Joshua Olsen and ACRES Cultivate a New Future for Education

The teenage boys are standing on a sunflower-laced ridge overlooking Denver’s cityscape, laughing and ribbing each other while they collect wild-looking heaps of different varieties of cucumber — suyo, lemon and cucamelon — in plastic tubs. They’ll soon move on to rows of shaded tomatoes, where one boy will find a yellow heirloom the size of his head, take a photo of himself holding it to the sky, and then weigh it to find out if the giant passes two pounds. (It does.) A whiff of smoke hangs in the air, left over from a lunch of vegetables that the teens harvested and roasted over an outdoor Argentine grill — feeding not just themselves, but the Boulder Farmers’ Market volunteers and staffers who’ve made a field trip to see this urban farm in action.

Welcome to ACRES, a three-acre plot that abuts Warren Tech, a Jefferson County Public Schools’ Career & Technical Education school in Lakewood. It’s overseen by Joshua Olsen, a Denver chef who says he “fell in love with vegetables” and left the kitchen in order to run the Squeaky Bean farm, which got its start in an alley behind the original Squeaky Bean restaurant in LoHi, moved to Olsen’s back yard and then on to a small Lakewood plot. When Jeffco Public Schools asked Olsen if he’d like to take over some unused land by Warren Tech, he jumped at the chance. Over the past three years, he’s rehabilitated the soil and used biodynamic principles to cultivate a thriving array of crops, including the eggplant, winter squash, fava beans and potatoes that are in great demand at some of Denver’s best restaurants and farmers’ markets.

The urban farm is actually a high school classroom, part of Jeffco’s vast network of Career & Technical Education curricula; the teens working in the field today are part of Warren Tech’s STEM program. Over the course of the school year, Olsen will show first-year students (high school juniors) the ropes of farm management and technology, and mentor second-year students (seniors) through intensive individual projects that make use of such things as robotics and architectural drafting in farming. He’ll also host kids in Jeffco’s culinary and outdoor-education programs at ACRES, tailoring his lessons to their areas of study: The culinary students will can and pickle some of the produce, while the outdoor-ed kids will learn how to forage and cook outdoors. And Olsen will connect some of his students with his vast network, getting them assignments conducting research on farm technology, making deliveries to his pals in kitchens or interfacing with media to promote farm dinners and events.

The students aren’t just growing vegetables; they’re growing their career portfolios and reaping college credit in the process. And at the same time, ACRES is cultivating a model for future high school programs across the state.

ACRES occupies three formerly dormant acres of land by Warren Tech in Lakewood.
ACRES occupies three formerly dormant acres of land by Warren Tech in Lakewood.
Jake Holschuh

What today is referred to as career and technical education, or CTE, has its roots in what was formerly known as vocational education: high school classes that prepared students who weren’t bound for four-year colleges to go into trades like auto mechanics, cosmetology and welding. Students entering a vocational track usually planned to join the workforce immediately upon graduation from high school; they didn’t need post-secondary schooling for their chosen careers.

In recent decades, as the U.S. economy became more service-driven, four-year college degrees became the standard for measuring educational success. In many states, including Colorado, high schools were evaluated on how many students went on to a four-year college or university; students pursuing other tracks, such as two-year degrees or the military, brought down ratings. And so high schools pushed college-oriented academics, while vocational programs often went neglected. “If you go back thirty years, all the high schools and middle schools started to pull out shop and [other CTE] programs,” says Arlie Huffman, principal of Warren Tech, which was built as a vocational-education facility in 1973. “It was four-year college for everyone, no matter what. That doesn’t really make sense. We are not supporting our economy in the way it needs to be supported.”

But as policy-makers, students and educators grapple with rising student-loan debt, workforce gaps left by retiring baby boomers and an uneven post-recession recovery, the emphasis is shifting. Two years ago, Colorado legislators passed House Bill 15-1170, which changed how the state’s high schools were measured: They’re now allowed to count any student pursuing post-secondary education — whether a four-year college, a two-year associate’s degree or an industry-recognized credential — as successes. That vastly shifted how some school districts approach their high school curricula. “Our mandate is to prepare students for those career areas no matter how long it is before they get in them,” says Huffman.

Reviving and revamping CTE was a good way to help meet the goal. “We saw a lot more districts or school boards realize that gaining CTE skills gave kids more choices,” says Sarah Heath, the state’s director for career and technical education. “There’s been a lot of support the last year and a half around having the career conversation first, then figuring out the post-secondary option that makes the most sense.”

“The kind of jobs kids are going to be doing involve a mixture of college coursework along with hands-on and more experiential technical training,” says Jeffco’s new superintendent, Jason Glass. “What are they going pro in? We need to set them up for a great life and career.”

If preparation for all kinds of careers was the new goal, CTE directors realized they needed to talk not just with school administrators, but also with community representatives and business leaders who could discuss the skill sets they’re looking for in a changing economy. Those conversations helped give districts metrics by which they could dust off their old vocational programs, evaluating which still have value and which should be eliminated or updated. In Jeffco, “every CTE program is required to have an advisory committee,” says Huffman. “And it’s in the statute that it has to be at least 51 percent from the business world in that particular industry. That’s to drive what we teach. Our industry partners are crucial in the development of the program.”

Access to state and federal funding for CTE programs is tied to actual job placement; the programs must have a work-based learning requirement, which can be fulfilled by anything from an internship to projects undertaken in conjunction with a local business. “Districts are being super-intentional,” says Heath. “They’re going to their community’s largest employers and working with them so that students can have a meaningful placement.”

As a result, some older programs are enjoying a resurgence. “Manufacturing is booming in popularity,” notes Huffman. “In Colorado, especially along the Front Range, there’s lots of aerospace and medical manufacturing.
Those companies are looking for highly trained and competent people coming out.” In other areas, CTE programs are expanding to fill a new workforce need. “One big growth area is medical,” he adds. “Health care is booming; they’re begging for people.” Placements in those fields often lead to job offers; Huffman estimates that 78 percent of students in the dental-assistant program were offered permanent positions in the offices where they’d been placed.

“Innovative programs exist because businesses participate,” says Heath. “We’re trying to better the economy, but we can’t do that if businesses don’t tell us what they want.” The restaurant industry has definitely stepped up; a major effort by the Colorado Restaurant Association to partner with high school cooking classes resulted in CTE students often finding jobs in the dining industry.

Thanks to ACRES, those businesses could soon have even more on their plate.

Shea O’Toole is a Jeffco student at Warren Tech.
Shea O’Toole is a Jeffco student at Warren Tech.
Jake Holschuh

“I’m not a very good sit-down student,” says Joshua Olsen. “I love functional and hands-on education, which is why I fit in well here at Warren Tech.”

Olsen is a patient and attentive teacher. In the field, students gather around to watch an impromptu lesson in harvesting, and they’re quick to show him their triumphs. “Josh is a really awesome dude,” says Shea O’Toole, a Warren Tech second-year in the STEM program who’s working on an aquaponics project on the farm. “I met a ton of really cool people because of Josh.”

But Olsen isn’t a trained teacher. Before he landed at this school, he spent his career cooking and farming; his only formal post-secondary education was culinary school.

Olsen describes his family as “very hands-on people.” His grandparents farmed, cooked, and owned a hardware store; his mother still bakes, and cans and preserves produce from her own gardens, and his father constantly built things at home. “He was great with his hands,” Olsen recalls. “He taught me to use a hammer and measure something who knows when?”

Olsen liked to work with his hands, too, and knew early on that he wanted to be a chef — or a sous-chef. “I wrote a paper in eighth grade about being a sous-chef,” he says. “I didn’t see myself as being the top leader — I saw myself following a leader and being able to hold that position.”

By the time he was eighteen, Olsen knew he was headed to culinary school, but he wanted to see the agricultural side of food, so he spent a month and a half working with his uncle, a monocrop farmer who grows sugar beets, wheat, corn and beans in the Red River Valley in North Dakota. “I drove a combine — or sat in a combine, because they’re pretty much self-piloting now,” he recalls. He eventually landed at Panzano working for Elise Wiggins, and that’s where he caught what he calls the “local produce bug” — shopping at farmers’ markets for Sunday suppers and letting seasonality dictate what went on the plate. While working at Panzano, he bought a few plants from Costco and planted his first backyard garden. “The eggplant got huge,” he remembers. “I realized it makes sense to grow and use it, because it’s prolific. That was fairly eye-opening.”

In 2009, when he and Johnny Ballen partnered to open the original Squeaky Bean, at 3301 Tejon Street, Olsen quickly established the restaurant’s garden plot in the alley. The deeper he went into farming, the more he loved it. He started working with Jason Griffith and Erin Dreistadt, owners of Aspen Moon, a biodynamic farm in Longmont, to improve his practices. Soon he dug up one-third of his own yard and planted it so that he could supply the Bean’s kitchen with even more vegetables.

“Jason taught me how to do linear agriculture — small, short rows of successional planting,” Olsen recalls. “It gave me the bug to want something bigger than my back yard.” From Griffith, Olsen also learned biodynamic soil management, which he compares to a more prosaic ecosystem: “Whenever you bring something in from the outside, you’re adding a roommate. It probably takes a little bit to get used to that roommate before you’re jibing.”

In addition to all that knowledge, Olsen also gained a trusted advisor. “I was right next to him harvesting arugula,” he says of Griffith. “It was inspiring to be face-to-face. Jason’s always been there over the years. He’s guided me in the plethora of equipment and things to purchase. It’s awesome to have him as a mentor.”

Olsen eventually left the Bean’s kitchen in order to farm full-time, tending the restaurant’s farm when it moved out to Lakewood. And then three years ago, his brother Nate, who’d helped start the STEM program at Warren Tech in 2010, told him about the three-acre field that now holds ACRES. The school-owned horticulture site had been dormant for seven or eight years, and after hiring Olsen, who’d been raising produce for just one restaurant, the school charged him with making sure that ACRES could raise enough produce to work with many restaurants and markets, expanding the network to which students would have access, and also helping to fund the capital-intensive process of rebuilding the farm. “This was a great idea, but it’s not cheap, and for it to stand up by itself funded only by the school probably wasn’t going to happen,” notes Huffman.

Olsen enthusiastically accepted the challenge. “I came in kind of hot,” he recalls, and threw himself into establishing the farm’s infrastructure and network, quickly becoming a coveted producer among Denver’s chefs. He also took to teaching, despite his lack of formal training; his first year as an official instructor kicked off this month. “I’m drinking the Jeffco juice,” Olsen says. “We’re making the connections for an up-and-coming century. We’re imparting knowledge and providing learning opportunities for an ever-changing world.”

Huffman says that Olsen’s enthusiasm and understanding of how important it is to provide those opportunities is what makes him successful. “Josh has this willingness to reach out to some students who may have never had the opportunity to get their hands dirty, and he has this entrepreneurial mindset as well,” Huffman explains. “The future of this is just going to grow.”

At ACRES, Olsen helps STEM students focus on building the systems and machinery necessary to break up soil, plant seeds and manage crops. While they gain hands-on knowledge directly relevant to their field of study, they also get to experience the farm over the course of a year, learning about plant life cycles, produce seasonality and how certain crops work together to create a thriving ecosystem.

Some kids study the economic life cycle of what they’re producing, too, taking produce to farmers’ markets and stocking stands there. O’Toole recently made a delivery on behalf of ACRES to Señor Bear, the hip Latin American restaurant that now occupies the original home of Squeaky Bean, and got to see up close what farm-to-table really means. “I drove down with my friend, walked in the back alley and walked through their door,” O’Toole says. “They were playing music, and small as the kitchen was, it looked like they were having fun. It was a super-great experience, even though I messed up the order. But that was part of the experience and learning; now I’ll always double-check the order before I send it out.”

Mistakes are part of Olsen’s lesson plan. “We should teach our kids to be open and self-analytical, to find out who they are as early as they can, and to not be afraid to make mistakes — to try to dust yourself off and move forward,” he explains. “It builds a perseverance-style attitude.”

O’Toole knew going into high school that he wanted to enter the STEM program at Warren Tech, because he wanted to eventually become an engineer. When he finally got there junior year, he spent his first day of class building a tower from spaghetti noodles and marshmallows. That led to more hands-on lessons about architectural drafting and building robotics. “Warren Tech is awesome,” he says. “At my home school, the closest thing I was going to get to building was metalworking and woodworking. I had no idea about engineering. To be able to do robotics, to learn the code behind it, made me love it more. There’s no feeling like knowing that you built something.”

By second semester, O’Toole and several of his classmates had dug in at ACRES, where Olsen was beginning work on an aquaponic system. O’Toole was so interested in the process that Olsen convinced him to do an executive internship, a highly competitive program offered by Jeffco, so that he could dedicate more time to building it out. “I was supposed to begin by touring the Colorado aquaponics industry, places like the Growhaus, and figuring out what makes the system run efficiently,” O’Toole recalls. “I wanted to do a garage-door-type system, which makes it more accessible and gives more growing room. We wanted to try to use trout, so we have to figure out how to keep the water chilled to a level that’s suitable. It’s a huge learning experience for us.”

The internship requires 100 hours of work, which O’Toole quickly amassed just by managing the farm over the summer, a process he says is “kind of the same thing as building: You’re taking a seed and watching it produce.” Now, in his senior year, he’ll work on the aquaponics system as an independent project. “I definitely want to have my name on it,” he says.

O’Toole’s experience at Warren Tech has affirmed his desire to become an engineer. “I want to go to School of Mines and get my mechanical-engineering degree,” he says. “Eventually, I want to open my own workshop and start inventing things. And I want to help other people make their dreams come true.”

When he does enter college, he’ll be ahead of the curve: Not only is O’Toole gaining experience, but he’s already earning college credits for his work at Warren Tech. And he’ll have soft skills that will set him up for success in his next internship or job — a major advantage of the CTE model, whether a student is bound for college or a trade.

“These kids are walking into college already knowing what they’re doing,” says Olsen. “And they have passion. Juniors or seniors can come in here, take classes and find out what they want to do. I’m a believer in being passionate about your job.”

Joshua Olsen working with Jeffco CTE students at ACRES.
Joshua Olsen working with Jeffco CTE students at ACRES.
Jake Holschuh

What might be most remarkable about ACRES is that it’s not an exception to Jeffco’s CTE programming; it’s the rule. While Olsen’s students are harvesting multiple types of cucumbers, kids in a darkened, Mac-filled lab inside Warren Tech sketch computer-game components on a whiteboard. Down the hall, a teacher leads TV and video specialists through a script-writing exercise. And outside in a garage, a mechanic gives a presentation on air bags that culminates with blowing one up. All over the school, kids listen raptly to instructors or work intently on their projects.

The school offers more than 25 programs, spanning everything from auto design and cosmetology to sports medicine and graphic design. Students who enroll at Warren Tech spend half of each school day at their home high school, and the other half at one of two Warren Tech campuses. They fulfill graduation requirements at both — Huffman says every Warren Tech program has an instructional coach dedicated to ensuring that the curriculum meets math, science or English standards — and earn concurrent enrollment credit for Warren Tech classes at Red Rocks Community College, a partnership that Huffman says they’ve really pushed. “Totaled up, 1,000 students earned about 13,000 college credits last year, which is just under $1.8 million of tuition — and they did that all for free, at no cost to the students,” he says. “That’s a really phenomenal thing.”

Many courses also culminate in industry-approved credentials: In the medical fields, for instance, Warren Tech students can get their EMT training for free (though they pay for testing), saving them post-secondary time and money. The savings may help them mitigate student-loan debt, Huffman points out, or help them work their way through college in a field directly relevant to their interests.

In addition to hands-on learning, all Warren Tech classes provide meaningful connection to the industries they serve: STEM kids build egg-cookers and toilet dispensers for NASA, health-care students enjoy a partnership with St. Anthony Hospital, and graphic-design students work with Never Summer, ultimately going head-to-head in a snowboard design competition that sees the winner’s board manufactured by the company. “Warren Tech should be considered a national model in terms of partnerships with the community and community-college system,” says superintendent Glass.

Planning for Warren Tech’s CTE programs start early. Middle school counselors begin having career conversations with students in seventh grade, according to Sharon Usher, Jeffco’s executive internship director. All of the district’s eighth-graders visit Warren Tech so that they can start plotting high school course schedules that will show their interest in a chosen field and give them a better chance of being accepted: Warren Tech programs turn away about 400 kids a year because of limited space.

But Jeffco’s CTE programs are not limited to Warren Tech, and the breadth of the district’s programming has made it a state leader in the field. Kids have access to CTE classes at high schools across Jeffco, and everyone from special-education students to high school valedictorians can take advantage of CTE resources, even if they follow a more traditional academic track. As a result, Jeffco has the most students participating in CTE of any district in Colorado. State CTE director Heath says more than 11,000 of the district’s approximately 26,000 high school students, nearly 50 percent, take at least one CTE class.

That academic high achievers are participating in CTE goes a long way to reversing the stigma once associated with vocational schools, and Huffman says it has compounding benefits. “In these classes, you can have the valedictorian sitting next to a student who’s a week away from dropping out — not that they know that about each other,” he says. “That’s incredibly powerful. It’s one of the things that mirrors the real world: Kids learn to work in teams.”

Because of strong job-placement emphasis, CTE gives all students a leg up in whatever they do post-high school, because they obtain soft skills often gained only through experience. “Employers are feeling a different level of preparedness with these students,” says Heath. “They actually know what work is. They know they should be on time, and what they should be wearing. These are soft skills they have to experience firsthand to know.”

But programs like the executive internship, built on the same hands-on learning philosophy as the district’s CTE programs, also help students differentiate themselves in the competitive college pool. That’s what drew Jessica Lieu, a high achiever who moved back to Colorado after several years in Thailand and enrolled in a more traditional college-preparatory track at Columbine High School. Lieu wanted to both enhance her college prospects by boosting her résumé and dabble in the social-media and marketing fields before committing to getting a degree in communications. She settled on an executive internship.

In order to be eligible, Lieu had to maintain a 3.6 GPA, then go through a rigorous application process that required her to articulate her goals on video, obtain letters of recommendation from teachers and report her attendance record. The program only accepts 200 students from across Jeffco’s eighteen high schools each year, Usher says, and it turns away just as many. This represents a huge surge in interest from the 50 or 75 students participating when she first took over the program seven years ago.

The majority of executive-internship participants are college-bound, “but they don’t necessarily have to be,” says Usher. Once they’re in the program, she uses connections culled from 24 years of CTE instruction to place students with businesses and community organizations, which often see an early recruiting opportunity. For example, Lockheed Martin takes twelve students per year, in every department from engineering to accounting to human resources. “They hope these students come back and do an internship in college, and then work there when they’re done with school,” says Usher. “They’re investing in these students’ educations.”

Usher placed Lieu with Olsen at ACRES, where she spent many of her 100 hours tending to the farm’s social-media feeds. “I got to go to the Slow Food International conference, where I took photos,” Lieu says. Olsen also connected her with friends in the restaurant industry, who offered her their perspectives as she managed marketing for ACRES. By the end of the summer, she was writing and sending press releases to tout an upcoming farm dinner on September 17.

Lieu may stay on to help Olsen with outreach for future events, even though she’s fulfilled the time requirements of the program. The experience gave her a meaningful taste of the communications world. “I absolutely love doing this,” she says. “Josh has taught me so much about showing people who you are. The ACRES team, because of how genuine they are, make me want to pursue a career in this field.”

But more important, the experience fostered lessons that will serve Lieu no matter where she ends up. “I’m a very shy person,” she explains. “I got to open up more. I keep to myself, but after meeting and talking to people within the ACRES team and industry, I’ve become part of the team.”

This is the crux of how CTE has evolved in recent years, Usher says: “CTE is an avenue to careers for everyone — that’s where it’s changed. It’s about seeing what it is that a career field has to offer, and seeing all of it instead of one piece of it. CTE says, ‘This is what I’m good at, this is what I like, now I can find the career that fits with those things.’ It’s about seeing what you enjoy doing. It’s the best way of learning. I one-hundred-percent believe that, and so many more people now are realizing that.”

Sous-chef Joshua Olsen found greener pastures at ACRES.
Sous-chef Joshua Olsen found greener pastures at ACRES.
Jake Holschuh

Despite big strides made in CTE over the past few years, experts in the field insist this is only the beginning. But there are hurdles to overcome.

One of the biggest challenges is a statewide teacher shortage, which cuts both ways in career and technical education. “Colorado, like the rest of the U.S., hasn’t valued teachers; it’s a low-paying profession,” says Heath.
“What’s good for us with career and technical education is that these programs require industry experience, but they don’t require a teaching license. We do teacher training for free — the district can hire for technical skills and occupational expertise, and we help with classroom management and working with teens.” Still, professionals in high-paying fields must take a major pay cut to become educators, Usher notes, and few are willing to do so.

Another challenge is replicating programs like Jeffco’s in smaller districts or rural areas, Heath says. “There are 134 school districts in Colorado that have fewer than 1,000 kids in them,” she points out. “How can we provide the same access to resources and innovation when we don’t have employers to place kids with? The connection to business and industry is what makes this meaningful to students.” The state is attempting to surmount this obstacle by funding teacher externships, sending educators out to small community businesses whose proprietors may not have the time or resources to come to classrooms.

Even in Jeffco, where the shift in CTE thinking started long before the state made changes to how it grades high schools, and where there’s a robust system and network, educators are dealing with limitations. “I think we could open two more campuses and fill them,” says Glass. “That’s going to involve some facilities investment to make that happen. In the meantime, we need to look at how we might continue to expand partnerships with community colleges and with our partners in the business community to get kids in the field.” He’d also like to see CTE expand into entrepreneurial education, giving students an opportunity to catch startups in action or helping them launch their own small businesses before they graduate. And long before that point, he adds, “We need to be having a real conversation with every student about what they want to do, and then how we tailor to them the experiences they’re interested in for a great career.”

In support of those goals, Huffman wants to beef up the college credits awarded by Warren Tech’s programs and push for more overlap with business. “We do a lot of cooperative programs between the creative industries and manufacturing, and I’d like to see an enhancement,” he says. “Any time we do those kinds of projects, it’s even more real-world than what we’re already doing. And it excites students more and prepares them for next steps.”

Olsen’s prepared for ACRES to host a dedicated agriculture program of its own in a few years; in the meantime, he’s looking at ways to connect the farm with existing programs at Warren Tech. He’d like to see STEM kids be able to call on welders for project help, for instance, so he’s getting trained in welding himself. He obtained a Freight Farm — a vertical farm built in a shipping container — through a donation this year, and he wants to help students get it up and running. He’s working with college agricultural and hospitality students, toying with how to incubate upstart farmers until they can afford to secure their own plot of land. And he’d eventually like to supply the Jeffco school district with food: His hope is that ACRES produce eventually makes it into the lunchroom.
And as he explores all options, Olsen will continue to build out the farm. “You have to know what your priorities are,” he says. “I have to know what I really want to bring to Warren Tech this year.”

Because at the root of it all, he knows that showing students how to grow an idea could be the most valuable lesson of all. “I want to bring in how to be proactive, how to have an idea, how to create something from nothing,” he says. “I want to show them that if you don’t stop trying for your goals, you’re going to be successful.”

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