Project Called “Game Changer” For District; Program Planning Stems Back to COVID Disaster
Photos By Cindy Valade
A tragic pandemic, coupled with devastating closures and brutal times for local parents and students, may have actually provided the emergency spark for change, forcing educators in the Cripple Creek/Victor RE-1 School District to think outside the box in a major way.
The end result of countless planning sessions, and a big financial boost from the state, turned into a district project that few believed possible during the peak of the COVID-19 epidemic: an official CC-V Building Trades Mini-Factory, commonly known as its construction and trades school.
Last week, in an emotional ceremony, the district celebrated a nearly three-year dream when the ribbon was cut on the district’s 7,500 square-foot trades and vocational school, aimed at offering students a tangible alternative to traditional education, and a way to advance in growing employment fields. The facility will offer opportunities for students, who want to get trained in culinary arts, construction, home building, plumbing and electrical work, woodshop trades, fire safety and management, greenhouse and agriculture specialties and more. The facility, which really got its genesis from a nearly $1.5 million grant from the state, represents one of the more unique programs ever developed in a school district in the Pikes Peak region. The grant funded all of the associated program costs to get the effort off the ground.
After the grant was landed, the program and new facility evolved into a cooperative effort among a variety of funders, including Newmont Mining, the city of Cripple Creek, the Colorado Springs Health Foundation, El Pomar Foundation, Gates Family Foundation and Myron Stratton Home, just to name a few.
Although many doubted the district’s ability to put the entire deal together, last week the new trades’ facility was heralded as one of the schools’ more astounding accomplishments in recent years. Last week’s ceremony featured short speeches from key leaders, and then culminated with a formal blessing of the project by the Seven Falls Indian Dancers, who did a variety of Native American ceremonies, one of which involved the entire room of participants. They are a family troupe of dancers, representing four generations, and have performed before national leaders and at many local functions.
“This is a game-changer for our district,” said RE-1 Superintendent Miriam Mondragon, in addressing participants at last week’s ceremony. “It is about you.”
The superintendent told a large crowd of project supporters and civic leaders that the idea was actually formulated during the peak of the COVID epidemic in the summer of 2020, when the district was essentially shut down and leaders wanted to come up with alternative plans. “We knew we had to do something,” said Mondragon. And with the help of the state’s RISE grant, which gave the project a $1.49 million push in early 2021, the dream started to gain a dose of definite reality.
Vocational education has always been an enticing goal for students and families in the RE-1 District, many of whom are suffering from tough financial times and a traditional college education is out of their reach. “This is what our community needs,” said high school principle Dan Cummings. “We value project-based learning,” said Cummings.
A Community Savior
Mary Bielz, a long-time educator and civic leader and president of the school board, went further and described the facility and trades/vocational program as a community savior. “This equates to a (hospital) emergency room. It is our ER,” said Bielz, who displayed her normal enthusiasm for projects that benefit the RE-1 District.
More importantly, she described the construction and trades school as a way to propel the district out of a dire state of financial hardships, opening a big door for student opportunities.
“It is about jobs. It is jobs that bring people out of poverty,” said Bielz.
Bielz cited some dire statistics regarding the financial realities facing many families in the Cripple Creek/Victor area, and sees the facility as a way to chance this scenario, with occupational careers that provide good opportunities.
“We need to rectify this,” said Bielz. She believes the district’s construction and trades program will allow students to get involved in high-paying careers and to become small business entrepreneurs themselves, running such endeavors as plumbing, electric, construction and home-building companies, as well as culinary and agricultural operations. In turn, these future business owners will benefit the local community.
The board president cited the strong support for the construction and trades movement in the district and ultimately notes that it will result in providing a slew of affordable homes, with students crafting manufactured homes at the facility site. “We are change agents,” said Bielz, who believes the program could become an unprecedented model to follow. “We are united in purpose and mind.”
Several local students also lauded the program, saying they wanted to get involved in the construction industry.
The facility still has to undergo some final touches in the next few weeks, and is bracing for its debut year during the beginning of the fall term.
Annie Durham, the CTE director of the Cripple Creek/Victor school district, said this program is available for students from the 6th to 12th grades, as a regular elective. “It is so rewarding for these students,” said Durham. As an added advantage, Durham says students get to see the tangible results of their work, a fact that sometimes isn’t present in more traditional education subjects. She said the program also will do a lot of service-related efforts throughout the community, especially in the area of fire safety.
The new facility also offers a large, spacious and scenic classroom area, a sun room and area for greenhouse opportunities. The facility may even offer a farmers’ market-type setup.
But with all new programs, money is a key hurdle to overcome. The big fiscal gap is continuing the funding stream to keep the program functional on an annual basis. The program education costs at the facility are estimated at about $300,00 to $500,000 a year, according to the superintendent.
As a result, the district leaders may ask the residents of RE-1 for a slight mill levy hike.
These details, though, haven’t been formalized.