Among the attributes cited in selecting Atlas Prep seventh-grade math teacher Erin Wahler-Cleveland as the inaugural winner of a new equity award from the Colorado League of Charter Schools is her belief that all children can succeed in school, no matter their circumstances.
“There’s no question that equal education and equal opportunity is an idea that isn’t a reality in a lot of places,” she said. “I think that over the years Atlas has existed, we’ve moved closer to being able to see that’s actually true.”
Wahler-Cleveland is Colorado’s first recipient of the new Quality, Choice and Equity Teacher Award, which will be given monthly to a teacher across Colorado’s 262 charter schools that belong to the Colorado League of Charter Schools.
The organization created the award to “recognize teachers that are doing great work, from a quality perspective and also from an equity perspective and a care perspective,” said spokeswoman Elise Bishop. “There are a lot of area teachers that are making impactful differences, and we wanted to highlight them.”
Wahler-Cleveland is the sole remaining founding teacher at Atlas Preparatory School, which opened in 2009 on Colorado Springs southeast side in Harrison School District 2. The school started with 80 fifth graders and now has nearly 1,000 fifth- through 12th-grade students and is building an elementary school.
Most are students of color from low-income families, with 93.5% qualifying for the federal government’s free or reduced lunch program, a poverty indicator; 90% identifying as a minority; and 57% being English language learners.
Students who have a disadvantaged start in education due to living conditions and other life issues need more resources and support than their peers without such challenges, Wahler-Cleveland said.
“It takes more to get them to similar places,” she said, “and that’s what I’ve been able to contribute — being part of the ‘more.’”
Wahler-Cleveland also identifies “a lot of hard work and grit” and “consistency in the adults that are around” as factors contributing to helping underprivileged students succeed.
The ability to build meaningful relationships with students is the primary reason Wahler-Cleveland has stayed at Atlas Prep, where she’s in her 11th year of teaching. She’s also worked there as an English teacher, an assistant principal and a principal.
In recent years, she has led her students to a 90% academic growth rate, on average, based on performance indicators.
“A close second as to why I’ve stayed is being able to have the opportunity to improve on something year over year,” she said. “Not every single one of our years was really positive and had good results; we had some shakier years in the middle of the span of time we’ve been open.
“Having put so much of my life into the place, I for sure wanted to still be there until we got to where we are. Now that we’re there, it’s a different experience. Before it was the pride of working hard, and now it’s being able to enjoy the fruits of that with students who know they can succeed and make a big difference.”
Atlas Prep was one of 19 schools statewide honored Monday with the Colorado Department of Education’s Centers of Excellence Award, which demonstrates the highest sustained rates of student longitudinal growth at schools that have at least 75% at-risk students.
Wahler-Cleveland is known for developing relationships with kids that go beyond solving the day’s most challenging math problem. Building a foundation of trust and safety are key, she said, along with “knowing students as people.”
“I have a lot of pride in what we are doing with kids, and it’s an honor to be recognized,” she said. “A lot of time and heart goes into teaching, and most of the time, it’s just the teacher and the students who know that.”
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