The 165 ninth-graders who head to the STEAD campus for their first year of high school in the fall of 2021 won’t find a list of daily courses timed by bells, or classrooms stuffed with desks. Instead, they’ll be greeted by farmland, barn-like structures housing laboratories, and a team of teaching professionals ready to guide them through various hands-on projects involving food science, farming, water and sustainability, all while encouraging them to consider how traditional subjects like math and chemistry might apply to real-life conundrums about the future of agriculture. The students might start growing something in an aquaponics laboratory, then plant the same crop outside for comparison. They might work with Leprino Foods in a science lab. Or they might gather classmates with overlapping but disparate research interests to set up an experiment on how to make crops more drought-resistant.
STEAD students will graduate with a high school diploma, but their high school years will be different from those of any other students in the state: They’ll sign on for a full-scale agriculture-based educational experience, one combining career and technical education with experiential, project-based learning. Students will focus on a career track — STEAD will offer four pathways, including food science, animal science, plant science and environmental science — with activities geared toward helping them move into their chosen field after graduation, whether through apprenticeships, concurrently earned associates’ degrees, or preparation for a four-year college program.
“A lot of schools have ag programs,” says Kelly Leid, executive vice president of community operations at Oakwood Homes and one of the leaders of the STEAD school initiative (along with Amy Schwartz, executive director of the BuildStrong Education foundation). “This is the first school that’s starting with agriculture from the ground up. It’s like Google in a barn, with a focus on collaboration and innovation.”
Leid, who was once director of operations for Denver Public Schools and spent his first stint at Oakwood overseeing the developer’s education initiatives, began exploring the concept behind STEAD when he was part of the group strategizing the redevelopment of the National Western Complex. “One of the many ideas we thought about was, what would it look like to have a high school on site?” he recalls. The idea wasn’t that out there: Colorado State University soon signed on to the project, identifying it as part of the state’s agricultural innovation triangle.
“In 2050, there are going to be nine billion people on the planet,” says Leid. “We don’t have the capacity to grow the food sources to feed that many people. What would it look like to have a generation of kids immersed in next-generation agriculture? We could create a high school that anchors kids in the history of the state and the West — farming, ranching, agriculture. There’s this idea of Colorado being entrepreneurial and innovative; we’d be growing future generations of kids to solve problems around food, energy and natural resources.”
Ultimately, the school plan was nixed, but when Leid left the city to return to Oakwood to work on the Reunion development, he took the idea with him. And Reunion — which also happens to lie within that agricultural innovation triangle — gave him the chance to realize that plan.
Located about ten miles from Denver International Airport, not far from the junction of E-470 and I-76, Reunion is a Commerce City community rising from the dust of what was once a 40,000-acre farm. Right now it looks like many of the master-planned communities sprawling ever farther onto the plains, with single-family homes, manicured lawns and a central park, where green space hugs a pair of small lakes. But Oakwood, which took over the development of Reunion from Shea Homes in 2017, has bigger plans for this spot: It’s building an actual town. The city center will boast a performing arts complex and library, in addition to retail space and a food hall called the Grange.
And this town will have an industry: Reunion’s proximity to the airport makes it an ideal place to become a year-round national sports tourism destination with a focus on competitive youth sports, Leid explains, getting a piece of a multibillion-dollar industry. Oakwood’s vision includes an ice house, a field house and tournament complexes, plus restaurants, entertainment options and hotels that will cater to visiting athletes and their families. Adult teams and youth rec leagues will be able to use these facilities when they’re not in play for a tournament, and the developers thought they could also be used by a high school.
Why not an agricultural high school? Leid wondered. And so the STEAD — which stands for science, technology, environment, agriculture and design — School at Reunion was born.
As Leid and his team set up STEAD, they’re looking to other high schools that employ a project-based learning approach to engage kids in technological innovation (High Tech High in California, for example, which reimagined school as a place to pursue big questions and looks more like a technology campus than a high school), as well as schools that use agriculture as a base for a more career-oriented education. But as far as they can tell, project-based learning has never been applied quite this way at an agricultural school — and certainly never in Colorado.
“This is a very unique delivery system,” says Michael Womochil, program director of Agriculture, Energy and Natural Resources and Career and Technical Education in the Colorado Community College System, who’s working closely with STEAD planners to make sure the school meets educational requirements. “Traditional CTE is very hands-on, but it’s still taught in isolation of other topics. You have an agriculture course, and then a math course and science course later on in the day. In this, the content of that ag course and the content of the science course are embedded in a common project, so there’s much more synergy of learning. Students are learning the science and the technical agriculture, and they’re applying communications and math. It’s traditional project-based learning on steroids.”
The real difference, explains Candace Cheung, a project-based learning educational consultant at Cheung Collaborative who’s helping build out the curriculum, lies in the scheduling. “In a traditional environment...students are on a bell schedule,” she says. “They have seven periods throughout the day, and they’re going to those classes every day. Even if there is a project, the way it’s being delivered, it’s broken up in reference to time — and over a semester. In [the project-based learning] model, the annual, semester and daily experiences look very different. Students will come into the classroom for a period of time over two and a half hours with a co-teaching team, where they’ll be working independently or receiving direct instruction. Classes operate within a six-week block instead of a whole semester.
STEAD’s crowning feature will be the Collaborative Agribusiness Lab, or CAL, “an intentionally designed space for students to be innovative and explore,” Cheung says. “If they’re working on guiding questions around world hunger and they’re studying food sciences, this will be a space that provides resources, space [and] materials to create things and develop experiments around a hypothesis.”
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CAL will give students the chance to collaborate not just with other students, but with the agriculture business community, too, Leid says: “This is learning made real.” Community partners signed on for the project include CSU, Future Farmers of America and Denver Botanic Gardens, which are all involved with aspects of the curriculum, from sustainability considerations to key career considerations.
STEAD organizers are now pulling together their application for a charter school in the Adams 27-J district; they went that route because it offered greater flexibility for the non-traditional elements of their vision. Once the application is approved, the first building slated for construction is CAL; Leid plans to christen it with a community barn-raising. Just over two years from now, Leid says, the school should open with CAL, a soils lab, a green lab and a half-acre farm; buildings will be added as enrollment grows.
As for that enrollment, “We want it to look demographically like the rest of the district,” says Leid. “We feel strongly that we need to be equitable.” Because it will be a small school, he suspects STEAD will have to operate on some sort of lottery system. Adams 27-J has plans to build its own high school in the area, although the timing is uncertain; current public high schoolers funnel into Prairie View High School, located about five miles west.
But STEAD will have room to grow as it offers an agricultural education for the future. “We’re talking about addressing a clash of real issues — energy, natural resources, food sustainability, food deserts, big social issues,” he says. “These are big social and physical issues that we have to solve. How do we prepare kids to do that in a science-based environment? They could be solving big problems at sixteen, seventeen, eighteen. Age should not be a constraint.”