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Many teens are rethinking college. This 87-acre campus near Colorado Springs wants to help them find careers without it.

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EL PASO COUNTY — Across 87 acres of sprawling fields near Colorado Springs, a group of Colorado superintendents is setting out to revive schooling in the trades and expand students’ options beyond college — preparing them for jobs in industries battling steep workforce shortages and even training kids interested in construction to one day build affordable teacher housing close by.

It’s all part of a plan that education leaders who belong to the Pikes Peak Board of Cooperative Educational Services have been dreaming up for the past four years, motivated by a resurgence in career and technical education, or CTE, and a growing need for skilled employees among local companies.

The Pikes Peak BOCES — which provides support, staffing and resources to nine rural districts and 12 bigger districts and other school agencies — is in the early stages of creating what it calls the Pikes Peak BOCES Education Park. It will be a kind of CTE campus where regional students will have new opportunities to explore what it takes to pursue well-paying careers in a range of fields that don’t require a college degree: construction trades, firefighting, veterinary training, food services and culinary arts, cybersecurity, horticulture Science, meat Sciences and medical services.

Pikes Peak BOCES Executive Director Pat Bershinsky secures a gate on land he hopes to turn into an education business park in El Paso County just east of Colorado Springs Jan. 24, 2024. The park would become a hub for career and technical education training, teaching students skills in construction, cybersecurity, 911 dispatching and other in-demand fields. (Mark Reis, Special to The Colorado Sun)

The budding CTE hub helps answer one thorny question weighing on districts, students and business owners: What will it take to build up the state’s future pipeline of workers and connect kids with meaningful careers?

“The pendulum is starting to shift in Colorado to the point that our kids, especially our rural kids, are saying, ‘Hey, college isn’t really working for me,’” said Pat Bershinsky, executive director of the Pikes Peak BOCES.

He noted that more parents are also steering their kids toward vocational careers and certification programs.

“I think it’s prime for us to do something like this,” Bershinsky said.

The central CTE park will give rural school districts a better footing to expand the kinds of programs they can offer their students, particularly as smaller remote districts often struggle to find qualified CTE teachers willing to instruct students — teachers whom Bershinsky calls “unicorns.” Those same districts also tend to have a hard time piecing together the funding needed for extra CTE programs, he said.

The park will allow districts to share CTE teachers and pool their funding at a time “there’s just this huge need, especially on the backside of COVID, for skilled workers,” he said.

Bershinsky kick-started the project by purchasing 87 acres with $870,000 the BOCES gained after selling a school building back to Calhan School District RJ-1 and also securing a $2 million Rural Coaction Program grant distributed by the Colorado Department of Education. Those funds have helped set planning in motion, including by sending superintendents to scout out vocational facilities in Cherry Creek as well as Las Vegas and Stillwater, Oklahoma, by hiring architects to design an initial layout for the park and by conducting water studies.

Bershinsky hopes to break ground on the park sometime early next year, focusing first on a centralized water facility and one building that would house construction trades along with a 911 dispatch training center and a cybersecurity training center. The cost for the initial infrastructure, water facility and first building is an estimated $14 million.

PDF: Site plan for Pikes Peak Boces Education Park

This site plan for the Pikes Peak BOCES Education Park — which education leaders hope to break ground on early next year — shows the variety of industries students could explore on the campus, including construction trades, firefighting, food services and culinary arts, and cybersecurity. (Provided by the Pikes Peak BOCES)

Bringing the campus to life will require more money, which is why Bershinsky said he plans to apply for an Opportunity Now Colorado grant through a state program that helps fund the rollout and expansion of workforce development initiatives.

He has also pinpointed another potential revenue stream: selling water from the park’s centralized water facility to a nearby 400-home development awaiting construction.

He’s eager to get shovels into the ground.

“Every year that passes that we can’t (start building),” Bershinsky said, “we’re just missing another group of seniors that could benefit.”

Workforce shortages are only worsening but perceptions of CTE careers are changing

For now, districts that are part of the Pikes Peak BOCES are starting to scale up their own CTE programs that will eventually feed into the education park. Ellicott School District 22 earlier this school year partnered with a local union of plumbers, pipefitters and HVAC technicians to introduce a pre-apprenticeship program through which students can learn plumbing, sheet metal fabrication and welding skills. 

Meanwhile, high schoolers from a handful of Colorado Springs-area districts have begun learning how to answer emergency phone calls while studying how to become 911 dispatchers. 

And in August, Miami-Yoder School District 60-JT — a district of more than 400 students in preschool through 12th grade in Rush — will launch a program instructing kids how to operate heavy equipment, starting them on a four-year apprenticeship so that they can knock out one year while still in high school.

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