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Project-based charter school proposal piques D-11's interest

April 22, 2017 Updated: April 23, 2017 at 7:23 am

After denying proposals from other charter schools for reasons that included concerns about costs and duplication, Colorado Springs School District 11's board has nudged one idea forward.

Spacious Skies Charter School recently gained unanimous approval to submit a full application to the district for charter authorization, for an August 2018 opening.

"It was surprising; we anticipated we also would be relinquished to the state," said founder Evelyn Cortez-Ford.

The school intends to open with 166 students in grades K-3 and grow to eighth grade. Organizers do not yet have a location for the school, Cortez-Ford said, but are interested in the west side of Colorado Springs.

An informational meeting for parents will be held at 5 p.m. Tuesday, at the Old Colorado City Library, 2418 W. Pikes Peak Ave.

Spacious Skies would have the same financial impacts on the district as previous applicants, said Glenn Gustafson, chief financial officer and a deputy superintendent.

As to why D-11 is interested in having this school under its wing after sending others to the state authorizing body, including a military-style academy and an entrepreneurial high school, Gustafson said, "It's expensive, but the board wants to consider quality charter applications, and sometimes, it's not just about the money."

Pending board approval of a full application, the annual cost to the district would be $850,000 in the first year of operation and increase by the fifth year to $2.3 million annually, Gustafson said.

D-11 board members expressed particular interest in the school's format and content. The school intends to a use a project-based learning model, in which students investigate an engaging real-world problem or question and work together for several weeks to explore the topic in various ways.

"Families have a lot of opportunities to send their children to classical, core knowledge and traditional schools," Cortez-Ford said. "But there isn't an opportunity on the west side for project-based learning."

The model allows for deeper learning, she said, develops problem-solving skills and will rely on professionals, such as doctors and scientists to present real-life material.

Four "design principles" will set Spacious Skies apart, Cortez-Ford said. They include a "reverence for children and childhood," meaning childhood development won't be rushed; viewing parents as educational partners, not clients; allowing teachers to design the curriculum and not use commercialized programs; and conducting ongoing studies as to how children learn and making adjustments along the way.

Organizers expect about 75 percent of the student body to come from low-income families who qualify for the federal government's free and reduced meals program.

They won't hire an outside management company to run the school but will take on the tasks themselves, Cortez-Ford said.

"We are a grassroots group," said Cortez-Ford, a former D-11 teacher who was born on the west side and graduated from Coronado High School.

"Most of us are west-siders who have either grown up or worked in or sent our children to D-11 schools," she said.

The founding team started planning for the school in the summer of 2015 and includes educators, professionals and people with a criminal justice system background.

"So our passion around this has been to close the achievement gap and disrupt the school-to-prison pipeline," Cortez-Ford said.

Should the group gain charter authorization through D-11, it would be able to lease a district-owned building, if one were available.

Cortez-Ford said another advantage of being under the umbrella of a school district and not the state authorizing body, Colorado Charter School Institute, is that the school would be able to cooperatively use special education programs and other services.

"We really hope D-11 is interested in having us as part of their school population," Cortez-Ford said.

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