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Montezuma-Cortez schools look to broaden career paths for students

Seeks to provide students internships, experiences with local businesses
Some programs, such as fire science and family consumer science, offer work-based learning that can lead to employment directly after graduation.

Montezuma-Cortez School District is doubling down on its efforts to provide high schoolers the skills and experience to produce a pool of talent for regional employers.

The high school hopes to increase career paths for its students and provide real-world work experiences through the state project Homegrown Talent Initiative.

The district began developing distinct career pathways a few years ago when it incorporated graduation requirements designed to help students identify the best post-secondary school choice for them. The pathways include joining the military, pursuing a college degree or immediate employment.

“Our goal is to make sure all students are ready for life after high school,” Montezuma-Cortez High School Principal Eric Chandler said in a news release.

In the 2019 proposal to the Colorado Education Initiative to join Homegrown Talent Initiative, Superintendent Lori Haukeness wrote that the project was in line with the district’s strategic plan.

The project would help “provide all students with multiple opportunities to explore their interests and prepare for college and career while in high school.”

Another goal is to “ensure that all students graduate with the knowledge and skills necessary to be successful if they choose to attend college or go into the workforce.”

The district received an HTI grant in fall 2019.

Upon joining HTI, the district formed a team of community stakeholders that includes Haukeness and representatives from the business community, the Montezuma-Cortez Board of Education, the M-CHS student body, the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, Cortez City Council, Fort Lewis College and the Cortez Fire Protection District.

The working group was tasked with developing an overarching “graduate profile” that matches with the personal and professional qualities that the community wants to see from a graduate.

The motto decided upon by the group was: “An M-CHS student is connected, professional and future-oriented.”

The HTI group is looking to identify and fill the gaps between local education and the local economy.

Chad Wheelus was recently hired by the district as its HTI coordinator. Wheelus, who has 23 years of teaching experience in the district, hopes to connect local businesses and organizations to soon-to-be graduates.

“There’s a big push in education right now to create more work-based opportunities for students,” Wheelus told The Journal.

Wheelus acknowledged that building ties to businesses and persuade them to sponsor internships and other opportunities for students is a high priority.

Over time, Wheelus hopes to create a sort of “menu of options” for students, depending on their chosen pathways. Wheelus also wants to be able to facilitate individual requests from students for specific opportunities.

The Colorado Education Initiative, based in Denver, facilitates HTI with the goal of helping rural Colorado communities create a diverse group of talented, young employees to choose from.

“It’s a very equitable approach to helping all students figure out their pathway,” Wheelus said.

Along with building community partnerships, the district will continue with its other ongoing career development priorities.

One of these is encouraging students to take advantage of concurrent enrollment. Associate degree options at Pueblo Community College and San Juan County Community College allow students to a earn a degree while in high school, saving them time and thousands of dollars in tuition money.

Wheelus also told The Journal that the traditional approach to high school education of disseminating knowledge to students, having them graduate and go on to college doesn’t fit everybody. The ever-growing cost of college is taken into consideration as well.

“It’s become a little less of a reasonable option for a lot of students,” Wheelus said.

The district exceeds the state average of students who pursue Career Technical Education Programs and graduate with useful credentials. Some of those programs, such as fire science and family consumer science, offer work-based learning that can lead to employment directly after graduation.

Students in grades six to 12 soon will be able to participate in an “interest inventory” in which counselors identify their passions and skills and how they can translate them into a sustainable career.

The district intends to accommodate students’ work-based experiences by remaining flexible and offering personalized itineraries and hybrid classes.

According to Haukeness, the district feels confident it will have the resources to pursue these objectives.

“It’s extremely important for the students to have these opportunities with these pathways,” Haukeness told The Journal.

The district’s HTI grant revenue for the school year comes out to $50,000.

Just last month, the district was awarded another of Gov. Jared Polis’ Response, Innovation, and Student Equity grants for $257,138.