Paonia’s version of perestroika

America is going through its own perestroika. This is evident from dramatic changes in demography, family life and the workplace, and by major structural changes in the economy and the global marketplace.

It is sometimes useful to examine this economic and social change at the micro level, where the rubber meets the road. This approach, perhaps more than any other, lets us see the face of the new economy.

Consider the case of Paonia, an old coalmining and fruit-growing town of 1,425 on the West slope.

Here we find an important lesson: how grass-roots initiatives by local leaders using local resources and local institution – in this case, a public school – can try to diversify, and perhaps transform, the economic base of a community. What we find is the new economy in full bloom in, of all places, the public-school curriculum.

Last year, Laddie Livingston, superintendent of the Delta County School District there, took a big – and controversial – step to introduce “new economy” thinking. He tore out the wood shop and discontinued the vocational- and agricultural-education programs at Paonia High School.

In their place, he installed an “applied learning center” with 24 computer workstations and more than 20 software programs ranging from desktop publishing to computeraided design and manufacturing, what the specialists cal CAD/CAM.

From now on, Paonia’s youths will have an opportunity to learn new economy skills and become computer-literate workers and professionals.

“For us to be able to encourage local entrepreneurs or to encourage outsiders to move into a small community like this, we need to provide a trained workforce,” says Mike Neden, the district’s director of technology education. “The modem and computer that make it possible for people to work at home also will make it possible for them to work in a small town like Paonia.”

Livingston says: “If you visit any modern business, you’ll understand that these kids will have an edge. Their competitors from other schools have never seen anything like this.”

Paonia will also have an edge, especially if its “new economy” workforce is a magnet for corporations to locate some of their back office operations there.

Although more than 3,000 visitors, including some from six foreign countries, have made their way to tiny Paonia to take a look, not everyone in Delta County is impressed. Some in this farming and mining community are skeptical of the new ways.

But by the time classes tart next fall, Delta County’s other three high schools also will have applied learning centers.

So the foundations have been laid, not by a federal mandate or other outside “visionaries” but by grass-roots leadership using local talent and resources to help Delta County win in the new economy.

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