Colorado Group Sets Out to Build Many New, Small, High-Quality Schools

Published December 1, 2008

Up to a hundred new, autonomous schools may be started in Colorado over the next decade because of the efforts of Get Smart Schools, a group launched this fall.

The group pools the efforts of politicians, philanthropic organizations, and the education and business communities and has garnered the support of the Denver public school system. It capitalizes on the strong education reform efforts prevailing in the state, said Colorado State Senate President Peter Groff (D-Denver), who is a volunteer for and co-chairman of Get Smart Schools.

“The idea was, why not build schools from the ground up that will seek to serve those [who are] under-served, whether they be poor students, middle-class students, gifted and talented students,” Groff said. “We want to give these students access to a high-quality, high-performing school.”

‘Very Ambitious Goal’

Get Smart Schools is working to create a leadership development program with Colorado universities. The schools will produce graduates qualified to open schools. Get Smart Schools will supply the money and support for them to carry it off, said Executive Director Amy Slothower.

By 2009, Slothower said, they hope three schools will open, and more will follow. Eventually, she said, Get Smart Schools hopes to account for at least 20 percent of Colorado’s K-12 students.

“It’s a very ambitious goal,” Slothower said. Though broken schools are difficult to fix, good ones can be created from scratch, she explained.

Get Smart Schools will be purely privately funded. Slothower said schools cost about $1 million apiece to create, but the investment quickly pays off when 150 smart, well-taught students graduate each year fully prepared for college coursework, and when younger students complete their school year prepared to advance and succeed.

Paving the Way

Legislation passed in Colorado over the past several years has cleared the way for more of these autonomous schools to open. Get Smart Schools plans to take advantage of three different models of autonomous schools allowed in the state.

In addition to charter schools, the group can create pilot schools, which run like contract schools—they control their own budgets and curricula, and the staff creates their own work agreements. The organization can also build innovation schools, which during their formation can opt out of some of the work conditions of union contracts and from standard curricula.

Support from politicians such as Groff will be necessary to ensure no government barriers will hamper Get Smart Schools’ growth.

“Once an urban Democrat who has received a great deal of support from the unions and the public school system speaks out, it gives other people the chance to do the same thing,” Groff said.

“If there are statutory barriers to what some schools want to do or what Get Smart Schools wants to do,” Groff continued, “my role as a legislator would be to create legislation to remove those barriers or lessen the restriction or irritation there may be to the growth of these schools.”

Best Outlet

For Colorado children, Slothower said, this will translate to more and better opportunities. The program emphasizes diversity, and the organization will strive to ensure an average of 40 percent of each student body will be from low-income families.

“People have come to the point where the biggest question we have is, ‘What’s in the best educational interests of the child?'” Groff said. “I think we can figure out how to get there. People are looking for outlets where they can put their energy, their hopes, and dreams. They want an outlet like this.”

Jillian Melchior ([email protected]) writes from Michigan.