Westside mom leading creation of charter school
21st Century to take kids who might slip through the cracks

       Pamela Staley, a Midland resident and longtime volunteer in District 11 schools, is helping start a new charter school within the district that's intended to give better opportunities to students from low-achieving backgrounds.
       The K-8 school, with openings for 257 students, is called 21st Century Charter School @ Colorado Springs and is to open this fall in to-be-constructed buildings in the Hillside area. The chief backer is the GEO Foundation, which originated 21st Century schools in Indiana.
       “We're targeting kids who need to get caught up,” Staley said. Her philosophy is that the time to keep children from falling behind is elementary school. What happens in certain lower-income areas is that grades K-5 students often are less challenged than in more affluent areas and “get advanced along without meeting the curriculum,” she said. Meanwhile, parents are led to believe everything is fine. But when such students move up to middle school and later high school - mixing with more advanced kids - they and their parents are frequently shocked to find out how far behind they are. This eventually can lead such students to rebel, turn to crime or drop out of school, Staley said.
       Her comments were underscored by John Hayden, principal/lead teacher of GEO's first 21st Century school, which was chartered by the mayor of Indianapolis, Ind., three years ago. “There are no social promotions,” he told the Westside Pioneer over the phone, describing a main tenet of the school. For example, “a child is a third-grader only when he learns the second- grade material.” At the same time, students stay with their age groups, learning at their own pace and following their individual learning plans. In that scenario, “What's really fascinating is that they (students who were behind) start to gain the norm,” Hayden said.
       21st Century schools have a longer school year (194 days) and longer school days. That way, Hayden said, “kids have the opportunity to come in during the summer and advance their studies.”
       Computers are a key part of the process. Working with parents, the school seeks to get computers in all students' homes, loaded with the necessary software so that they can get “real-time corrections” for mistakes, Hayden said.
       The first Indianapolis 21st Century school “was so successful so quickly, people wanted us to start other schools,” Hayden said. There are now several across the state of Indiana, he noted.
       Added Staley, who has studied the Indiana model, “Now all the Indiana kids want to go to college.”
       Staley has been an often-outspoken critic of District 11, focusing at times on individual teachers or principals who she's accused of shortchanging students. Even while she was volunteering in Westside D-11 schools and serving on various district committees targeting educational improvement, she has charged that her own son, now in eighth grade, fell behind while attending District 11 schools. Now it turns out a problem with dyslexia was affecting him, she said - a condition the schools had never tested him for. “You'd think they'd have done it just to shut me up,” Staley commented, wryly.
       Last summer, she organized “a crew of moms” to walk neighborhoods and survey people to see if they wanted better schools. When they were done, she said they had “1,500 people who told us they wanted more information.”
       Staley met Kevin Teasley, president and founder of the GEO Foundation, at a seminar in Arkansas. He had previously worked for school choice in Colorado. “When I heard he had ties in Colorado, 'I said, 'Hey, can you come down to the Springs?'” Staley recalled. “Once we proved we had parent interest, they (GEO) started looking.”
       The charter for the school was approved by the District 11 Board of Education in December. This was despite a recommendation for denial from a district administrative team, which expressed a written concern about “the difficulty of trying to teach small groups of students and ensure that all students are progressing with on-line efforts.”
       Staley rejected one criticism she's heard, that in bringing 21st Century to Colorado Springs she's been a “puppet” of prominent Colorado Springs businessman and school voucher proponent Steve Schuck. “This has been a parent movement, a mom-led crusade,” she said. “We found the funding, not him.” Besides, she added, “How is Schuck on the 14th floor of a downtown building going to find Pam on Wheeler Street?”
       The Colorado Springs 21st Century school will require that each teacher be bilingual. The principal will also be the lead teacher. Teacher hirings are going on now. Hirees will be trained in Indianapolis.
       Applications for students will start being accepted Feb. 1, Staley said. She said she expects to get about half the students from outside District 11. Her main concern is not filling the 257 seats, she said, but that there won't be enough room for all who want to attend the school.
       More information will be available at the 21st Century booth at the School Fair Saturday, Jan. 22 at the Southern Colorado Expo Hall, 1801 N. Union Blvd.

Westside Pioneer article