A Field Trip to SVVSD's Career Development Center

As most of my readers know, there are few things I love more than field trips. Education policy is great, interesting stuff, but it sometimes becomes too easy to lose oneself in the spreadsheets and numbers and studies and… you get the point. But education is about kids, not statistics or esoteric policy arguments. That’s why it’s so important for us edu-wonks to get out there and see education in action—especially in places where districts are forging ahead on paths designed to provide more options to their students.

With all that in mind, I took a very cool field trip this week to St. Vrain Valley School District’s Career Development Center (CDC) in Longmont. If that sounds familiar to those of you who follow the work of the Independence Institute Education Policy Center, it’s because my policy friend Ross Izard mentioned the center in “Altering Courses,” his most recent private school profile. The profile takes a look at Crossroads School in Longmont, an alternative private school that serves kids who haven’t been able to find a good educational fit anywhere else. Crossroads has an agreement with St. Vrain under which its students can attend classes at the CDC. Very cool.

I knew St. Vrain’s CDC was going to be impressive, but I wasn’t fully prepared for the number of options it provides to students. The place is positively stuffed with programs for kids who may not be interested in going the college route right after high school. Check out the list of classes on offer:


Automotive Technology


Culinary Arts & Training

Dental Assisting

Engineering Technology & Machining

Floral Design

Health Sciences

Horticulture (Greenhouse Management)


Welding and Fabrication

Whoa! Talk about options! And these aren’t just normal elective options, either. They’re full-blown training courses. Kids aren’t just sitting in classrooms learning about their chosen fields from textbooks (though there is some of that). Instead, they’re rolling up their sleeves and getting real, hands-on experience.

During my visit to the CDC, I saw students practicing fancy hairstyling techniques on mannequins in a full-size hair salon—a hair salon that also serves real people from the community. Each of the students who successfully completes the program will be ready to “sit for boards,” which is a necessary hurdle to clear for anyone who wants to be a hair stylist.

I also saw students fabricating and welding in a full workshop, using computer programs and very complicated machines to make everything from chess sets to metal logos, and working on dozens of donated cars in a real auto shop that includes uniforms and the requirement that students “punch” in and out on a timeclock. And that wasn’t all. The CDC also has a mock farm and a greenhouse that allows students interested in agriculture or horticulture to practice their crafts, a floral design studio where students make arrangements the community can purchase as well as boutonnieres for student prom, and a full-service kitchen where students prepare food that is often used to cater events for community groups in Longmont.

But by far the most interesting—and creepiest—part of the visit was the medical wing. There, I saw aspiring nurses practice taking care of bedridden patients. Sometimes these patients are other nursing students. At other times, they practice their future craft on a distressingly lifelike mannequin with black toes from diabetes, open lesions on his legs, and the ability to cry out in pain, wheeze, and groan. If that’s not enough to give them a taste of their future careers, they can practice delivering babies on a mannequin that can, as I understand it, actually give birth. Thankfully, that particular mannequin wasn’t part of the tour. I’m far too young to see that sort of thing.

Also in the medical area was a mock dentist’s office for students interested in going into the toothier side of the medical world. These students practice basic dental skills on each other and, in cases where someone might get hurt, a dental dummy whose mouth is locked open in a perpetual primal scream that roughly captures my general mood at most dental appointments.

Needless to say, I found all this rather impressive. But I didn’t just enjoy St. Vrain’s CDC because it’s fun to see students working on stuff they love. I enjoyed it because I think all of it—from welding practice to horticulture experience to medical training—is just more educational choice.

School choice is great, and every student should be able to attend a school that works for him or her. But there’s so much more to educational choice than simply picking a school. We can go much, much further down that road by allowing students and parents to customize and steer their educational experiences to align with their goals, interests, and aspirations at the course and program level. The CDC is doing precisely that, and helping students develop the skills they need to build happy, independent, successful lives.

And it doesn’t get any better than that.