School districts nationwide face the constant tension between innovative ideas to best serve students, and time and resources to bring these ideas to fruition. In rural areas, school districts have the creativity and agility to make changes to their system, but often lack staff capacity and budget. A new approach, supported by philanthropic dollars, is demonstrating how a community-led model can help to reimagine local education systems.
Homegrown Talent Initiative (HTI) understands the tension between solutions and resources, and has been working with rural school districts across Colorado to encourage innovation in education and expand career-connected learning opportunities based on the strengths and needs of local community. This effort recognizes the unique nature of rural education and encourages community collaboration and cross-district collaboration to better support students and districts in career-exploration and economic development.
Participating HTI districts also receive coaching and technical assistance from education implementation partners. This third-party support helps districts build capacity as they introduce new career-connected programs to their schools. Coaching supports focus heavily on equity, encouraging districts to consider how to engage students furthest from opportunity who have not historically engaged in these types of opportunities.
COLLABORATION WITH COMMUNITY
Homegrown Talent Initiative encourages K-12 education, higher education, and local industry – the educonomy – to establish a common goal for their future. If students cannot envision a future in their community, they will leave to pursue other options, and rural districts will continue to fight brain drain and workforce shortages. Conversely, if students are shown the career options available to them in their area, and how their education prepares them for those trajectories, they will be more likely to contribute to their local economies.
Over the last year, Elizabeth School District – where less than half of students go off to college – has been “making sure that our community is driving what we are doing and making sure that there is a return on investment to all parties in order for us to have long-term success and buy in and that the community sees value in what we are doing,” said Superintendent Douglas Bissonette. Through community input in several aspects of its HTI plan – from community listening sessions to inviting a local parent and business leader to sit on its HTI steering team – Elizabeth has ensured local business partners, parents, and community leaders understand the benefits and opportunities to students in preparing them for post-secondary success.
COLLABORATION ACROSS DISTRICTS
In addition to community collaboration, Homegrown Talent Initiative encourages cross-district collaboration in the network of districts in the current HTI cohort. Through the last year of this project, eight HTI districts have built strong relationships with one another and utilize this peer network to share successes, troubleshoot challenges, and support one another as each expands career-connected learning in their districts.
“The structure that HTI has in place for supporting districts in their HTI work is the most effective school change initiative with which I have engaged,” said Clear Creek High School Principal Chris Gould. HTI coordinators from each of the districts meet monthly to discuss everything from career and technical education requirements to new internship application questions and business relationship management. Additionally, the HTI technical assistance support includes quarterly convenings where districts come together and plan for the next phase of their implementation and get new ideas hearing what other districts are working toward.
HTI districts will embark on a peer review process in the next year, further reinforcing the importance of collaboration, valuing the input and expertise of peers as each district builds upon the progress of the last year. School districts hosting their peer review site visit are also encouraged to invite community members, business leaders, and neighboring school districts to share the successes and challenges of expanding career-connected learning, and strengthen these programs with thoughtful feedback from these stakeholders.
Over the last year of implementation, HTI has demonstrated that strong collaboration and mutually beneficial relationships between school and community increases the likelihood of sustainable change for a community’s educonomy.