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School gives Colorado Springs students a head start on college

April 9, 2014
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What some consider to be the high school education model of the future is here - and already popular enough to expand its reach.

Colorado Springs Early Colleges received authorization from the Colorado Charter School Institute to open in 2007, focusing on students simultaneously earning an associate's degree and a high school diploma.

The school has grown faster than a teenager, and its well-known founder now has his sights set on stretching statewide.

To ensure longevity, the organization also is gobbling up real estate.

What parents, students and teachers like, says Keith King, a local politician who created the school and has served as its administrator for the past seven years, is that the format is a significant departure from the familiar.

"Education is stuck in a model that hasn't changed much in the last 40 years. We need to go beyond the classroom setting, to where people drive their own education. It's an entrepreneurial approach," he said.

King, a former state senator from Colorado's District 12 and current president of the Colorado Springs City Council, opened the school with 350 students. This year's enrollment is 600.

Students are assessed on academic performance when they enroll and can take college prep classes, college courses on the high school campus or college courses on non-religious college campuses, such as Pikes Peak Community College.

Parents receive a voucher for $2,100 or $4,200, depending on the number of student credit hours, to pay for tuition and books.

The school spent about $1 million on college tuition for its students this year, King said. The money comes from its share of state funding.

"The concept is really centered around student choice - what kind of college path they want," he said.

The program also is designed to eliminate the need for remediation, King said. According to a legislative report, 40 percent of 2011 high school graduates in Colorado who enrolled in state higher education institutions needed remediation.

"It's unconscionable that there are that many kids that are not college-ready," King said.

In 2012, the school formed an umbrella organization, Colorado Early Colleges, and opened a second location in Fort Collins. About 320 students are enrolled this year.

A third location will open in Parker in Douglas County in the fall.

The school also is working with a group of parents from Lake George, whose kids are doing a combination of onsite, online and college courses.

In January, the school bought three buildings in Springs Business Park on North Chestnut Street near Garden of the Gods Road for $6.75 million. The transaction was done in partnership with The Charter Schools Development Corp., which helps charter schools obtain facilities.

The school has leased space there since it opened. A tenant, Colorado Technical University, takes up about 85,000 square feet. A vacant space of 18,000 square feet will be remodeled by fall to double the school's size.

"It's a significant advantage for us to own our building instead of lease it. It stabilizes overhead and enrollment opportunities," King said. "Charter schools tend to spend 15-20 percent of their state revenue on facilities. We want to spend 5-7 percent."

The school also bought the Fort Collins school building for $5.75 million and has a purchase option on a building in Parker, according to King. Tenants will help offset the costs.

King wants to open a new school each year, extending to the Denver metro area, Pueblo, the eastern plains and Western slope.

"College is not affordable anymore, and some people pay college debt for years," said King, a former teacher who also started the Cheyenne Mountain Charter Academy.

"It's time we re-do the paradigm."

All of Early College's 519 graduates to date earned some college credit. Of those, 67 earned associate's degrees.

Next month, a second student, Noah Dome, will receive a bachelor's degree. The 17-year-old's degree from Colorado Technical University will be in business administration with an emphasis in management. He plans to start a master's degree program in the fall.

As the oldest of four children, Noah said Early Colleges' format gave him an "incredible opportunity."

"It would have been very, very tough for me - things are tight," he said. "I liked that I could go at my own pace, whatever I was ready for. The opportunities are unlimited. It's quite a great system."

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