First Person: How Colorado’s Homegrown Talent Initiative Is Boosting the ‘Educonomy’ in 8 Rural Communities to Help Students Succeed

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When I was working in rural New Mexico over a decade ago, I first heard the term “educonomy,” meaning the blending, linkage and deeper integration between community economic development and education systems. Over the past two years, I’ve had the opportunity to support an educonomy project called the Homegrown Talent Initiative, launched by the organization where I work, Colorado Education Initiative, and Colorado Succeeds. We are two different organizations with two different missions, but we share a vision for a dynamic educonomy grounded in community needs and experiences that lifts up all students and families across the state.

We deliberately chose rural communities to launch this project because the test of our success as a state and nation is to ensure that no matter where you live, you can have a community that supports your aspirations. And in a new report on our first two years of progress, the Center on Reinventing Public Education suggested that the project’s “early efforts to transform district policy and monitor quality moved communities in the direction of sustained, systemic change.”

Anchored in a Career-Connected Learning Continuum, the eight districts in the initiative have taken dramatic initiative to seize this moment to redesign for their students, and they have had an incredible journey. As they launched in the fall of 2019, representatives of participating districts visited two — Cañon City and St. Vrain — that have made real strides in linking their economic development and education systems. They then spent the year working with families, students, educators and community members (higher education, business, civic leaders, etc.) to build a community graduate profile — a document representing a consensus as to what the district and community envision all learners should achieve by the time they finish high school. It becomes a north star to align all system efforts, naming the skills and traits that all can work toward attaining.

Spending 2019 and 2020 building these profiles meant the districts arrived in the pandemic with something special and powerful — a shared understanding with their communities about how to approach the future. These efforts persisted throughout the pandemic, continuing to implement emerging innovations even through the hardest year in modern education history.

In the Four Corners region of Colorado, this has meant over 11 new career and technical education pathways for students in Durango High School. To seize this momentum, the district sought and got passed a $90 million financial infrastructure bond to fund construction of an innovation center supporting CTE in the community. In neighboring Cortez, the district used its graduate profile to set new guidelines to frame everything from student advisory periods to internship agreements. This has allowed Cortez to bring the community, in particular the tribal community, deeply into this work and clearly outline to students and families a shared commitment to expanding student opportunity.

In Holyoke, in the northeast corner of Colorado, the town and the local community college, Northeastern Junior College, are offering new farming and health-centered internships, concurrent enrollment in classes and career and technical pathways that allow students to explore jobs, earn credentials and gain expertise while in high school. Holyoke’s work will ensure that a new generation of students can earn living wages in their home community.

In the central Colorado community of Elizabeth, the school schedule was not compatible with most work-based learning opportunities, meaning students often had to choose between classes and internships. So the district changed school times to better accommodate students’ commitments during business hours. Piloting two options in early 2021, with significant input from students, families and teachers, allowed students the flexibility to take career and technical education courses, do an internship or start an apprenticeship.

In the mountain communities of Clear Creek, printouts of their graduate profile are available at the local businesses and town meetings. The whole community has endorsed the idea of “homegrown talent” and sees the new vision for Clear Creek as an exciting new opportunity to partner in supporting the local economy. For their own local pathway development, the district has partnered to offer a bike mechanic and technical skill building career option for students, providing a way for local students to build marketable skills in the booming outdoor recreation economy.

In a collaboration between East Grand and West Grand (affectionately referred to as “The Grands” by our teams), districts came together in the face of a devastating fire to support students’ hopes and dreams. The districts invested in a food truck that is both a source of employment and a mobile learning lab. Students will have an opportunity to develop culinary and food service experience, as well as business management and entrepreneurship skills, while working a job that can inform their ideas for businesses that match community needs. These two districts also share a business engagement coordinator, who, among many other responsibilities, has placed 62 interns with 58 business partners in both locales.

The community of Fremont has also expanded career and technical education along with concurrent enrollment opportunities for students. It has redesigned partnerships with Pueblo Community College Fremont Campus and the neighboring Cañon City and Cotopaxi school districts to encourage students to enroll in CTE classes across district lines, share business relationships to expand internship opportunities and increase concurrent enrollment for students looking to take college-level courses.

Through our work with the Homegrown Talent Initiative, we’ve come to find other programs and projects across the state and our country that are leading the way in rural America. In Colorado, initiatives like the Southwest Education Collaborative and Fremont Multi-District Initiative are showing the strength of the idea of rural collective empowerment. In Texas, Collegiate Edu-Nation is working to improve more than 700 rural districts with a comprehensive workforce and integrated systems approach that unites local economies, schools and communities to prepare students for success after graduation.

In state government, Gov. Jared Polis’ RISE grant program gave school districts and education partners the flexibility to propose innovative programs based on community, school and student needs during the pandemic. This grant model encouraged creative partnerships and educonomy initiatives, generating even more momentum across our state to accelerate rural growth.

To seize this momentum, many of our communities and organizations recently came together alongside other groups with a joint letter to the commissioner and State Board of Education sharing our perspectives on how American Rescue Plan dollars could be leveraged to sustain and grow similar efforts across Colorado.

This isn’t about just our project — it’s about providing a catalytic boost to rural education and economic development work statewide. This nascent rural educonomic revitalization must be cultivated and encouraged by policymakers, educators and the public.

If we do this, rural communities can lead the way by showing how to reimagine the future of work and education — an educonomy that works for all.

Landon Mascareñaz is vice president for community partnership at the Colorado Education Initiative and a state board member for the Colorado Community College system.

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