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An agriculture-focused Commerce City high school is still two years away from graduating its first class of students and it’s already garnering attention and picking up awards from the state. Amy …
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An agriculture-focused Commerce City high school is still two years away from graduating its first class of students and it’s already garnering attention and picking up awards from the state.
Amy Schwartz and Kelly Leid, the founders of Commerce City’s STEAD School, are among six recipients of the Colorado Governor’s Citizenship medals for 2022. The pair and the school they opened in the fall of 2021 will be featured in a Rocky Mountain PBS documentary set to air on Jan. 19 and will be honored at a reception and dinner Jan. 26.
“All of our honorees are featured permanently in the What's Your Story Exhibit at the History Colorado Center in Denver,” said Jen Landers, executive director of CiviCO, the managing group of the awards for the state. “This exhibit features 100-plus past and present leaders in the state of Colorado and each year when this medal is awarded, the winners are featured. So, their story lives on.”
The pair are scheduled to receive the Growth and Innovation Award as entrepreneurs who have led with ingenuity and while inspiring others and creating new possibilities.
“The spirit of this award is to recognize individuals who lead with exceptional ingenuity and growth and who go about creating opportunities for others,” she said. “So when we look at what the STEAD School is doing in terms of inspiring students around the ideas of science, technology and agriculture, it offers students an alternative to the traditional classroom.”
Barns instead of classrooms
The STEAD campus is located on the site of the former 40,000-acre Boxelder Farms property in Reunion, near the intersection of Tower Road and 104th Avenue. It is a ten-acre campus that is expanding in phases as the student body grows, with multiple buildings designed to look and feel like barns. Auxiliary specialty workshops and labs support the programs and student projects, offering real-world learning experiences.
The public charter high school is part of School District 27J and it broke ground in January 2021. Students are drawn from District 27J’s student population via a weighted lottery, up to 175 students per class.
The school is a new take on STEM-focused education. STEM schools are a standard across the country, focusing students on Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. STEAM Schools, a more recent subset, adds Arts to the mix.
The Commerce City school focuses on Science, Technology, Environment, Agriculture and Design. The goal is less to promote farming as a career but to use agriculture as a teaching method, he said. It focuses on four subject areas — animal, plant, environmental and food science.
“Across those four pathways are upwards of 3,000 different career possibilities, some of them in agriculture, some not,” Leid said.
The school might have a student with a knack for software development that could end up designing drone software meant to keep track of crop growth.
“My hope would be these kids go into a pathway that leads directly into agriculture. Lord knows we need them,” Leid said. “But as long as they are pursuing what they are passionate about and that this school helped them develop the skills they needed, I will consider it a great success.”
Silicon Valley for Ag
He noted that agriculture is a $47 billion annual business in Colorado, supporting more than 195,000 jobs.
“Colorado can become the epicenter for agriculture innovation, similar to Silicon Valley. So we’d like to become the Silicon Valley for agriculture,” Leid said.
Part of Silicon Valley’s success was schools that supported mathematics and computer engineering. Colorado State University seeks to do the same with agriculture education, he said.
“What we aim to do is push that interest down into high schools and start seeding and cultivating that among a much younger age,” he said.
The school took on its first class in Aug. 2021.
“Baby boomers are retiring at an accelerated rate and these positions in Ag-related fields, we are
struggling to replace them,” Leid said. “We’d like to fill them with kids of color, and we have a very diverse student body.”
Rather than regular classrooms, the curriculum is entirely project-based. Students are given tasks and must consider the best ways to complete them.
“We spend a lot of time thinking about how we get young people excited about what agriculture means today,” he said. “It’s about technology, it’s about innovation, it’s about science, it’s about problem-solving. So the basis of the school is thinking differently but also how we talk about it and how we get kids excited about tackling these really hard global issues.”
It’s a unique method that’s required finding unique teachers, he said.
“One of our goals is to prepare teachers to be very good project-based teachers,” Leid said. “That requires a different set of skills and it’s very hard work.”
The school is considering creating an institute to help train educators to lead project-based curricula.
“This year we are going to do a deep analysis of how we are doing compared to our vision,” he said. “When we had our first class in 2020, we didn’t know it was going to be during a pandemic. So that first year was very focused on delivery. This second year has been more focused on recovery and you can see the difference between those years. The kids are starting to understand what it means.”
Class of 2025
The school now teaches 260 students across the ninth and tenth grades. The first class is on schedule to graduate in 2025.
“Next year, we’ll have upper-classmen. We’ll have juniors. We actually have a campus and I think the kids are beginning to understand how we are different and what it means to be a STEAD-er.”
Leid said he’s humbled to receive the governor’s award.
“I’m proud that we get to have a school like STEAD in Colorado, leading the way for the rest of the country and showing how we do it and why it’s important,” Leid said.
CiviCO’s Landers said the school was selected from a small group of entrepreneurs by Governor Jared Polis himself.
“We sit with the governor himself annually and go through the nominees for each category,” she said. “He thinks about how the nominee supports others and inspires others to lift up civic engagement, and how to represent different communities across the state.”
In addition to the STEAD School, the governor will be awarding five other medals.
Former Denver Mayor and U.S., Secretary of Transportation Federico Peña will receive the Vanguard Legacy Award, former U.S. representative Ed Perlmutter will receive the Public and Community Service Award, former Pueblo Central High School student and University of Colorado freshman Mitchell Mauro will receive the Emerging Community Leader Medal and Ball Corporation will receive the Corporate Citizenship Medal. The governor is awarding a posthumous Colorado Mountain Leader Medal for Clela Rorex, the former Boulder County Clerk who issued marriage licenses to six same-sex couples in 1975.
The awards began in 2015 at the behest of then-Governor John Hickenlooper and former Governor Bill Owens.
“They were established to emulate the U.S. Medal of Freedom,” Landers said.
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