Supe’s View: How My Colorado District Is Helping Students Find Their Life’s Path

Cheser: Durango's strategic plan includes a makerspace, travel opportunities, expanded extracurriculars, career exploration, internships and more.

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In classrooms across the country, students are asking themselves, “What’s the purpose of what I am learning?” 

Some may be doodling in the margins of their notebook as they anxiously wait for class to end. Some may be paying attention only because they know the class is a box they need to check to get into college. Others may be intrigued by the subject they’re learning but have no idea how to connect this interest to a postsecondary plan. 

It’s important for educators to provide students with not only a solid academic foundation, but also an understanding of how both their personal interests and academic skill sets can translate into a viable career. Individualizing education along with providing a variety of tailored, relevant enrichment opportunities to strengthen these interests can help prepare students for a well-suited career path, ultimately leading to a fulfilling life doing what they love. 

What lies at the intersection of students’ passions and strengths and what the world needs can be defined as their life’s purpose. Helping students discover this intersection has become the central focus of our district’s strategic plan. Below are three ways we have found success in launching this initiative.  

Two years ago, our district completely overhauled its strategic plan, establishing its primary objective as helping every student discover and pursue their life’s purpose. Our entire team committed to working together effectively and efficiently to identify students’ interests and strengths, and to educate them about potential career paths.

From financial decisions to staffing to leadership development, every element of our district ties directly back into this driving mission. For instance, are we making financial decisions that enable us to expand our extracurricular activities to serve every student? Does our entire staff have the tools to ensure that 100% of seventh graders understand the pathways available to them and 100% of high schoolers are aware of the careers, courses and work-based learning experiences that align with their life’s purpose? Do we have the global connections to ensure that every middle and high school student has opportunities to travel?

To help realize our vision, we are implementing software to help students discover their natural aptitudes at the middle and high school levels, using technology to communicate globally, engaging with the American Productivity and Quality Center to improve our performance and efficiency, and leveraging the expertise of faculty and students with international connections. 

We’ve also created a cycle of continuous process monitoring and opportunities for improvement by assigning a staff team to each objective, ensuring we are moving forward and meeting our goals.

This individualized approach is essential because while some students have a solid grasp on what they’re passionate about, others need inspiration gained from exposure to new opportunities. By weaving in a variety of student-centered experiences with real-life and relevant learning activities into the curriculum, we help students uncover interests and passions they may not know they had.

We’ve also expanded our connections with local businesses, to offer career exploration opportunities, including job shadowing, mentorship, informational interviews, internships and practicums.

To further foster engagement, our district is constructing a Career Innovation Center, funded through a voter-approved bond issue, that will connect Durango’s business community with our students. This cutting edge, multi-functional space on the Durango High School campus will include a MakerStudio for developing prototypes, innovative solutions and marketing materials. Students of all ages will have access to tools such as 3-D printers, laser engravers, hot presses, vinyl cutters and computer numerical control machines, a manufacturing process in which pre-programmed computer software dictates the movement of factory tools and machinery, to bring their ideas to life.

By inviting local industry professionals and college professors into this center and providing opportunities for students to engage with real-world projects, internships and apprenticeships, we hope to provide a broad spectrum of career exploration opportunities.

By next year, our goal is that 100% of students will be involved in at least one extracurricular activity, and we will implement a work-based learning curriculum in grades 4 to 6 for all schools. Additionally, every middle and high school student will have the opportunity to travel, thanks to grants from Career and Technical Student Organizations and support from the Durango Education Foundation.

We rely heavily on our data management system to ensure that students are meeting their personalized goals and fulfilling all graduation requirements. Our district uses Abre, which offers a comprehensive view of students’ academic strengths by syncing and storing data about, among other things, grades, attendance, behavioral incidents, social-emotional wellness, state exams, classroom assessments, PSAT, SAT and Advanced Placement scores, and Individualized Education Programs. 

Compiling all this information in one place creates in-depth profiles that provide information about the whole child, enabling us to view data by teacher, grade, school, level and district and thus make more informed decisions. 

Figuring out the direction of your life’s path is no easy task, especially for a young student. By making a districtwide commitment to providing them with opportunities and experiences to grow their passion into a career, we are helping them find inspiration in how to make a living doing what they love. The earlier this happens, the more relevant and meaningful education becomes and the better prepared students will be for life after graduation.

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