Residents of Elizabeth, a small town that sits between Denver and Colorado Springs, enjoy easy access to two of Colorado’s major metropolitan areas and a quiet, rural lifestyle. It’s a winning combination for the people who live here, though changes are on the horizon. Elizabeth’s population is growing rapidly and the community is learning how to best manage this new reality. But, despite these changes, there are some things that have remained the same in Elizabeth, like the town’s enthusiastic support for its schools and students.
Bret McClendon, the Principal of Elizabeth High School, has been thrilled by the amount of community involvement that occurs in the town’s schools. “The school district is a focal point for our community,” he explains. People want to participate, and there has been an impressive amount of buy-in for Elizabeth School District’s (ESD) work in the Homegrown Talent Initiative (HTI). Teachers, administrative staff, students, parents, business leaders, other community members and even alumni all want to brainstorm new ways to bring career-oriented and work-based learning opportunities to their hometown. As the district continues to publicize the work they’re doing, interest increases and more people are drawn into the discussion.
During one of ESD’s recent site visits, the “energy was just unreal.” McClendon estimates that more than 70 people attended the meeting and shared thoughtful feedback. He feels that the HTI design-thinking process has “allowed us to voice our hopes and dreams for what we want for the kids of Elizabeth. It’s generated a community discussion about education that we haven’t had before.” According to McClendon, it’s been a fun process, and community partners have asked how they can work with the district to deliver more work-based learning opportunities for students.
Through HTI, McClendon is confident that a reactionary education system can be changed in a meaningful way. He envisions a learning environment that provides more and better opportunities for all kids, whether they want to attend college, earn a certification or chart their own unique path. He’s hopeful that the work ESD is doing now will lead to rich community and business partnerships in the future, but he also recognizes that change takes time. “If you look at [HTI] as one big piece, it can be overwhelming. We’ve broken it down.”
When sharing stories from his time at Elizabeth High School, McClendon eagerly explains, “I’ve loved my time here. More importantly, the people I get to work with and the students. They’re exceptional.” To ensure those exceptional kids have access to high-quality educational opportunities, he and other leaders at ESD are thinking about the future. The HTI program has encouraged the district to future-proof their system and ask, “What will our kids need in 2040?”