By Lisa Canova
As a former teacher and now parent at traditional public schools, I have to admit: I wasn’t always open-minded when it came to supporting charter schools as a worthy option within the world of school choice. Over time I have learned more, seen many advantages and been fortunate to visit some innovative charter schools that have withstood the incubation period.
In my constant quest to learn more about charters and broaden my school-choice perspective, I arranged a visit to STRIVE Prep – RISE–a new campus in Far Northeast Denver that’s part of the popular STRIVE Prep network of charter schools in the Denver Public Schools. (There are now 11 STRIVE Prep campuses in DPS. Two of them just opened—including RISE—and don’t have a performance rating from the district yet. Eight of the remaining nine campuses have earned either a “Distinguished” or “Meets Expectations” rating on the district’s School Performance Framework.)
I was invited to tour RISE and met with Principal Elisha Roberts. STRIVE’s motto: “Where a revolutionary education is commonplace and attending college is expected” made an impression and was prominently displayed on abundant and colorful college banners adorning walls throughout the hallways of the building. The vision behind all 11 STRIVE Preparatory Schools is to provide a high quality public education close to home for families in three distinct regions of the city: Northwest, Southwest and Far Northeast Denver. STRIVE Prep’s overall student enrollment includes 49% English Language Learners, 97% students of color and 87% eligibility for free- or reduced-price lunch.
When I entered the building, students were transitioning from classes, and the school environment was welcoming, friendly and high energy. I was struck by inspirational quotes of famous people who have pioneered success in their chosen fields. Albert Einstein’s “The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing” and other quotes lined bright orange walls strategically placed above the classroom door entrances. Students inside their classes appeared very engaged and on task, more than expected heading into the last leg of the school year. I have been in many schools and met many administrators, and found both to be equally impressive at RISE.
Soon after arriving, Elisha greeted me and we went into her office to talk about RISE and what led her here. I was surprised to find that Elisha, like myself, had been skeptical of charters when she made the decision to leave Denver Public Schools to pursue her administrator’s license. Her concerns were removed when she was assured in conversations with Chris Gibbons (the CEO of STRIVE Preparatory Schools) that “all scholars would be served” and “scholars would not be counseled out of our school,” which was a past critique Elisha held about charter schools.
“There is a level of innovation and autonomy that we have at charters, also being able to start a school from the ground up,” is what interested Elisha most. Taking over a well-established traditional public school did not interest her, she was drawn to redefining the high school experience for scholars. Elisha’s depth of experience, confident presence, world travel and too many accolades to mention were inspiring. She resembled one of those individuals I wished had been my school leader at some point while teaching.
“My vision of a successful school is a place where scholars feel valued, safe and where their social and emotional needs are met at the first level,” Elisha added. “Scholars must learn invaluable social skills, ways to be empowered—to change the world, of course—and be able to ace any standardized test that comes before them to maximize future opportunities. A successful school is a scholar-centered one.”
Academics are top priority at RISE, which offers intensive college preparatory curriculum, including mandatory AP coursework and graduation requirements that exceed the Colorado Department of Higher Education requirements.
As a now more open-minded parent and educator, I see RISE as a worthy option in preparing students for the future challenges of college and creating emerging leaders within our communities.
Lisa Canova is a parent and former elementary teacher who has also worked in the fields of special education, gifted and talented education and leadership programming for elementary and middle school children. She has a master’s degree in literacy, and has co-authored academic articles researching the integration of social and emotional wellness teaching through literature. She is author of the book, “Teach Happy, Educating Wellness for Success” available in May. www.teachhappy.com