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By Jennifer LeDuc

In an effort to stimulate compelling and progressive ideas in the district and elevate them into action, the Jeffco Board of Education announced 10 recipients sharing in a $1 million Innovation Acceleration Fund. The recipients were selected from 104 applicants – educators, administrators and staff – within Jeffco Public Schools.

The fund, as explained by the district in announcing the recipients, “offers an incentive for staff to look for innovative ways to improve Learning, Conditions for Learning, and Readiness for Learning for Jeffco students; it encourages the organizational value of ‘Entrepreneurial Spirit.’”

The innovations awarded included STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art and mathematics)-based learning programs, creating a director of Safe Schools position, creating a K-12 academy program at Green Mountain, teaching students to be more mindful in discharging energy with the support of fidget spinners and stress balls in Arvada, and expanding school-based health centers in the district.

Wheat Ridge High School and Dakota Ridge High School were also recipients of the funding in support of the Career Explore program based at the two schools. The program, as detailed in their innovation description, serves as “an alternative to the traditional (and current re-engagement strategies) educational track designed specifically as a re-engagement strategy for high school juniors and seniors.”

More simply, the Career Explore program is an audacious thread of hope tied around the premise of a second chance to impact lives, generations, communities and educational mindsets.

Launched at Wheat Ridge High School under the leadership of former principal Griff Wirth, Jennifer Marquez is the learning coordinator of the Wheat Ridge program and said the money, and recognition, from the fund changes everything for the program, which identifies students that are on track to drop out and places them in mentorship and real-world work experiences within health, hospitality and construction industries to earn credits to graduate. Following graduation, the students have the opportunity to continue with the employer. Additionally, Marquez and a team of committed educators ensure the students have transportation, clothing and other essentials in order to fully commit. For many of the students, Marquez explained, there are economic barriers that might otherwise prevent a student from participating.

Marquez estimates the cost per student is $4,600, however the impact on the community over that student’s lifetime is far greater. According to Marquez, if the student earns just an average of $17 an hour during their career, $1.7 million is saved by that student avoiding housing assistance, food stamps and other taxpayer supported programs.

“The return on investment is huge,” she said.

Dakota Ridge implemented the program this year, and Bear Creek, Golden and schools outside of Colorado have expressed interest in the program. Wheat Ridge has seen participation in Career Explore nearly double, from 28 students last academic year to 48 this year. Dakota Ridge Principal Dr. Jim Jelinek called the program “just a life changer.”

“The fund helps sustain us.” said Jelinek, explaining before receiving the Innovation Award, the program relied heavily on donations. “I hope [the fund] continues and more schools can get on board.”

Thomas McDermott, a doctoral candidate from Harvard and special assistant to Jeffco Schools Superintendent Jason Glass, explained the Innovation Acceleration Fund came to life after conversations made it clear “we need to have something that encourages systemic innovation throughout the district.”

The fundamental question the applicants had to answer was, “How are your innovations going to impact the student learning?” From there the innovation had to show sustainability after three years.

A committee of parents, educators, administrators and staff scored the initial applications based on a rubric created for the fund. The initial evaluation process explored several critical components including was the idea targeted to a thoughtfully and specifically, were the goals ambitious and defined, were there clearly defined roles, a timeline for measuring success, and were 100 percent of budget items: (a) allocable (directly related) to the project, (b) an allowable use of district funds, and (c) reasonable.

After an enthusiastic response and clear evidence there are still many good ideas in the district, a second round of the funding is planned, with some changes to the process after feedback, review and restructuring. McDermott explained the next round will adopt a process of evaluation based on tiered amounts, rather than evaluating all ideas from one pool, so an application seeking $3,000 of funding isn’t evaluated against an application for $80,000 of funding , but rather other ideas that fall within a similar range.

The second approach will also see all applicants move into a design event, rather than the first round being an elimination, as in the initial process.

The new approach, said McDermott, will be “more hands on in terms of support, and create a better opportunity to understand what’s happening out there and where are things successful, or not yet and could be. We’re going to be learning as we go with this, but that’s the hope.”

It could be argued that innovation cannot exist in the absence of hope, or determination. A teacher for 17 years, Marquez called the Career Explore program “one of the hardest things we’ve done, and one of the best things we’ve done.”

“These are kids who for all intents and purposes, gave up hope. And now they have hope, but the road isn’t easy” she said, and it’s evident that though Innovation Award funding is a “game charger,” to the team involved in the Career Explore program, it’s about lives, not dollars. “When people look at the numbers there's a lot of reasons to say ‘we can't,’ but there's really no way not to say ‘we can.’”