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A Model for Public Education: Don Haddad

For St. Vrain Valley School District Superintendent Don Haddad, public education is the key to advancing communities, states and the nation.

There’s a well-known phrase that echoes along the corridors of St. Vrain Valley School District and, fittingly, it’s from a writer widely considered the father of American literature.

“There’s a quote we talk about a lot,” explains Superintendent Don Haddad. “And that’s Mark Twain’s ‘Out of the public school grows the greatness of a nation’.”

Twain may have proclaimed this in 1900 but, as Haddad knows, it still rings true today.

“Our economy is dependent on our public schools, as is our national security. Property values, the service industry that we all experience every day, our workforce pipeline is as well,” he says.

“Our democracy is dependent on public schools.”

“Our democracy is dependent on public schools.”

It’s time, he argues, that the nation starts to see public schools from a different angle and understand the “absolute symbiotic relationship” between the success of its public schools and the success of the country.

“All of these things that we do are so much bigger than kids coming to school to pass a test. Our world is anything but standardized and the needs of our country are anything but standardized,” he says.

“We have to be developing critical thinkers and problem solvers, and understanding the advancement of technology.”

An Inflection Point

Across the country, the St. Vrain model has become an example for others to follow. The seventh-largest school district in Colorado, home to 60 schools and approximately 33,000 students, St. Vrain has undergone an intense period of transformation since Haddad, a career educator, assumed his role in 2009.

“As I was getting ready to become the superintendent, I saw the landscape changing,” he explains.

A large part of this was due to an influx of new technology. Apple had just released the iPhone, social media had exploded onto the scene with the launch of Facebook and Twitter and IBM had launched its AI platform Watson, among others.

“We were experiencing an inflection point,” he says. “Our world was changing dramatically due to advanced technology, so we needed to restructure the educational system we were offering our kids.”

A shift was made away from traditional rote learning toward state-of-the-art classrooms where innovation, technology and creative thinking were brought to the fore.

“Our world was changing dramatically due to advanced technology, so we needed to restructure the educational system we were offering our kids.”

Across the district’s schools, more than 70 different focus programs have been rolled out, all emphasizing innovation and design thinking and preparing students for a rapidly advancing world.

Some schools have become science, technology, engineering and mathematics hubs, with particular emphasis on choices such as computer information systems, cybersecurity, biochemistry and business across four Pathways in Technology Early College High School programs.

“These two-year programs provide students with the opportunity to earn their associate degree alongside their high school diploma at no cost to the student,” he explains.

Internships with business partners, including IBM, CGI, ANM, Agilent Technologies, AGC Biologics, KBI Biopharma and Corden Pharma, are part of the hands-on opportunities these pathways open up to students.

Beside traditional academic programs and its internship opportunities, Haddad explains that apprenticeships are also coming to the fore.

“We’re building out a Northern Colorado apprenticeship hub that will provide opportunities for students to further their academic and workforce experiences,” he says.

The aim is that these students will enter jobs in fields such as the advanced manufacturing space with good salaries right out of high school.

“That’s part of the evolution of a 21st and 22nd-century school district.”

The Competitive Edge

Today, St. Vrain is a model system held up as an example across the United States and beyond. “We’ve been identified as one of the top school districts in the state and in the country,” he explains.

Haddad and his colleagues are frequently asked to speak at conferences across the United States, and the district has even been the subject of a LEGO Foundation documentary.

This evolution has been made possible because, under Haddad, St. Vrain was able to pass its first-ever mill levy override, which is a voter-approved measure to unlock funding for local schools.

Haddad explains that the key to achieving such an important result was in demonstrating how the school district is a value-add to the community instead of the community being asked to add value to the schools.

“We built trust and talked to them about developing a strong competitive advantage in a highly complex and competitive global environment, different from anything we’ve ever seen,” he explains.

Since then, an additional mill levy override and three bonds have injected more than US$1 billion over and above regular state and federal funding. The school district has also been honored with the Certificate of Excellence in Financial Reporting by the Association of School Business Officials International for 19 consecutive years.

Haddad says this highlights an enduring commitment to financial excellence, transparency and responsible stewardship of public funds. And this strong fiscal standing allows him to be proactive in future planning.

“We’re working with names like IBM, Apple, Cisco, Toyota and Lockheed Martin and are planning to engage with AI, cybersecurity and virtual and augmented reality, on top of our strong academic and co-curricular core,” he explains.

In 2024, Haddad hopes voters will pass an additional bond to build more schools and double the size of its 5,000-square-meter innovation center, as the district looks to grow its capacity to 75,000 students.

In Robust Health

Much of St. Vrain’s success also comes from viewing itself not only as a strong educational institution, but also as a strong business.

“Our business is the largest in our geographic area, which surprises people,” he says. “We have 5,500 employees, US$6 billion worth of assets, and more than US$1 billion in budget.”

It’s a positioning, he says, that enables the district to adapt to change, establish long-term partnerships and cultivate strong community support.

“We’ve been identified as one of the top school districts in the state and in the country.”

And looking forward, the future is bright.

“Our relationships are very strong, our partnerships are very strong, our reputation is very strong. Our community sees our school system as one of their greatest assets,” he says.

“Of course, they expect us to deliver. And, as evidenced by our graduation rates, test scores and growth, we are.”

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