It’s not every day that you get to see a group of young children gather together at the start of the school day to pop the collars of their shirts, hold imaginary microphones in their hands, and say, “thank you, thank you very much,” in their best Elvis impersonation. But then again, it’s not every day that I have the opportunity to witness firsthand what a difference a passionate group of educators can make in the lives of elementary school children.
As a member of Colorado Succeeds Board of Advisors, I was able to join more than 30 of my fellow members for a tour of Rocky Mountain Prep 2 (RMP 2), a public, tuition-free charter school in Southwest Denver. It is part of a nonprofit charter management organization also serving Southeast Denver. The school, which is housed inside Kepner Middle School along with one other charter school and one traditional school, currently serves Pre-K through first grade students. Focusing on both rigor and joy, these students are receiving the rigorous academic preparation and innovative character development they need to pursue their dreams and to succeed not only at the next level of school, but in life. Now in its first year of operation, RMP 2 will add a grade each year until it is a fully-enrolled Pre-K through 5th grade campus by school year 2019-20.
Having a chance to visit RMP 2 was of particular interest to me for a number of reasons. First, the school is located close to the Valverde neighborhood in Denver where my company, PEAK Resources, has been in operation for the past 20 years and 25 years overall in Denver. As RMP’s founder and CEO James Cryan pointed out, the children and families in this community have been historically underserved by the educational options available to them. This is one of the primary reasons why PEAK Resources has been involved in supporting schools in our region for the past couple of decades.
The school’s core values are close to our hearts here at PEAK Resources. The school uses the acronym PEAK – perseverance, excellence, adventure, and kindness – to instill a culture of joy and academic rigor for both the students and teachers. In fact, the Elvis impersonators we saw the morning we visited were selected because of their ability to go above and beyond to demonstrate the school’s PEAK values.
What was most evident as I walked through the classrooms and overheard the conversations among the teachers and children was that this is a place that is providing the fundamental support that students need to be successful. From the inspirational quotes by Albert Einstein and Pablo Neruda on the walls to the classrooms named after the lead teacher’s alma mater, it is clear that the bar has been set high for these children, and the teachers are doing everything in their power to help the students achieve their full potential.
This culture of high expectations combined with confidence building is critical for a student population that is 97 percent free and reduced lunch, the measure of poverty inside a school, and 80 percent English language learners. To manage these challenges, educators collect student data every day. They then use this data to recalibrate their students’ ability on a weekly basis. The result is dynamic classrooms and reading groups segmented by ability rather than grade level. The outcome for students is gains in reading levels and student performance rarely seen in traditional classrooms. But don’t just take my word for it. Based on 2015 PARCC test scores, RMP is currently the highest performing elementary school in Denver Public Schools with a majority low income student population.
Behind these high achieving scholars are their committed teachers and principal. During our visit, we learned about RMP’s approach to attracting, retaining, and investing in talented educators, which has led to educators clamoring to teach at their campuses. For every 100 educators that apply to teach at RMP, only three make the cut, but in return, they get the autonomy they need to do their job.
There’s More to Be Done
The purpose of our group’s visit to RMP 2 was three-fold – the first of which was to get all of us in attendance to be inspired by the incredible work that is taking place in this impressive institution. Mission accomplished.
The day was also about experiencing the results of the education policies that Colorado Succeeds and its members have worked diligently to pass in recent years, such as the Student Success Act and Great Teachers and Leaders Law. As Scott Laband, president of Colorado Succeeds, said during the event, “In order to serve all students statewide effectively and efficiently, Colorado Succeeds works at the policy and systems level to clear a path for schools like Rocky Mountain Prep to succeed. Being able to see the application of those policies and practices here and elsewhere is priceless.”
Finally, our tour also highlighted what else needs to be done at the state level to provide the conditions for successful charter schools to grow, such as ensuring public charter school students have equal access to funding and opportunities as their peers in traditional schools. Denver Public Schools is just one district that is leading by example on this.
These experiential opportunities are particularly important for us in the business community. Visits like this one raise the question of how we as a business community can further help innovative and successful schools like RMP replicate their models faster and bring about change more rapidly to affect an even greater number of students. If you are impatient (like me) and want to improve the pace of change at the school systems level, I encourage you to get involved in the work that an organization like Colorado Succeeds is undertaking to improve not only the quality of schools but the quantity of high-performing ones.