyes, and added sugar.

Cooper created the Chef Ann Foundation to introduce her passion for wholesome food into other districts across the country. Today Cooper says, “We’re working in every state, touching 2.8 million kids with numerous programs, including Salad Bars to Schools.” The Foundation’s latest program is the School Food Institute, an eight-part series of online courses that—come November—will teach foodservice professionals, administrators, and advocates how to break away from unhealthy, highly processed lunches.

Thanks to a donation from The Colorado Health Foundation, any school foodservice professional in the state can attend the School Food Institute for free. For non-Coloradans, courses are priced individually, with discounts available for educators who register for multiple sessions. Enrollment is currently underway, and Cooper is already seeing a healthy level of interest.

DPS Helps Its High School Students Earn Free College Credit

As many as 3,700 students in Denver Public Schools (DPS) will have an opportunity to earn an associate’s degree or 60 college credits by the time they graduate from high school—for free. “At a bare minimum, we want to ensure kids graduate college and career ready, with at least 12 credits they could use at any four-year or two-year public college or associate’s school,” says Antonio Esquibel, executive director of early college at DPS.

Early college is a proven strategy for postsecondary success. According to Jobs for the Future, early college students are more likely to graduate high school and enroll in college. Employment projections show that 74 percent of Colorado jobs will require education beyond high school by the year 2020.

All DPS high schoolers have access to college-level courses, but students looking to have their coursework paid for will have to attend one of the district’s designated “early college high schools,” which include CEC Early College, Southwest Early College, Denver School of Innovation and Sustainable Design, High Tech Early College, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Early College, Manual High School, and West Early College.

These early college programs immerse participating students in a college-going culture through partnerships with local colleges and universities. Participating students can start taking early college courses in ninth grade.

Early colleges were developed for higher education’s most underserved students: first-generation college students, low-income students, and students of color. DPS is one of the first major school districts offering early college high schools on such a large scale. “And we want to
expand,” says Esquibel.

Cherry Creek Students Are Catching Extra Winks

This August, high school students in Cherry Creek Schools hit the snooze button an hour longer. Based on community dialogue and a growing body of research concerning teens and sleep, Cherry Creek Schools kicked off their 2017-18 academic year with a new lineup of school start times. District elementary schools now begin at 8 a.m., middle school students hear the bell chime at 8:50 a.m., and high schoolers—who tend to stay up later—don’t report for class until 8:20 a.m., more than an hour later than their previous 7:10 a.m. start time.

When it comes to adolescents and teens, research shows that a proper amount of sleep is “essential for healthy daytime functions and for well-being,” says Lisa Meltzer, associate professor of pediatrics at National Jewish Health. The start time switch-up was designed to give teenagers extra sleep that can be critical to not just academic achievement, but safety, too. “We see this as a strategy for supporting student wellness overall,” says Abbe Smith, communications director at Cherry Creek Schools.

Nearly three-fourths of the 25,000 community members surveyed backed the district’s proposed changes, and while it’s too early to know the impact new start times will have on academic performance, Smith says, “Anecdotally, we are hearing that our teenage students really appreciate the extra sleep.”

The Future Looks Bright for Students in Aurora

Aurora Public Schools (APS) launched its 2020 vision plan in 2015, and one of the first goals outlined in the strategic plan is to make sure every student in the district has an actionable plan for his or her future.

“We looked at significant research from both the academic and business worlds, showing that early goal planning helps students and families understand the opportunities available to them, and how to work through any challenges they might face,” says APS superintendent Rico Munn.

Students start developing a plan for the future in preschool. Early on, planning means sitting down with parents, showing them how to prepare their kids for kindergarten and start college savings plans. “In later stages, the students take over their plans,” Munn says.
Second grader Vincent Darveau, for example, wants to be a cop or a professional skateboarder when he grows up. This year, he’ll be actively working toward that goal by advancing from reading level H to Z, and getting more active in sports. Even as a second grader, Darveau is working to develop the skills he’ll need to make his goals realities.

And that’s kind of the point. “Just as important as having a plan is the process of learning how to plan,” Munn explains. Sure, goals and dreams will probably mature with students, “But they’ll still have those skills at planning,” Munn says.

So far, vision planning has brought success to APS, which recently earned its way off of the Accountability Clock. “For our staff,” Munn adds, “it’s incredibly powerful that they get to know students individually.”

Jeffco Students Focus on Community Service

Jeffco Public Schools, too, has a 2020 vision plan, comprised of key areas in which Jeffco students should be competent by the year 2020. One of those areas is civic and global engagement. The goal is that all students will participate in community service, in order to learn about their community, become involved citizens, and aspire to leadership roles on the local, national and international level.

Students are encouraged to partner with community organizations and serve those organizations in different ways, depending on their age, school, and interests. Recently, fourth grade students at Witt Elementary got involved in their community after visiting Two Ponds National Wildlife Refuge to learn about ecosystems. The students wanted to create information for Two Ponds that was more easily accessible to its guests. They partnered with Two Ponds to create interesting content about the wildlife refuge’s features, and developed QR codes that guests could scan on their phones, to learn more at each exhibit.

“This gave our Jeffco students an opportunity to add value to our Jeffco community,” says Matt Flores, chief academic officer for Jeffco Public Schools.

Nederland Middle-Senior High School Scores Big with Its New Coach

Talk about a touchdown for women statewide. A neighborhood secondary school in the Boulder Valley School District made state history in June when it hired Colorado’s first female head football coach, Beth Buglione, a 52-year-old Oregon expat who loves photography and full contact sports.

Buglione might be coaching boys, but she’s quickly become a role model for Colorado girls. “It doesn’t matter if you’re male or female, if there’s something you love and are passionate about then you just have to go for it. It never occurred to me not to,” Buglione says.
Buglione has her work cut out for her at Nederland Middle-Senior High School, where she inherited a program in disarray. While she has 16 players on her team, Buglione never knows how many Panthers will actually be eligible to play.

“The priorities for us are schoolwork and being good human beings,” Buglione explains. Per school guidelines, players cannot suit up if they aren’t in good academic standing. “They’re really working hard to get their grades up, and they’re finally understanding that football is the reward for doing the right thing during the week,” adds Buglione.

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