The timeline for Red Rocks Community College is easy to remember. It came into existence the same year---1969---as America’s biggest extraterrestrial triumph of the 20th Century. As America was putting footprints on the moon, this then tiny blip on the educational radar screen was beginning its trek to the stars. In the half century that has elapsed, it has established itself as a North Star for minds of all ages in a model for community colleges across the state.
Red Rocks Community College President Michele Haney is understandably proud of the school she shepherds. “We’re dedicated to providing instruction to anyone who can benefit,” she said, the timber in her voice as strong as her commitment to student excellence.
While Red Rocks is based in Jefferson County, its reach extends well beyond county boundaries. It serves students in Clear Creek, Park and Gilpin Counties, said Haney. And it serves young minds who are not afraid of challenges nor meeting them. The school has the highest number of students transferring to the academically rigorous Colorado School of Mines in Golden. It’s also has a record of partnering with some of the biggest names in education.
For a month this summer, select high school math and science-leaning students with an interest in engineering met at RRCC to challenge themselves in all levels of engineering. They studied computer and electrical, chemical, materials science and civil and mechanical engineering. “It speaks well to our science and math programs,” said Haney. The four-week program was the equivalent to what a Johns Hopkins freshman would have over the course of a full semester. Students who successfully completed the course were awarded three credits at Johns Hopkins.
The school is understandably proud of its relationship with the Baltimore-based Johns Hopkins University. Over the years, RRCC has chiseled out one of the state’s strongest STEM programs. But a lifetime in education has proved to Haney that not all students are looking to college for careers in science, technology, engineering or math. In fact, a growing number of students have chosen Red Rocks for what might be considered non-traditional academic disciplines.
Red Rocks is unique today for attracting a number of students interested in learning a timeless craft, one that in another time meant long apprenticeships in faraway places. Today, without ever having to journey to cultural landmark schools or studios in Florence, Hamburg or Vienna, students can learn their craft in the woodshop at Red Rocks. And word is getting out.
The school has a growing reputation for graduating artists who work with their hands turning nondescript cuts of wood, both exotic and common, into pieces of art in both form and function. Students work under the guidance of industry professionals in six classrooms covering more than 5,000 square feet. “We make violins, guitars and beautiful furniture,” Haney said, not concealing her pride. In fact, RRCC has earned a regional reputation in this niche discipline with its Fine Woodworking Department. Students can earn as Associates of Applied Science in Fine Furniture Degree at the school.
Haney, who has headed the school for more than a decade, explained that the school’s principle goal is to nurture young minds. She and the school long ago abandoned the lockstep idea that young minds must meet the curriculum. In today’s world, she said, the curriculum must now meet the needs of young minds.
Because there are students at Red Rocks who may sometimes still be in high school---every years there are a few as young as sixteen---“a lot of colleges are not designed for young individuals,” said Haney. A sixteen-year-old, she explained, cannot simply be tossed in the deep end. “We want to make sure they fit; we want to tailor to the individual student. It’s important for us.”
Like the entire Denver metropolitan area’s remarkable growth over the last half century, RRCC has also grown exponentially. The school that opened for business fifty years ago might not be recognizable to its initial crop of students. That first-year college served a student population measured in the hundreds. Today, RRCC, its full-time and adjunct faculty of nearly 500, serves more than 7,300 students, including nearly 1,500 Latino students.
While the overwhelming majority of students at Red Rocks are not long removed from high school, it is also an inviting place for older students, including retirees. In many classes, it would not be unusual to see a mixture of fresh faces sitting side by side with students resuming their education after long and successful careers. Everyone pays tuition. But RRCC---free of charge---helps retirees thinking about starting up their own business create business plans. “We’re always looking at ways to do a better job to meet our citizen’s needs,” said Haney. As education evolves, said the veteran educator, “we want to be ready.”
Haney describes her school as one of the region’s ‘best kept secrets.’ But, with more than 7,000 students and course work that offers Associates, Bachelors and Masters degrees, secret may no longer be accurate. As the school marks a half century of growth and excellence and a trajectory in ascent, ‘secret’ no longer applies.
From now through October, the school will be celebrating a half century of excellence. Everyone---especially alumni---is encouraged to visit the school’s website to find a date for a visit. That information can be viewed at RRCC.edu