Green Light For Innovation: How Greeley Is Transforming Education

For generations, Greeley has been known for its western traditions, agricultural richness, historic significance and trailblazing personalities. But it’s the current generation and its future cohorts who will benefit from Greeley’s focus on innovation. Take Greeley-Evans School District 6 (D6). When Dr. Deirdre Pilch stepped into her position as superintendent in 2015, the school district was ready for change and eager for a boost in leadership and direction.

“When I arrived, some schools were really struggling,” says Dr. Pilch. “We’re in a high-poverty district, and the challenges are palpable. Innovation became the thread for how we wanted to restructure, reenergize and reimagine education.”

Deemed Innovation2020, Dr. Pilch’s strategic plan was a vision to champion, value and institute new ideas and breakthrough thinking. Today, an updated Innovation2030 and its driving forces are propelling Colorado’s 14th largest school district and its 23,000 students into the future.

SmartLabs, Smart Start

To be fair, says Dr. Pilch, innovation was not a new idea when she was hired, and the board was already instituting education reforms. After listening to parents, teachers and students, partnering with local advocates and securing funding from voter-approved mill levy overrides and bond issues, innovation’s direct link to preparing the next generation moved to the forefront.

One of Dr. Pilch’s initial steps was to see how other school districts use innovation to help students with academic achievement and college and career readiness.

“When I saw a SmartLab, I said, ‘This is what we need.’”

Developed by Longmont-based Creative Learning Systems (CLS), SmartLabs are hands-on, project-based learning centers tailored to students in kindergarten through high school with a focus on science, technology, engineering, the arts and math (STEAM). Distinct from traditional “makerspace” facilities in K-12, SmartLabs are comprehensive. They come with computer hardware, software, furniture, modules, training and ongoing support and consultation for facilitators who dig into everything from coding and engineering to robotics and 3D printing to podcasting and video creation.

“To get kids college and career-ready, you not only have to be intentional, but you have to be creative, and we’ve found [SmartLab] to be a robust resource to engage kids at an early age,” says Dr. Pilch.

While SmartLabs are operated in 35 districts across Colorado, D6 has the greatest number of SmartLabs in a single district in the state. In fact, according to Noel Johnson, CLS vice president of marketing, D6 has the greatest number of SmartLabs of any school district in the nation. The Greeley-Evans School District operates 17 SmartLabs, and by next summer nearly all D6 elementary, middle and K-8 schools will have a SmartLab, says Julie Hill, executive director of the Success Foundation, D6’s leading advocate and fundraiser.

“District 6 has embraced programs like SmartLab because they support the mission of providing every student with a personalized learning experience, preparing them for college and career success.”

Career Pathways, Roads to Success

For Gerreck Zwickle, SmartLab facilitator at Ann K. Heiman Elementary School in Evans, SmartLabs are the first step on the education continuum — from elementary, to middle, to high school — and toward a student’s postsecondary goals.

Currently, the district has 14 Career Academies in its high schools that offer 29 Career Pathways for students to explore. Career Pathways range from advanced manufacturing and cybersecurity to fashion design and the culinary arts. Students also have options to participate in internship programs and work apprenticeships.

SmartLab, says Mr. Zwickle, helps students at an early age begin to explore those opportunities, discover their talents and “to learn to Learn” where their passions lie.

An educator for nearly 13 years, Mr. Zwickle uses SmartLab projects and curricula to bridge the district’s reading, math and science standards. And while it’s natural to focus on the strong technical concentration in D6, Mr. Zwickle is quick to point out that the underlying goal of SmartLab specifically and innovation more generally is to teach students how to think critically, work collaboratively and solve problems.

“Because if you can think well, learn well and work well with others, you can do what you want to do.”

As kids get older in D6, SmartLab curricula get more advanced. Terry Highfield, who facilitates SmartLab at S. Christa McAuliffe S.T.E.M. Academy in Greeley, teaches students from kindergarten to fifth grade. His older students are currently learning circuitry, coding and robotics, anticipating 21st-century jobs that have yet to be created. Beyond the engagement he observes, he finds that kids in his lab are thinking about how those projects not only apply to their future but also how they relate to the real world.

“It’s cool to see kids get energized, and start thinking about how the principles they learn can be used to solve community problems.”

Diversity, Community Pride

If innovation is the engine that powers education in D6, diversity is its fuel. Nearly 64% of District 6 is Hispanic or Latino/Latinx. Eighty-six different languages are spoken across the district. Research shows that more diverse environments increase students’ level of critical thinking, raise knowledge and awareness, challenge assumptions and foster connection and communication. The district has long embraced its multicultural student population and championed the worldview innovation helps cultivate. Still, District 6 is a minority/majority school district, and more than 60% percent of its students live in poverty, says Theresa Myers, chief of communications for the district. This presents both a challenge and an opportunity for staff, educators and district leaders.

“It’s really important that we teach students well,” Ms. Myers says. “Education is how you turn around poverty, and innovation is key.”

Innovation2030 started by listening to the community and respecting the opinions of fellow Greelyites, and it’s not lost on District leaders that they have a responsibility to “turn out good people,” says Superintendent Pilch.

Greeley-Evans School District 6 is the fourth-largest employer in Weld County. D6 gives back to the community economically by hiring local vendors whenever possible, encouraging staff to use local businesses and volunteering. Advisory board positions are available for the Career Pathways program and community members are invited to serve on District committees such as the District Accountability Committee.

In addition, District leaders understand the value of forming community partnerships. Churches, businesses and non-profit organizations throughout Greeley are involved in the district. Higher education including trade and technical schools such as the new Career & Technical Education Center (CTE), even the innovation-focused LINC Library reap the benefits of an advanced student body and a community eyeing what’s next.

“We’ve received tremendous support from the community,” says Dr. Pilch. “Now, we’re at a stage where we’re perfecting the pieces we’ve invested in. We want to do it well and with fidelity, and we want to do it right.”