At the Cherry Creek School District, the future isn't a far-off, distant concept.
Our commitment to excellence is tied directly to our students – their learning, their skills and their prospects long after they walk across the stage and receive their high school diplomas. That means we're focused on the world that will await them when they leave district, whether it's our pre-school and elementary school students or our high school seniors.
The future figures into our everyday decisions in the present. We want to ensure that our graduates leave the Cherry Creek School District with valuable and practical skills; we want to be certain that the learning that takes place in every one of our classrooms will translate into a direct benefit for every one of our students.
Those priorities helped drive Cherry Creek 2021, the initiative initiated in 2015 to update graduation requirements for the class of 2021 and beyond. The process went deeper than graduation requirements as required by the state – we wanted to finalize a plan that would implement all the proper training, programming and other opportunities to ensure that all of our graduates will be college and career-ready. In community meetings and public forums, we reached out to community members from across our 108 square miles – parents, grandparents, teachers, government officials and administrators.
We also reached out to leaders from the local business community, and their feedback has been invaluable. I'd like to share some of their insights about a rapidly changing world, one where revolutions in technology, information sharing and business culture have redefined the traditional notion of marketable skills. Indeed, we're asking our students to learn and prepare differently than their parents. Our task as a district is to prepare our children for their future, not for what was my future. Our task is to prepare our kids for the world of Google, not IBM.
And that world relies on what were once considered "soft skills," talents like problem-solving, creativity, innovation and the ability to work on a team. These are the abilities that are prized at a company like Arrow Electronics, the Fortune 500 company based in Centennial.
"Innovation needs to be taught just as specifically as Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) skills," notes Joe Verrengia, global director of corporate responsibility at Arrow. "Now, the information is ubiquitous; any kid can find out about Ohm's Law on their phone. It's what you can do with that information that's important. We have to focus on teaching people what to do with information, on using their imaginations and innovating."
He talks about the need for stressing those lessons in our schools, pointing specifically to events like the Cardboard Challenge, an annual Cherry Creek School District and Cherry Creek Schools Foundation event co-sponsored by Arrow that sees students from across grade levels competing to create projects made entirely of cardboard and other recycled materials. Verrengia points to a specific project created by a Cherry Creek School District elementary school student a couple of years ago, a working violin made entirely out of cardboard.
"I can't imagine what that student will be able to do in the future," he notes. "I want her at Arrow."
The stress on creativity, innovation and teamwork isn't limited to Arrow, or even the electronics industry. Lisa Jenson, Campus Connections Director for the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus, works to connect applicants with a wide range of jobs at the Aurora-based campus. Whether it's HVAC specialists or pharmacy technicians, Jenson helps qualified, local applicants find careers at the University of Colorado Hospital, Children's Hospital Colorado, the University of Colorado Anschutz Med Campus and University Physicians Inc.
In this wide-ranging work, Jenson has seen a similar value in skills that were once overlooked. As the medical industry undergoes seismic shifts with the advent of new technologies, being able to problem solve and innovate real-time solutions is a highly prized quality in any candidate.
"I would say what I hear most often from the four employers on this campus is the value of customer service skills, of people who take initiative to solve problems and be proactive in figuring out how to make things better. That's a really important skill," she insists, adding that these talents don't only apply to doctors and surgeons. "There are many, many vacancies in HVAC and those industries; also in our pharmacies, in the ophthalmic tech field. A new one on the horizon is ultrasound tech; I'm not even sure if there's a distinct training program for that yet."
In a world where new and promising careers are inventing themselves every day, the value of innovation and creativity is paramount. It's the reason that the Cherry Creek 2021 vision includes offering more opportunities for students to explore their interests and possible career paths as early as sixth grade. It's the reason our vision for the future allows students to demonstrate competency in multiple ways, not just through standardized tests. It's the reason we've taken a leadership role in working with CareerWise Colorado, a recently launched professional program that seeks to connect 20,000 students with professional internships and apprenticeships in the next few years.
"We're creating a framework for schools to focus on critical thinking and other 21st-century skills and the foundational competencies so that students are prepared for a youth apprenticeship," notes Ryan Gensler, marketing manager for Intertech Plastics and director of external affairs for CareerWise Colorado. "The Cherry Creek School District has been fully on board … they're allowing students to practice what they're learning in the classroom. That will help internalize everything that they're learning. It will give them a set of skills that students who are only taught in the classroom just will not get."
In other words, we're connecting our students with the future – right now. It's not the glitzy, faraway realm of a science-fiction movie, but rather the interconnected, rapidly changing world they face every day.
- Harry C. Bull, Jr., Ed.D., Superintendent, Cherry Creek School District