College not only choice for grads

Steamboat Springs School District officials look into vocational training

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One-quarter of graduating Steamboat Springs School District students choose not to attend a two- or four-year college or university.

It is a statistic that causes educators to worry whether the district, which has long focused on college preparation, is meeting the needs of all its students. It is a statistic that has helped spawn a growing effort by some in the community and school district to increase the vocational education opportunities available to Steamboat students.

The need for courses and programs that prepare students for the post-graduation workplace was made apparent to Superintendent Donna Howell last year when she conducted a series of community focus forums intended to redefine the future of the district.

"What came forward consistently was that we have a significant population not going to college, and we're not meeting their needs," Howell said.

Steamboat Springs High School is one of the top performing schools in the state, according to test scores, but its focus has been on preparing students for college.

"Our parents in Steamboat demand that we provide college-prep level classes," said high school careers class teacher Gayle Dudley.

The notion that a college degree is the prerequisite for life success is one that must be overcome, she said.

"In today's world, having the skills is much more important than having the degree," Dudley said. "A student can have a really high-paying job without a four-year education. College isn't for everybody."

But for many parents, anything less than a four-year degree is unacceptable; they don't want their children to become electricians or plumbers.

"To be honest, the biggest obstacles we have in this area are parents," Dudley said.

Finding the means ...

Parents aren't the only obstacles. Funding, facilities and equipment also stand in the way of increased vocational and technical opportunities for area students.

Some, such as Steamboat Springs Technology Commission member Peter Remy, see partnerships forged between schools and corporations as the most sensible and viable approach to expanding vocational opportunities.

Remy worries whether all the computers and high-speed Internet connections the Technology Commission has provided Steamboat schools are, in turn, providing the most and best opportunities to the students they're intended to benefit.

"It's nice to have a computer in every classroom," Remy said, "but what does it do for you over standard curriculum enhanced by technology?"

For Remy and other members of the Technology Commission, part of the answer is to provide technical certification programs for high school students.

The Technology Commission is investigating the possibility of forming collaborations that provide students with industry-specific technology training followed by hands-on internships in those fields.

The Fund Board recently granted $1,000 to the commission to research potential partnerships between the district and corporations such as Ford Motor Co. and Cisco Systems.

Steamboat-based TIC has offered its training curriculum and facilities to the district for students interested in a variety of construction-related careers ranging from pipe fitting to construction management. The construction industry is in serious need of young leaders, TIC craft training and electrical licensing manager Rob McCarthy said.

The school district also has discussed with Colorado Mountain College officials providing students access to CMC's business and technology programs.

Keeping standards

But whatever partnerships or programs emerge from this growing effort must differ from traditional vocational programs that substitute academics for specific career training and preparation, district officials said.

"For years, vocational programs were not academically rigorous," Howell said. "The kids would come out with a vocational skill but not the academic skills to go back to school if they chose."

Steamboat students must leave the public school system with a variety of skills needed to change professions, she said. The district won't and can't accept expanded vocational opportunities that lower the academic standard.

"Then we're doing a disservice," Howell said.

And any vocational programs offered by the district need to benefit all students, not just those who don't plan to attend a two- or four-year college or university, Dudley said.

"We don't see career and technology education as just for those who don't plan on going to college," Dudley said. "We are looking for more options for kids to grow and learn in different ways."

In the meantime, the school will continue to focus on the career- and technology-related courses it already offers students, such as the industrial engineering program headed by Matthew Craig, a variety of business and technology classes and the newer careers program that allows seniors to explore their fields of interest and work with community professionals in those areas.

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