August 26, 2013 Updated: August 27, 2013 at 11:09 am
A few hours into the first day of school, even the kindergartners were still paying attention.
Like other students at the brand new James Irwin Charter Academy, the first-timers were sitting up straight and tall in their chairs on Monday, with their hands folded on their desks.
Many classes were doing "choral responses," repeating phrases in sync back to the teacher or answering questions in unison. Students were rewarded with positive reinforcement: "You're so smart," "Way to use that brain power," Good job" and "I can't fool you."
"They need a lot of praises to engage their brain and keep them engaged," said Principal Cindee Will. "That keeps them calm, focused, orderly and on-task."
That's the exact behavior expected at James Irwin Charter School's newest addition. Like its sibling elementary, middle and high schools, the youngest family member focuses on building academic excellence through teaching core curriculum while developing such character traits as honesty, integrity, citizenship, responsibility and respect.
"It's back to the basics - we start cursive writing in kindergarten - and there's a real appetite for that meat-and-potatoes type of tradition," Will said.
Demand was high enough - with some 200 on the waiting list at one point at James Irwin Charter Elementary School at 5525 Astrozon Blvd. - for organizers to form a second K-5 school.
Unlike the other James Irwin elementary, middle and high schools, which are in Harrison School District 2, the new elementary school is located within Colorado Springs School District 11 boundaries in the Palmer Park neighborhood.
It's one of 15 new charter schools opening its doors in Colorado for the 2013-2014 academic year, according to the Colorado League of Charter Schools. That brings the number of charter school campuses in the state to more than 200. They collectively serve 97,000 students, which represents 13 percent of all K-12 public school enrollment in Colorado, says the nonprofit organization, which supports charter schools.
James Irwin was one of three charter schools vying to buy the building at 1801 Howard St., which has been empty since 2009, when D-11 closed the former Jefferson Elementary School due to budget constraints and decreasing enrollment.
Will said the minute she stepped inside, she felt like James Irwin Charter Academy belonged there.
A large mural on a wall in the hallway next to the gymnasium, painted years ago by a Jefferson Elementary teacher, depicts a lunar landing. The image may or may not be of the school's namesake, astronaut James Irwin. Known as the eighth man to walk on the moon, Irwin lived in Colorado Springs after leaving NASA and died in 1991.
"It was very competitive to get this building, and when I saw the mural, we thought it was a sign," said Will, who co-founded the first James Irwin elementary school eight years ago and had worked as assistant principal there.
James Irwin Charter Schools bought the building earlier this year for $950,000 and spent another $950,000 on renovations that include new exterior walls, windows, wiring and fireproofing. A security door at the front desk and small-group discussion rooms also have been added.
School started Monday with 32 employees and 214 students. About 43 percent are from D-11 boundaries and some from the waiting list at the other James Irwin elementary school, said Debbie Swanson, development director.
"We had a lot of parents living within D-11 boundaries driving to the Powers and Astrozon location, so that shows the dedication families have to this model," Will said.
While James Irwin Charter Academy is tuition-free, like other charter schools, it does not provide bus transportation or a hot lunch program. It's working on the latter, Swanson said.