The traditional high school model is not meeting all of our students’ needs. Rather than ask students to sit in classes for eight hours a day, we should expand learning opportunities to build authentic and engaging experiences that will help them thrive after high school. 

Shifting the culture in our schools from compliance-driven learning to meaningful, career-connected learning with student ownership is the key to making our education system more relevant. 

Senate Bill 106, the Successful High School Transitions bill, was introduced Feb. 18 in the Colorado legislature by state Sen. James Coleman, D-Denver. The bill is scheduled for a legislative hearing on Thursday.

Karen Quanbeck

The legislation would re-center students’ interests and experiences in their education by creating more flexibility around current requirements that student learning only happens within traditional classroom walls. It also would increase the relevance of the fourth year of high school for students’ experience and skill-building. 

Seat time is the most convenient, structured way for school districts to ensure requirements are met and thus not compromise funding, but it is not always the best way to serve students’ educational goals and interests. 

Rather than thinking about seat time as a cost driver, we should consider student engagement and educational relevance as the benchmark for school funding. Student learning outside the classroom walls through internships, job shadowing, and work-based learning complements and reinforces the relevance of classroom learning and better prepares students for opportunities and careers after high school. 

Increasing student involvement in career exploration beyond the classroom also builds deeper relationships among schools, community, and businesses.

Our students have incredible potential, creativity, and enthusiasm for learning. Opening doors for students to engage with community and business leaders to pursue their passions will lead to incredible exploration and outcomes for students and build local talent pipelines for our businesses. 

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In the Idaho Springs-based Clear Creek School District, where I am superintendent, we have built invaluable relationships with local government agencies, the Chamber of Commerce, Clear Creek Economic Development and local businesses and now have organizations approaching us about internship opportunities for students.

In addition to increased flexibility for students, providing students who are ready to graduate after 11th grade with the funds and flexibility to explore college or career options could be a game changer for students’ career trajectories, particularly for students who haven’t been served by the traditional school systems for far too long. 

These faster tracks would also give them a leg up by lowering the cost barriers of pursuing post-secondary degrees or industry credentials. 

Providing students the funding to take college-level courses or earn credentials in their fourth year of high school would lower the overall cost of post-secondary opportunities – a critical benefit for high potential  students, especially those who are furthest from opportunity. 

This not an encouragement for all students to graduate early, but rather another option for students who would otherwise disengage in their last year of high school. 

As a superintendent of a small, rural district with budget constraints, it is sobering to  consider the budget implications for a program like this; however, if it is truly best for kids, there is a way to make it happen. The plan is to start as a pilot in five schools, which will provide the data needed to inform larger implementation. 

Through the Homegrown Talent Initiative, a statewide effort to  support regional cohorts of rural communities to develop career-connected learning experiences and homegrown opportunity pathways for K-12 students, Clear Creek has been pushed to think outside the box. We have shifted mindsets to consider what is possible for our students’ education. 

Through this work, we realized many of the barriers holding us back from creative, innovative solutions were self-imposed. Involving students, businesses, and the community in our kids’ education (think career talks, internships, job shadows, side by side partnerships) has spurred interest in new opportunities outside the classroom. 

We can get caught up in the bureaucratic challenges and not consider big changes, but bringing the conversation back to students refocuses the discussion — on opportunities and relevance, and why we care about these changes and increasing options for students. 

SB 106 would remove so many barriers for innovation and reframe the discussion from what challenges exist for students’ career exploration and post-secondary success, to what possibilities exist for students’ career exploration and post-secondary success. 

Other sponsors of the bill are Sens. Kevin Priola and Jeff Bridges and Reps. Barbara McLachlan and Mark Baisley.

Karen Quanbeck, the superintendent of Clear Creek School District, is a parent of one high school student and one college student, plus two dogs who never graduated from anything.  

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