Atlas charter celebrates successes, pushes forward

CAROL MCGRAW Updated: October 10, 2012 at 12:00 am • Published: October 10, 2012

The hallways at Atlas Preparatory School are emblazoned with college pennants. A sign above the door to Carl Volkhardt’s social studies classroom says you have arrived at “Gonzaga University.” It’s a reminder for students to focus on their future.

Volkhardt, like all the teacher here, addresses his students as “scholars.” His eighth graders write three things they will do differently next quarter to be stronger academically. Then he asks them to write down two specific suggestions of how he can do better as a teacher.

Shayla Felder, 13, writes that she will make better use of a study guide and “will slow down a little on my tests.” As for critiquing her teacher, she writes, “I want you to have more partner work.”

The charter school is patterned after several trailblazing schools nationwide, including some KIPP schools that have been called the wave of the future in education. Some regular public schools are using the techniques to give their own programs a boost.

More than 80 percent of the Atlas students are from impoverished families, said Julian Flores, managing director. The goal is to close the achievement gap between low income and minority students and their more affluent peers in other schools.

It was four years ago that Sonya Felder made a fortuitous stop at a grocery store and ran into Flores, who was stopping passersby to interest them in enrolling in the new charter school in Harrison School District 2.

They were looking for diverse and economically disadvantaged students willing to try a rigorous new type of education geared to set them on the course for college.

Felder’s daughter Shayla was among about 100 fifth graders who became the first class. The school has added a grade level each year, and now has 525 students in grades five through eight.

The Atlas administrators and board of directors have been professionally trained to help the charter succeed. At many charters, the boards are parent volunteers with little experience.

It’s been four years of challenges, including finding ways to retain students from transient families that are often beset by problems that come with poverty, Flores says.

But Wednesday, the fruits of the effort at Atlas were apparent at a celebration where school officials announced that they will start a high school on campus, in accordance with original plans. Next fall there will be a ninth grade class, followed in successive years by 10th, 11th and 12th. It’s the way they grew the fifth through eighth grades.

Dozens of visitors were on hand for the luncheon, including top officials from University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, Colorado College, education foundations and the City of Colorado Springs, who all lauded the work done at Atlas.

The ceremony also commemorated completion of a $1.1 million fundraising effort to expand the school.

It was helped by numerous foundations, including El Pomar, Edmondson, Chapman, Gates, Daniels, Anschutz and Colorado Health.

Located at 1602 S. Murray Blvd., Atlas takes up a portion of Airport Park, and has purchased five acres adjacent to the school for athletics and other uses.

The 55,000-square-foot facility is crowded, and administrators want to add space soon for the high school. Officials also showed off the newly laid athletic field. Colorado College provided an in-kind donation of artificial turf that had been used at its Washburn Field.

“We’re about the only school around that has a college grade turf,” Flores said.

The lack of athletic facilities has deterred some students from signing up for the school, officials noted.

“Now that we have a field, we aren’t playing in the parking lot,” Flores said.

The school plans to have a soccer and spring football team. Fort Carson volunteers are going to help coach.

AdamLenzmeier, the eighth-grade principal, was in the hall discussing the school’s goals, when a youth walked by. “You’re staying?” he asked. The boy said he was dropping out.

Lenzmeier told him, “You saw that field out there? We built that for you. We are going to have a lot of sports now. Stop by my office so we can talk.”

Another youth walks down the hall, and Lenzmeier tells him, “Button that last button on that shirt.” The boy responds, “Yes, sir.”

At this school politeness and neatness are virtues. The uniforms are crisp khaki slacks, blue button down shirts and vests.

Lenzmeier, a former soldier who served two deployments to Iraq, later became a Teach for America instructor. He taught reading last year.

Students attend school year round with short breaks to prevent the “summer academic slide.” There are no textbooks. A team of teachers create the curriculum.

While students go to class five days a weeks, teachers teach four days. They get one entire day a week away from the classroom to analyze data, prepare lessons, individualize students’ work plans, do grading and engage in professional development. There is classroom observation every week and there is coaching to improve teaching skills.

Aside from classroom work, each teacher is responsible for guiding 16 students through the year, which includes regular communications with parents.

In most public schools, teachers must squeeze that work into evenings and weekends.

‘It benefits students because they can plan lessons for a student’s needs. And teachers don’t get burned out. They are happier and we have them longer,” Lenzmeier said.

So far, students who have been at the school for more than a year have shown strong academic growth on state assessment tests. In 2011, the school received a Colorado Department of Education’s Center of Excellence Award.

But state tests overall are spotty and not stellar. And there is much turnover. Almost 50 percent of the students are new this year.

“Poverty and the economy destabilizes families,” Flores says. “Some of our brightest students who have gone from low to high average and we are envisioning them going to Colorado College and suddenly, they drop off the map and we don’t see them again.”

Atlas has started a new program called Family University to deter this by engaging parents in their child’s education, and to help the families find community services to help them stabilize.

Atlas has helped Shayla Felder blossom, according to teachers and her mother.

Sonya Felder says every year she gives Shayla the choice of staying or not. “She always says yes.” Some of her classmates have not stayed at the school. Sonya Fedler says, “I tell new parents that it is different from regular public schools and they have to get used to it. If they stay it really makes a difference. Shayla is doing awesome.”

Shayla, too, is enthusiastic about her education. After school field trips to colleges, she is determined to get into a good college art program.

For now, she says, “I like math best. My hardest subject is social studies. School is strict, but fun, too. Some of the objectives are hard. But what you do is study and ask for help which they give you.”

Contact Carol McGraw: 636-0371 Twitter @mcgrawatgazette Facebook Carol McGraw

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