Emily Griffith Celebrates 100 Years of Creating Opportunity

By Matthew Van Deventer

Sandy Weyna wanted a better life for herself and for her five-year-old daughter. When Weyna was 18, she started an esthetician’s program at Emily Griffith Technical College (EGTC), but then switched paths. She started waitressing and eventually tried the classic college route, attending Community College of Denver for four years. But because of her schedule—working full-time as a waitress and being a full-time mother—she could just take one class at a time and, in those four years, only reached sophomore status. At 25 years old, she switched paths again. Weyna went back to EGTC and, after just six months, graduated with a certification and a full-time job.

Weyna enrolled in the Water Quality Management Program at EGTC last September. Three weeks before she graduated in March with a technical certificate, she already had a job at a water treatment plant. 

“I figured that it would be a job that would never go away, hopefully anyway. As long as we’re here it should be around,” said Weyna about her choice of program. 

The recent graduate is just one of the two million students the EGTC has schooled since it was founded as Emily Griffith’s Opportunity School. And next month, it will be celebrating its 100th birthday. 

Emily Griffith was a Denver Public School teacher at the turn of the last century. She taught at Denver’s Central and 24th street schools between 1904 and 1912. After she realized the struggles of immigrant families were in large part due to limited English fluency and lack of other basic skills, she dreamed of a school where people could attend for an hour or two of their free time to learn whatever they wanted. 

Griffith was able to take possession of the rundown Longfellow School downtown, and remodeled it as an “Opportunity School.” The doors opened on September 9, 1916. It was an immediate success, with more than 1,400 registrants in the first week. The original Emily Griffith Opportunity School was open five days a week for 13 hours a day, and offered skills classes like telegraphy, industrial millinery, typing, academic studies, and English. 

Over time the school evolved into what it is today, offering hundreds of classes, apprenticeships, and industry certifications. It’s also Colorado’s largest GED testing and prep site and the education provider for Colorado’s refugee network. Refugees relocated to Denver can go straight to EGTC to learn English, and they can take up to five years of language classes free of charge.

 “When somebody says, ‘who’s your target audience?’ We literally serve people from 17-70 from around the world,” said Christine Patoff, EGTC’s director of marketing and public relations. 

All are welcome, from struggling high school students to adults looking to switch careers to PhD graduates from Iraq that need to learn English. Every year, the school sees about 8,000 students, 3,000 of whom are immigrants and refugees. Seventy-four countries and 92 languages are represented at the school. “It’s like a little U.N. here,” said Patoff.

EGTC is also one of the more inexpensive schools in Colorado, with credits starting as low as $82. There are also plenty of scholarship options for the costlier courses, which are still very affordable compared to their more traditional college counterparts. 

“So a lot of our students, we say, can graduate debt free. We are one of the least expensive college credits in the state,” explained Patoff. “Our lowest credit is $82. You look at a community college and they’re three times that, and again, [at EGTC] you’re in and out fast depending on what you want to study.” 

The Certified Nurse Assistant program is the college’s shortest program at just six weeks long and costs only about $530, according to the school’s site. 

Jean Butler is an advisor at EGTC and has been working with students for more than 20 years. She started at Emily Griffith as a student learning about computers in the late 80s when the technology was just emerging. She then went into administrative assistant type training as well as a reservation class. She went on to work for United Airlines for a short stint. However, she quickly went back to EGTC as an advisor. For 20 plus years, Butler has facilitated students’ entries and departures, helping them forge paths to brighter futures.

 “We offer college classes, but four-year college isn’t for everyone, or is not for everyone right out of high school, [which] I think is a bigger realization, when you look at the incomplete rate of even freshman at a four-year school,” said Butler. “Here they can see what they’re learning; I think there’s a better path laid out for them. . . Plus it’s a good way to make some money while you’re paying for that four-year school.”

Butler says she notices that many of the students come from some type of difficulty, and like Weyna, “They made up their minds that their kids are going to have a better situation than they have.”

At Weyna’s company, entry level positions pay just shy of $20 and hour. Weyna also has benefits, paid vacation, sick leave, a set schedule and a three-day weekend. Not only that, there is room for her to grow: she can complete different license levels and eventually become a chief. 

 “Emily Griffith, this class in particular, it’s so fast, it’s a lot of information,” said Weyna. “But…that I can go for six months for 16 hours a week and come out with a job that pays the same—if not more—than a lot of college degrees, that was huge.”