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Back to Earth

A new idea in District 11 is titillating educators, space-lovers and businessmen


The Science on a Sphere tool shows movement along the surface of the planet. - CHIP CLARK, SMITHSONIAN INSTITUTION
  • Chip Clark, Smithsonian Institution
  • The Science on a Sphere tool shows movement along the surface of the planet.

District 11 was feeling every bump in the road: declining student counts, the bond issue voters knocked out in November, talk of school closures.

It was at this inopportune moment that the Emerson Edison Charter Academy became a problem. Located at 4220 E. Pikes Peak Ave., Emerson was a failing school in a failing neighborhood.

"They didn't make [No Child Left Behind-required] Adequate Yearly Progress for six straight years," says D-11 deputy superintendent Mike Poore. "We had to do something different."

Meanwhile, at 310 S. 14th St., the leaders of the Space Foundation were weighing their options. Back in April, chairman emeritus of the board Bill Tutt had told the audience at the Space Symposium (hosted annually at The Broadmoor) that the Space Foundation needed bigger headquarters. The foundation, he said, would appreciate the same type of financial help the city gave in a multimillion-dollar deal to retain the U.S. Olympic Committee.

The plea fell on 18 deaf (or unsympathetic) ears at City Council. So despite having been in the Springs for its entire 25-year existence, the Space Foundation was considering a move to a more accommodating, city. Tulsa, Okla., and Omaha, Neb., were apparently among the bidders.

But fate twisted the agendas of both the Space Foundation and District 11, when a middle school project director named Mary Ley decided to give the Space Foundation a call. Ley, who works at D-11's new magnet school, Galileo School of Math and Science, called to ask why the Space Foundation hadn't worked more closely with local schools.

"He said, 'Nobody asked us,'" she remembers.

One giant leap

It didn't take long for District 11 to offer Emerson to the Space Foundation. And suddenly, the school was hot.

Details still need to be worked out, and final signatures collected, but both parties seem pretty excited about the prospects. The Space Foundation will get an entire building on Emerson's campus, allowing the organization some room to breathe. In exchange, it'll help make Emerson an aerospace magnet school, offering astronauts-in-residence, specialized science labs, training for teachers and perhaps even more dreamy details, like a mission control simulator and a science-on-a-sphere lab.

The district has three newly formed committees scrambling to work out the details of everything from curriculum to financing in time to open in fall 2009. Committees will also make recommendations on whether to open the school only to sixth-graders in the fall, and then add seventh- and eighth-graders over the following two years, or to open the school to all three grades from the start.

"It's going to be a premier school for the kids to attend," says D-11 board member Charlie Bobbitt. "It really takes it a long way from where it is right now."

But reshaping Emerson won't be easy.

It appears Emerson will be open to neighborhood children, with administrators predicting that of the 274 students expected to make up the first class of sixth-graders, more than 76 percent will qualify for free and reduced lunches. More than 20 percent will be English language learners. Nearly 13 percent will be special-education students. That means D-11 will need to address some big issues: How will special-education kids fit into the equation? How will all the children adjust to such a radically different learning style?

Emerson, which will likely be renamed, would also be the second new science-focused middle school in the district; Galileo just opened this school year. Meanwhile, the district has neither elementary nor high schools sanctioned by the district as science magnets, meaning that students can't follow a single path throughout their education. (Mitchell High School has a planetarium and some engineering and military-based programs.)

Emerson also faces financial challenges. Though Poore says he's looking for ways to save money, startup costs for the school were estimated at $613,000, with the concept costing the district potentially more than $3.3 million annually when the program is fully implemented. By contrast, costs to open Galileo were offset by a three-year, $5 million federal grant. (D-11's fiscal year 2008-2009 budget was just under $240 million for a district with more than five dozen schools.)

At least one school board member, John Gudvangen, has expressed concern about spending so much on Emerson in a dismal economy, and at a time when so many other D-11 schools are hurting.

In short, virtually all the details of how the school will operate must be worked out before kids walk through the doors next fall. Quite a scramble.

"You go through a phase, to do all of this work to get your recommendation approved," Poore notes. "As soon as you get it approved, you're thinking, 'Awesome, we did it,' and you're kind of celebrating. And then you've got to turn around and jump into the details of making it work."

Sky-high impacts

In the meantime, the snags don't seem to be cutting into the enthusiasm of most involved.

Representatives from the Space Foundation couldn't be reached for substantive discussion during the holiday week, but president and CEO Elliot Pulham wrote an ebullient letter to the D-11 school board shortly before itapproved moving forward with the partnership.

"The potential for the Space Foundation and District 11 to jointly create unique, new learning environments and delivery platforms truly presents an opportunity for us to transform the face of education in America," he wrote.

(Here's hoping Pulham works on the neighborhood before taking on the nation.)

Now, doing the right thing by a group if underprivileged kids was just one aspect of the deal. Many are hoping that the Space Foundation, appeased with its new space, will stay in Colorado Springs, and keep feeding the economy.

The annual Space Symposium alone brings in 7,500 people, and Tutt has estimated it has a $25 million impact locally. The Space Foundation also trains teachers from around the nation, a program it could step up with the extra space in Emerson. That would mean more people flying into the Springs and spending money on hotels, restaurants and rental cars.

Naturally, the Emerson plan has the wholehearted support of the Economic Development Corporation, the Greater Colorado Springs Chamber of Commerce, and Peterson Air Force Base.

"The proposed Space School will meet the Foundation's education needs and significantly enhance the likelihood that this important organization remains in Colorado Springs," EDC leader Mike Kazmierski wrote to the D-11 school board.

While the money certainly matters to city leaders, many also see the Space Foundation as a part of the fabric of Colorado Springs, a natural element of the personality of a city littered with military and defense contractors.

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