STEAD charter school in Commerce City focuses on agriculture

On the eastern edge of the growing metro area is a school dedicated to agriculture, a tradition once as prevalent in the area as today’s crop of new houses.

A large, barn-like building in the Reunion development in Commerce City is a present-day link to the agricultural past. Inside the building, the new STEAD charter school, which stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, Agriculture and Systems Design, is focused on the future of agriculture.

The high school, which opened for business at the end of August, stresses hands-on learning. Students work on projects across several different subject areas with the goal of fostering awareness of the connections between our food, science, the environment and the economy that aren’t always apparent to people who haven’t spent time on farms and ranches.

“Agriculture is a huge industry in Colorado. It’s an industry that needs more labor, like most,” said Amy Schwartz, the school’s co-founder and president of the governing board.

Agriculture contributes $47 billion annually to the state’s economy and supports 195,000 jobs, according to the Colorado Department of Agriculture.

And the industry is more complex than people’s perception of someone in overalls and driving a John Deere tractor, Schwartz said. Advances in science, technology and public policy are more important as feeding people in environmentally sustainable ways becomes more challenging.

“We still have to feed however many billion people there are on this planet and do that equitably,” Schwartz said.

The STEAD school’s 10-acre campus is rooted in the metro area’s agricultural legacy. The property was donated by Cal Fulenwider III, chairman and CEO of L.C. Fulenwider Inc., and was part of land farmed by Fulenwider’s grandfather in the early 1900s.

Fulenwider partnered with BuildStrong Education, a private foundation started by Pat Hamill, president and CEO of Oakwood Homes, the builder at Reunion. Schwartz is BuildStrong’s executive director.

Kelly Leid, the school’s co-founder and vice president of the governing board, said in a 2020 interview that the name STEAD was meant to evoke the idea of a homestead and the area’s farming heritage.

The school’s inaugural class of 156 students are all ninth-graders. More students are expected to transfer to STEAD in December. The school will add a grade every year and the anticipated full capacity is 700 students.

Because of construction delays, STEAD students started their classes at a Boys & Girls Club in Commerce City. Work has started on a greenhouse. At full build-out, the campus will include three 14,000-square-foot school buildings; a 20,000-square-foot building with a gymnasium and cafeteria; a 1-acre farm; and various other structures, including one for animals and a soils and seeds lab.

Chickens and bees

Bee hives were an early addition. Students who chose beekeeping as an elective have learned how to extract honey and wax. Chickens and other animals will soon take up residence.

“It’s really cool,” 14-year-old Chelsea Thompson said about beekeeping. “We go out every week to the hives and we inspect them by ourselves and we all work together.”

Students are designing labels for the honey to sell it at a stand in the spring.

Thompson isn’t as enthusiastic about the prospect of chickens coming to the school to roost.

“I do not like chickens. They gross me out and they’re weird,” Thompson said.

“That’s how I feel about bees. They scare me,” said Camila Hernandez, 14.

But Hernandez is onboard with the STEAD school after initially resisting.

“Being completely honest, at the beginning I did not want to come because it looked like a farming school. I was like ‘Mom and Dad, all my friends are going to this (other) school and I want to be with them,’ ” she said.

A few months later, Hernandez said she “really, really” likes it at STEAD. “I like the fact that everything is hands-on, the fact that we work in classrooms that aren’t just in rows. We all get to see each other and talk.”

Classrooms at STEAD are different, and so are the classes, said Kevin Denton, the principal who is also identified as “lead learner” on the school website. The teachers are called “guides.”

The classrooms are big and busy. Social studies, English and math classes might share the same space. On a recent visit, students were talking to the guide or to each other. Or they were hunched over laptops or paers at a table. Whatever the subject, the students’ goal is the same for this period: to solve the mystery of where our  food comes from.

In English, students are writing about food. In social studies, they’re working on a cookbook to learn about the cultural and historical value of a specific spice. Students are creating their own spice.

“They’re looking at food science, processes and products,” Denton said.

The project will wrap up soon with an exhibition night attended by parents and guests. Next up will be the animal-science pathway. The students will devote a month to delving deeply into the subject. They’ll spend time at the National Western Stock Show in January.

All the students participate in the agricultural career and technical education program, which Denton said is unusual. “Career and technical education is often sort of a separate program within a high school that a few kids take part in.”

But at STEAD, the career and technical program is fused with general academics, Denton said. “There aren’t really any schools that are doing that at this level.”

The school’s project-based approach relies on collaboration and interdisciplinary learning. Hence the big, open rooms where it’s hard to tell where one class ends and the other begins. Individual class sizes range from 15 to about 20.

“That’s what makes this kind of education really difficult. When you integrate, that means you can’t have just one teacher making decisions about what they want to do for the rest of the semester,” Denton said.

Finding teachers, aka guides, who fit in isn’t easy, Denton added. “You have to be willing to teach a class in the same space with other content areas and be wanting to do that and figuring out how to cross over.”

Half of STEAD’s guides are from other states. Amie Weldy and her husband, Christian Holmes, are most recently from Colombia.

“I actually moved from South America to Denver just to work here at STEAD,” said Weldy, a science guide.

She and her husband were working at an international STEM school, focused on science, technology, engineering and math. They were looking at schools across the U.S. that use project-based learning.

“This one was really the most innovative,” Weldy said. “I think we had a lot of applicants, so it’s really exciting to be on the ground floor of the founding team.”

Less talk, more action

Erick Torres, 15, and Grant Johnson, 14, both like the emphasis on hand-ons work rather than lectures.

“I’m not getting a lecture for an hour and then going home and having a bunch of homework. I get a little bit of talking to but not as much as a normal school. I do most of my work in class,” Johnson said.

Torres said he saw STEAD as an opportunity to try something new.

“Here it’s less talking and more of you learning and finding a way to understand more,” Torres said. “They’re always up to helping us in a way that we can understand.”

Thompson, one of the beekeepers, said she has a hard time working in a more traditional school setting and took classes online the past two years.

Hernandez said she was concerned about attending STEAD because there aren’t a lot of Latinos in the community, but discovered there is diversity at the school.

Denton said the school meets the demographic averages of the rest of the high schools in the Brighton School District 27J. He said the enrollment is nearly evenly split between white and non-white students and the school exceeds the average for special education students.

Most of the students don’t come from a farming or ranching background. And that’s just fine, said social studies guide Lani Ingram.

“I grew up on a fifth-generation family farm. I’ve always valued agriculture,” Ingram said. “To see it in more of an urban setting, where a lot of these students haven’t grown up with agriculture, I thought was really interesting.”

Ingram believes it’s important that city dwellers understand and appreciate agriculture.

“We all are global citizens that live on this planet. These  students are going to find ways to make living here sustainable, whether that’s through food production or energy or the environment,” Ingram said. “So, they’re really shaping and changing the world through the education that they’re going to learn here.”

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