Non-profit aims to improve education opportunities for rural students

Kristi Lewis, CTE Business Teacher at Durango High School, shares pathway ideas during the third breakout session of the “Building Our Shared Future” Pathway Design event hosted by the Ignacio School District.
Jessica Morrison shares a smile at the “Building Our Shared Future” Pathway Design event inside the Ignacio High School commons area, Morrison is the Executive Director of the Southwest Colorado Education Collaborative.
Divine Windy Boy | SU Drum
Divine Windy Boy | SU Drum

The Southwest Colorado Education Collaborative (SWCEC) kicked off their “Building Our Shared Future” event on Friday, Oct. 21 at Ignacio High School. Formed in 2021, SWCEC is the first of its kind model in Colorado aimed towards improving educational opportunities for rural students in Southwest Colorado.  

In an interview with the Executive Director of SWCEC, Jessica Morrison, she explained that SWCEC is a nonprofit organization that brings together K-12, higher education, and industry leaders to build career and college pathways for our region. The collaborative’s overall mission is to help all students have equitable educational access to career and college pathways, that the student will be excited to engage in, that will ultimately grow the next generation of the workforce.  

“There’s a lot of pieces that are a part of our current college pathway, but all of the different components always have this one specific lens of equitable access,” Morrison said. “Meaning any student, regardless of zip code in our region, if their school district is a part of our collaborative, they will have access to the same resources in those pathways as a student in another district.” 

Students have the opportunity to participate in five career pathways; education, environmental, tourism, hospitality, and health sciences. SWCEC is an implementer, they help support work-based learning opportunities for students to be connected with an industry to learn about their careers and determine if the student would like to pursue that career. “So, what that looks like is that we connect industry leaders and students to do job shadows that offer either hands on or brains on activities for students to get a real taste of what is means to be in the career field that they’re talking about,” Morrison explains. “For example, we did our first annual building tree summer camp–we brought M&R Plumbing, in four days students learned basic plumbing techniques and skills to determine if that was a path that they would be interested in.” 

The list of resources continues, SWCEC also hosts summer programs and regional events connecting students to industry leaders. The non-profit works hand in hand with local teachers and industries to identify equipment that is needed for a pathway and that students should be trained on in order to be competitive within that industry, the collaborative will then purchase that equipment to be shared across the school districts and will then train the teachers on how to utilize the equipment in their classrooms.  

“A very concrete example of that is our machining and fabrication, mobile learning lab–that mobile learning lab had three pieces of equipment, worth $75,000, that rotates through five of our school districts in our building and trade courses,” Morrison said. “I went out to go see Molly [Turner], who’s the building trades teacher in Ignacio. She had taken that piece of equipment, trained her high school students on how to utilize it, and the high school students created a project where they created magnetic sight words for every single student in Ignacio, in the kindergarten class, to be able to learn how to read with.” 

SWCEC also does professional development with school counselors across all the regional school districts to help them understand what classes a student would be able to take and access, also further helping the student to identify if there are any certifications they could obtain from higher education partners such as Fort Lewis College or Pueblo Community College; aiding the student in learning the pathways to earn an associate degree or a bachelor’s degree from those institutions. 

Leaders from Archuleta, Bayfield, Durango, Ignacio, and Silverton school districts– as well as Fort Lewis College and Pueblo Community College– got together in the year 2019 with a support partner and discussed how to begin sharing resources in a rural region for educational access. After a pause due to the COVID-19 pandemic, this group of leaders applied for the RISE (Relevant Information to Strengthen Education) Grant which was received by the Colorado Department of Education in 2019 as a federal grant to improve Colorado’s Statewide Longitudinal Data System. The collaborative was awarded a $3.6 million RISE Grant and in this past year the collaborative has been awarded an additional $5 million in order to be able to continue their work. Through that funding the original five school districts established the Southwest Colorado Education Collaborative in 2021.  

“There’s a lot of inequities across school districts and individuals that have access to what higher ed looks like, and I feel really fortunate that I have partners in all of these school districts and our higher ed institutions that also recognize that and what to do [to be] better,” Morrison said. “Everyone is at the table trying to figure out how we can support our region to have equitable access just within the region, but then also provide the same opportunities that students on the Front Range in Colorado are able to receive.”  

For more information on SWCEC, students and families can contact Executive Director, Jessica Morrison at 970-355-4112 or Southern Ute Education Director, LaTitia Taylor at 970-563-2781. 

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