According to Jessica TenBrink, the director of marketing and development for Cheyenne Mountain Charter Academy, parents considering a charter school for their kids have all kinds of choices.
"Charter schools each have their own niche. Some of them are creative arts schools, and some of them are classical schools, and some of them are more technology-based," TenBrink says. "If parents are looking at charter schools, they are looking for a higher-performing school than a regular public school.
"Though," she adds, "many of the public schools in Colorado Springs are high-performing, so we don't have that problem as much as other big cities do."
Of course, there's no guarantee a charter school will provide a superior education. Any individual or group with a vision may submit an application to the local school district — or with district approval, the Colorado Charter School Institute (csi.state.co.us) — and, if the program meets certain provisions, be approved to open its doors. Because charter schools receive public funding, all students are required to participate in Colorado State Assessment Program testing and schools must go through the state's accreditation review, so you can check with CDE (cde.state.co.us) to see how each charter performs.
If you're toying with opting out of conventional public school for your kids in favor of a charter you might be struck by the variety of sizes, styles and models. We've gathered all the charter schools in El Paso County, as listed with the Colorado Department of Education, trying to provide a very loose sense of organization to what, by its nature, is an eclectic collection. Keep in mind, application deadlines for the 2011-12 academic year vary from school to school.
Prepped for success
The Academy for Advanced & Creative Learning (K-8, academyacl.org) is a brand-new school for gifted and talented students, kids who "test so high that the typical curriculum doesn't relate to them," says director Nikki Myers. "These are students who usually need much less repetition in their areas of strength. We look for ways to find those areas where they are really strong, and use less repetitions or provide them with more complex material."
It took two years to get off the ground, she says: "Two years ago, a group of parents and families realized that there was not a place in the area that serves these students. This gives us a chance to work with these kids from when they start all the way through."
Another young school, this one in just its second year, is Atlas Preparatory School (5-8, atlasprep.org). Currently offering fifth and sixth grades, with plans to expand by one grade for the next two years, Atlas focuses on college prep. "We concentrate always on their focus on their college graduation date, not their high school graduation date," says office manager Debbie Crowell. "Everything we do is focused on college.
"In [Harrison District 2], most of the schools in this area, the kids are low-performing. We focus mostly on kids that are from low-income, that are minority, the ones who struggle the most to even graduate high school, let alone think about college. That's why we are here, and we want them to know that the only way that they are going to have any success is to get a college degree."
Other charters that make efforts to brand themselves as "college prep" include CIVA Charter School (9-12, civacharterschool.org), which focuses on character and the arts; Colorado Springs Early Colleges 9-12, csec914.org) which shares space with Colorado Technical University; James Irwin Charter Schools (K-12, jamesirwin.org), whose middle school classes are single-gender; Pikes Peak Prep (K-12, pikespeakprep.org); and the Classical Academy (K-12, tcad20.org), which uses a classical model.
The 'class' in classical
A classical education is Cheyenne Mountain Charter Academy's (K-12, cmca12.com) emphasis, which TenBrink describes as "very traditional ... we teach classically our Western heritage." Its high school is The Vanguard School, and the different name illuminates multiple aspects of the nascent charter school experiment in Colorado. The original school, just for the elementary grades, was chartered through the district. But as its students were aging into high school, administrators realized that they needed to include secondary education. There was a complication with the district, so they went to the Charter School Institute, an independent agency within the state Department of Education, for their charter.
Another school using a classical model is Thomas MacLaren School (6-10, maclarenschool.org). According to its website, the school "opened in 2009 to educate students in the sixth through 12th grades. We expect each student to master history, mathematics, science, literature, Latin and English, as well as to gain familiarity with at least one other language and fine arts." It will add one high school class per year until they reach 12th grade.
Classical education reaches even the kindergarten levels with schools like Banning Lewis Ranch Academy (K-8, blracademy.org), which uses a "global worldview curriculum, where our students study the entire world through culture, and that includes everything that a culture involves," according to curriculum implementation specialist Carrie Polk. Geography, the arts, language: "Our children study everything from the ancient world — kindergarteners included — and then we move into the classical world, the Middle Ages, and the Renaissance." Imagine Classical Academy at Indigo Ranch (K-8, ticaindigoranch.com) also takes a classical approach.
A number of charters use the Core Knowledge curriculum. According to the Core Knowledge Foundation website, "By outlining the precise content that every child should learn in language arts and literature, history and geography, mathematics, science, music, and the visual arts, the Core Knowledge curriculum represents a first-of-its-kind effort to identify the foundational knowledge every child needs to reach these goals — and to teach it, grade-by-grade, year-by-year, in a coherent, age-appropriate sequence."
According to its website, Colorado Springs Charter Academy (K-8, cscharter.org) features "a content-rich curriculum that includes the Core Knowledge curriculum, character education, foreign language instruction and uniforms." Frontier Charter Academy (K-8, frontiercharter.org) uses the Core Knowledge Curriculum. Rocky Mountain Classical Academy (K-12, rmcad49.org) does, too, while supporting "parents in developing citizens of integrity and character who are equipped with a strong knowledge base and academic skills."
And the James Madison Charter Academy (K-8, jmcacolorado.org) uses Core Knowledge with a project-based approach, says principal Anne Shearer-Shineman. "Project-based instruction involves the students doing hands-on things. Instead of just taking a paper-pencil test or a worksheet, they are making a product. They may be doing something on the computer. They may be doing a skit, a model or simulation. And that's how they show us what they've learned or what they know."
Meanwhile, Monument Academy (K-8, monumentacademy.net) emphasizes a set of "Core Virtues" along with academic excellence. They include "respect, responsibility, character development and exemplary citizenship." And Roosevelt Edison Charter School (K-5, edisonlearning.com), according to their website, works with "core disciplines" of language arts, mathematics, science, and social science, but also seeks to "restore to a place of importance the arts, world language, health, and physical education."
Skills, Scholars and Space
One of two local high schools that reach out to at-risk students is Community Prep Charter School (9-12, communityprepschool.org). According to registrar Lori Kennedy, the school looks for "alternative individuals that have been in juvenile detention, that don't succeed in a large school, that have been dropped out, home-schooled. There is quite a variety." The other is Life Skills Colorado Springs (high school, lifeskillscenters.com). As stated on its website, "Whether you have already dropped out of high school, or are worried that you may not graduate on time with your class, LifeSkills is ready to give you the individual attention you deserve to help you earn a State Recognized High School Diploma and achieve success."
Jan Songer, with G.L.O.B.E. Charter School (K-6, globecharterschool.com), says its charter is for a multicultural, interdisciplinary and environmental school. "We teach Spanish, we teach German, and we teach sign language," he says. "If we have a first-grader reading at a third-grade level, they would be put in the third-grade reading class." Each class has a community-service project throughout the year.
Another charter that emphasizes its diversity is Scholars to Leaders Academy (K-8, scholarstoleadersacademy.org), which is 63 percent Latino and 12 percent African-American, and uses a community-based model. "We tie into the sources with the larger community," says principal Carolyn Gery. "We are evolving our program so that it has a project-based element. So our students spend a lot of time participating in field trips, and they have interactions with experts in the field." As an example, some of their seventh graders are working on a study of Fountain Creek, taking water samples and looking at the pollution. The result will be a presentation to City Council.
That sounds similar to some of the "core values and school philosophy" of the Pikes Peak School of Expeditionary Learning (K-8, ppsel.org). As stated on its website, "Project and fieldwork based learning develops connections between curriculum and real-life issues and promotes active, hands-on participation by all learners."
While Expeditionary Learning tends to focus on time spent in the great outdoors, the Space, Technology & Arts (STAR) Academy (K-8, staracademycolorado.org) looks to the great beyond. As its name makes clear, it rounds out its curriculum with a focus on the study of technology, the arts and space.