GETTING TECHNICAL: Cherry Creek asks voters to boost career program into the future


AURORA | For many high school students, repeating a class can be a sign of academic trouble.

But for Cherokee Trail High School senior Hunter Marshall, the task of circling back to Paul Clinton’s architectural design class wasn’t so much an obligation as it was a passionate and deliberate decision.

Marshall is currently in the midst of taking Clinton’s class for the third time, giving him triple the opportunity to create models of residential homes using the design software Revit. He’s also repeated other career and technical education (CTE) classes at Cherokee Trail, including two voluntary returns to a manufacturing class.

“It’s nice because you get to build something different every time,” Marshall said. “I like the way that you can make whatever you feel like. I haven’t done it in real life, but hopefully I get to one day.”

Marshall has become a proverbial resident of Cherokee Trail’s CTE department and tricked-out fabrication laboratory — colloquially known as the “fab lab.” The state-of-the-art facility was updated with additional manufacturing equipment, including 3D printers, precision mills and laser engravers, in the months after Cherry Creek voters approved a $125 million bond question and accompanying mill levy override in 2012.

But if Cherry Creek officials have their way, students like Marshall could be headed to a new district facility in the coming years, one that will morph the shop-class birdhouse into a hackneyed project of yesteryear.

Before that can happen, however, the district first has to receive the blessing of district voters on Nov. 8.

Cherry Creek has earmarked some $40 million out of a potential $250 million bond question for the construction of a new “career and innovation academy,” slated to be built somewhere in the south-central portion of the district. Catering to juniors and seniors in high school, the facility would offer a slew of centralized services in the potential fields of construction, health, automotive services, hospitality, energy, advanced manufacturing, aviation/aerospace and computer sciences, according to district documents.

“It’s what we would like to be able to do across the district in six (high school) settings, but we want to house it in a centralized place where we can really give kids that experience that propels them either to a different level of preparation for college or, and probably more appropriately so, an opportunity to graduate from high school employable,” said CCSD Superintendent Harry Bull.

In total, Cherry Creek has budgeted $77.7 million of the potential $250 million bond for career and innovation technology initiatives across the district. The bulk of that sum will go to the construction of the new CTE center, while the remainder will go toward updating existing systems. Each district elementary school will receive $500,000 and each middle school will receive $750,000 to renovate technological spaces, according to district documents.

Cherry Creek Spokeswoman Tustin Amole asserted that services at the new career and innovation center would also be available to students outside of the trade-centered tracks of study. She said the facility would not replace any existing programs like the “fab lab” at Cherokee Trial, the robust automotive offerings at Smoky Hill, or the touted ProStart culinary program at Grandview.

“It’s an expanded opportunity for all kids to participate in programs that might only be available at one or two other high schools,” Amole said.

Plans for the new innovation center mark a departure from Cherry Creek’s longstanding mission to send every one of its students to a four-year university, according to Bull.

“This is a change for Cherry Creek,” he said. “Historically, we’ve always said ‘all kids are going to go to college.’ And I would argue right now that there’s a reality that not all kids are going to go to college.”

The percentage of Colorado students who enrolled in a college course after completing high school dropped from 58.8 percent to 55.8 percent between 2009 and 2014, according to the Colorado Department of Higher Education.

College-bound or not, CTE tracks can help students get ahead in a potential field, or a post-secondary degree via the credentialing process, according to Clinton at Cherokee Trail.

“Being able to be prepared at the high school level, and then being able to take some advanced classes once you’re out of high school is going to put you one step ahead,” he said.

About 38 percent of Colorado students in grades 9-12 took some sort of career and technical education course in the 2014-15 school year, according to a fact sheet compiled by the Colorado Community College System. That equates to about 97,000 Colorado high schoolers.

Nationally, about 7.4 million high students in the U.S. took some sort of CTE course, according to the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Career, Technical and Adult Education.

Clinton, who received his undergraduate degree in industrial technology education from Chadron State College in Nebraska, said that many causal education observers still stigmatize CTE and its associated disciplines as rudimentary.

“It includes business, marketing, what used to be home ec, aviation and criminal justice, but people still refer to it as vocational,” he said. “People hear the word ‘vocational’ and they think 1920s labor in a dirty facility, but it’s not like that.”

Clinton added that clichés surrounding CTE are often outdated and unfounded.

“They do leave with skills, but they’re not the skills that they were in the ‘70s and ‘80s,” he said.

More than 100 of Clinton’s students have passed the first step of the industry certification for the design program Solidworks, and dozens more have had paid internships at a pair of local engineering firms.

Alisha Hyslop, director of public policy at the Association for Career and Technical Education, said that looking at CTE students with a furrowed brow has persisted throughout the discipline’s evolution, but that national attitudes are shifting.

“Right now we’re at a point in time where we’re seeing a lot of interest in CTE, particularly at the high school level,” she said. “There are more students investing in CTE who are definitely still going on to a four-year degree, and there’s a greater recognition that there are multiple pathways to success.”