JOB WON: Cherry Creek Innovation Campus opens new directions for student careers

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AURORA | Even if you’ve seen your share of new schools with ambitious plans, the Cherry Creek Innovation Campus will impress.

The brand new, $63 million career and technical education campus looks like more of a sleek technology company’s headquarters than a space for Aurora-area kids to learn how to fix a car, run a hotel or use steel-cutting machines.

The Innovation Campus opens Aug. 12, capping off years of planning in the Cherry Creek School District.

“It’s crazy,” said Seth Harling, 17, a senior at Cherokee Trail High School. He’s enrolling in computer science programs this year at the Innovation Campus, and has already built computers to play video games.

“It doesn’t feel like a school. It’s like an actual workplace,” he said.

The school programs include hands-on training in computer science, advanced manufacturing, the health industry, hospitality, and aviation and car mechanics.

On Tuesday, construction workers installed metal letters on the school’s front sign, near East Broncos Parkway and the Centennial Airport, one by one. Giddy instructors and some students gathered at the campus to see the site specs.

Instructors said they’ll have everything they need to prepare students for the 21st Century economy.

In the airplane hangar, two small planes and a helicopter will become student tinkering tools. Next door, a Porsche sits in the car mechanic program wing. Past the mock hospitality industry conference room, there are water jets that can cut through four-inch steel.

Then, a top piece of a crane hangs in another hangar on the campus’ other side. The crane is visible from the top floor through a glass wall, like many rooms.

The high-tech learning tools will enable high school juniors and seniors in Cherry Creek schools to graduate ready to work, with a technical certificate already under their belt. Cherry Creek schools includes parts of many metroplex municipalities, including Aurora and Centennial.

“There really isn’t anything like it in the state,” Principal Mark Morgan said of the campus.

About 1,100 students are already enrolled for this semester, officials said. Those students will stay at their current Cherry Creek high schools, but commute on a bus or in their own cars to the campus for scheduled classes during regular school hours.

Students milled about Tuesday in machine shop outfits and chef’s coats. Work still needed to be completed on basic building functions, so ladders and caulk guns littered shiny surfaces. Briefly, the power went out.

In the advanced manufacturing wing, students will use computer-guided tools to cut shapes from steel, marble and other surfaces.

A few incoming students donned welding helmets to watch an instructor cut a piece of steel. Sparks flew.

One of the students, Caleb Vigil, is enrolled at Eaglecrest High School. He said that the routine of traditional classrooms — sitting through lectures, then tests — isn’t his forte. Planning instead for a manufacturing certificate would give him an opportunity for a good-paying job right out of high school, instead of becoming saddled with student debt and a nebulous degree, he said.

The program is backed by Reata Engineering, a machine works company located just down the road from the Innovation Campus. They donated some machines to the program and had staff on-site Tuesday.

It’s one of many campus corporate sponsorships. Subaru and Volkswagen both donated brand-new cars for the auto works wing, and the Gaylord Rockies hotel is sponsoring the hospitality program.

Instructors hope to create apprenticeships with interested businesses. Some programs will also funnel students into more training at Metro State University Denver.

The idea is that job prospects will lead to brighter futures.

Buffy Witt and Ann Austin agreed as they watched their respective children answer press questions. Their students enrolled in the culinary arts program this year and donned chef’s coats on Tuesday.

Witt couldn’t say enough good about the new Innovation Campus.

“The kids want to be here. This is like, the real stuff,” she said of the hands-on program, where students will be taught to cook. “When’s the last time you used precalculus?”

Cherry Creek schools will keep its existing career and technical education courses at its various schools, which will likely feed more kids into the new campus.

The campus doors haven’t technically opened yet, but Principal Mark Morgan said he is already eyeing an expansion into more of the campus’ 40-acre property.

He said career and technical education options are an important part of the district’s plan to prepare kids, but emphasized that they will not replace traditional education options.