District 11 technical and college preparatory schools carry past lessons into new year

First seen in the Colorado Springs Independent

Young people are increasingly turning toward options not offered in traditional classrooms, allowing them to explore hands-on trades and focused career paths long before graduation. Colorado Springs School District 11’s Roy J. Wasson Academic Campus offers just such hands-on trade and college courses to its students. 

Odyssey Early College and Career Options (ECHO), part of the Wasson Academic Campus, is an early college preparatory school where students can opt into college courses and trades-related curriculum as an alternative to traditional classes. Depending on the pathway a student chooses, they could graduate from high school with an associate degree and multiple trade certifications, allowing them to enter the workforce immediately. 

The flexible and adaptive nature of technical education has uniquely situated it for a new school year beginning amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, according to Dan Hoff, executive director of learning at the Roy J. Wasson Academic Campus. 

“They’re so pliable and able to move on a dime; they’re prepared for this,” he says. The automotive pathway, for example, already had an online component and individual mechanical training. 

Odyssey ECHO was started in the fall of 2013 with eight graduating students and now has an enrollment of well over 300. About 250 students come from all over the city to participate in College for Technical Education (CTE) courses. Odyssey offers eight career pathways spanning from hospitality to horticulture to cybersecurity. The pathways offer technical training and college credit classes.  

“It is pretty unique to have those industry certifications and college credit and highly trained instructors and certified instructors in place,” Hoff says, adding that schools from all over Colorado come to see how Odyssey ECHO has built its curriculum. 

Hoff refers to Odyssey students as “explorers” who thrive in hands-on learning environments, adding they are able to chart their own educational path through high school.

“Traditional education is archaic. And if we’ve learned anything, remote [and] hybrid [learning] and flexibility in scheduling and [students] being able to chart their interests makes education more relevant,” he says. “They will rise to the rigor and they will surprise you. They will work hard if given some choice and voice in their pathway.” 

Sean Norman, principal of Odyssey ECHO, says, “We have to actually quit treating these as alternatives and treat these as career options in addition to pursuing the traditional high school track.” 

On any given day last school year, students could be taking classes at Pikes Peak Community College, changing tires, cooking, doing graphic design, blocking cyberhacks on a simulated server or learning to identify plants in a greenhouse. 

At the end of the day, we serve students. They’re our customers.”

 Sean Norman, ODYSSEY ECHO principal

The Horticulture & Landscape Technologies pathway is taught by Dr. James Owino. It offers two college courses in environmental and soil science and partners with Future Farmers of America, an intracurricular student organization for those interested in agriculture and leadership. Each pathway at Odyssey is partnered with a national career or technical student organization. 

Students who complete this pathway are prepared to work for landscaping companies. They learn tree care, pruning, soil management, watering, fertilization, pest management and sprinkler system repair — and graduate with a Landscape Maintenance Technician certification. Starting next semester, the pathway will offer training in hydroponics. 

There isn’t currently an industry partner for the horticulture pathway at Odyssey ECHO, but Norman says the school is looking for businesses specializing in operating greenhouses, growing with hydroponics and indoor cultivation chemistry. 

The fastest-growing sector at Odyssey ECHO is its Cybersecurity and Information Technology pathway. The campus offers one of the best cybersecurity labs in the region, according to Norman. Students who chose this pathway have walked into jobs paying $40,000 to $60,000 a year. The program partners with the locally based National Cybersecurity Center. 

One of Norman’s favorite classes to visit is hospitality because he gets to sample all the food, he says. But due to COVID-19, the school has moved much of its learning online and will gradually begin in-person labs on the campus when it is safe. 

Norman says that past educated risks, such as allowing some students to take courses remotely before the pandemic, have allowed the campus to quickly adapt to this school year. The program was, after all, founded to find solutions to traditional education’s limitations.

“It was borne out of the idea [that] we have to offer something innovative because what we are doing right now inside the system doesn’t seem to be serving kids’ needs,” Norman says. 

The campus will be using web conferencing and recorded classes, and online office hours will allow for one-on-one tutoring with students. 

“There’s something important about even if you are a box on a screen, [that] at least they can see your face. At least I get to hear your voice. We know that relationships are going to be huge for students buying in to this new experience,” Norman says.

All 28 teachers at Odyssey ECHO called their students before school started this Monday to touch base. That means every student received eight separate calls.

“This is a new headspace for every instructor. For many of them that are veteran teachers, this might feel akin to their first year of school because they’ve never had to teach in this modality,” Norman says. But the staff is committed to making the year work despite new challenges.

“We have to because that’s what we do,” Norman says. “At the end of the day, we serve students. They’re our customers.”