Navigator Blog

East meets West at the intersection of innovation and transformation

November 2, 2023

EdLeader21 members enjoyed a virtual tour of the Durango School District 9-R in Southwestern Colorado

When the free spirit of the American West is paired with a Far Eastern philosophy of purpose, a truly unique and rich learning environment can result.

That’s what more than 80 members of the Battelle for Kids’ EdLeader21 Network learned as they virtually toured Durango School District 9-R in Colorado recently and heard from students and educators how they are making their Portrait of a Graduate come to life.

Situated across about 1,100 square miles of the San Juan Mountains in southwestern Colorado, District 9-R rests in the heart of the former “Wild West,” a place of “somewhat radical autonomy,” according to Dylan Connell, the district’s chief academic officer.

That attitude of openness is overlaid with the district’s desire for every student to find their Ikigai, their life’s intersection of what they love to do, what they’re good at, what the world needs, and what they can be paid for doing.

District 9-R serves more than 4,300 students in grades PreK-12 across 11 schools. The district has a distinct international diversity with 29 different languages spoken in the homes of its students, in addition to 31 Native American tribes.

After launching its Portrait of a Graduate in May 2022, the district developed success criteria for all six competencies: Courageous leader, creative problem-solver, confident communicator, agile thinker, empathetic collaborator, and resilient risk-taker.

But instead of immediately diving deep into implementation the first year, the district chose to put celebrations first, celebrating the shifts and iterations toward the full Portrait.

On the virtual tour hosted by Battelle for Kids on Oct. 25, Superintendent Karen Cheser, Ed.D. introduced visitors to three divergent areas of the district’s programming, all very different but which nevertheless provide opportunities for deeper learning and collaboration for both children and staff.

Impact Career Innovation Center at the Durango School District 9-R in Colorado
Impact Career Innovation Center at the Durango School District 9-R in Colorado. (Courtesy: Durango School District 9-R)

Impact Career Innovation Center

With just $10 million raised from a bond issue approved in 2020, Cheser said the district had to balance the desire for a forward-looking career exploration space with financial restrictions. But, as she said, “Out of constraints comes beauty.”

Durango brought students into the design process, where they could help vision and budget, ideate and prototype, and where they ultimately helped shape not an adult- or even program-focused facility, but a student-focused learning environment supporting 14 separate career pathways.

In addition, Durango decided to “renovate to innovate” existing classrooms. In fact, during the virtual tour, visitors saw a computer lab that had been converted to a simulated health clinic, with industry-grade equipment like examination tables.

“It mimics the hospital and clinic setting, and students have the space to practice their skills repetitively,” teacher Kyle Montgomery explained. “So when they get into an internship shadowing clinicians, it’s not the first time they have ever attempted these skills.”

Career Technical Education Coordinator Kricket Lewis told visitors that Durango works hard to keep the career curriculum relevant, and values its partnerships with local businesses.

“Our instructors came from the business world, and every pathway has an advisory committee of members of the public in that industry,” she said. “We work to keep the curriculum relevant, modern, and changing, just like our changing world.”

Students at the SOIL outdoor learning lab in the Durango School District 9-R in Colorado.
Students at the SOIL outdoor learning lab in the Durango School District 9-R in Colorado.


The SOIL Lab (Sustainable Outdoor Innovation Lab) is a multi-dimensional outdoor learning space and a model of community and school district partnership led by Charlie Love, a former science teacher at Durango’s Riverview Elementary School and an instructional specialist focusing on sustainability.

When a nearby community garden was scheduled to close after 10 years of serving as an outdoor classroom for the school, there was a strong desire to expand upon and continue what had been a vital part of the school’s science curriculum.

Testing data had shown that fifth graders who had been visiting the garden regularly since Kindergarten scored in the 98th percentile in Colorado’s standardized testing for science.

Love said when it came time to create a new outdoor classroom, it was important to dream big.

“Our goal is to build a world-class educational, recreational, and innovative facility that focuses on sustainability and is based on food production and agriculture,” Love said.

With $400,000 in private funding, the support of Durango Parks and Recreation Department, and hundreds of volunteers, the first of six planned phases was built on the Riverview school site.

When fully built out, the lab will have a community garden, a 42-foot grow dome, a demonstration pavilion, a food forest, an agriculture lab, and an education center with a commercial demonstration kitchen.

Seven Durango students from elementary to high school age joined Love during the virtual tour. They took turns talking about the SOIL Lab and how they learned that sustainable gardening was another way to take care of the planet.

Students and educators at Needham Elementary School in the Durango School District 9-R in Colorado.
Students and educators at Needham Elementary School in the Durango School District 9-R in Colorado.

Needham Elementary School

Durango’s Portrait of a Graduate work prompted deep discussions about implementation and charting blueprints to measure student competencies at all grade levels.

Needham Elementary School educators zeroed in on mathematics instruction. How could students be resilient risk-takers, for example, while learning elementary math?

Using ESSER funding, the building deployed a new curriculum, “Context for Learning Mathematics,” which closely aligned with PoG competencies.

Laurie Rossback, Durango’s Executive Director of Curriculum, Instruction and Assessment, said the change was revolutionary.

“This is not traditional, not worksheet-based,” she said. “Students are owning their learning.”

Teachers Tiffany Miera (fifth grade) and Jennifer Cox (Kindergarten) spoke with visitors about how this approach incorporates peer-to-peer feedback as new concepts are introduced.

“Some of our students’ favorite things are the gallery walks and congresses,” said Miera, who was honored with the Milken Educator Award in 2022. “They show their work to each other and get feedback.”

The roll-out of this new approach relied on a strong commitment from teachers, but Cox said it was worth the effort.

“Learning new curriculum takes a lot of work, but being intentional is important,” she said. “My teacher role now is spent questioning and conferencing with students as students work and congress. We can ask them to do these complicated things.”

These efforts are paying tangible dividends. Needham fifth graders meeting or exceeding state math standards jumped from 25.4% in 2019 to 42.9% in 2022.

As Battelle for Kids President and CEO Mike Duncan commented during the tour, “It’s encouraging to hear that we can teach mathematical thinking without relying exclusively on skill repetition.”

Educators and student at the virtual visit to the Impact Career Innovation Center at the Durango School District 9-R in Colorado.
Educators and student at the virtual visit to the Impact Career Innovation Center at the Durango School District 9-R in Colorado.

Support from the Board of Education

Members of the Durango School District Board of Education attended the virtual site visit and expressed their support for the innovation and transformation happening in their schools.

Board President Kristin Smith closed the session by expressing her enthusiasm for the efforts to reach every student.

“We’re very supportive of this work, and we’re also focused on our diversity, equity inclusion, and belonging work,” said Smith. “All of these spaces that you saw today and all of the curriculum are designed for every single learner. Our staff works hard every single day to make sure that every student feels a sense of belonging in our schools by providing all these different pathways that are aligned to their interests and their desires for their future.

“We’re focused on getting every kid to dream big about their future, find their Ikigai, and find the thing that really drives them and is meaningful for their future.”

About the EdLeader21 Network

Battelle for Kids’ EdLeader21 Network is the premier national network for education transformation. Network members are offered focused learning experiences throughout the year to support superintendents and their teams as they create and implement a vision of 21st century, deeper learning—a  Portrait of a Graduate—and inspire change across the entire system. This includes interactive site visits that are open to all teachers and staff in member districts to showcase deeper learning practices coming to life.