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Alum’s charter school aims to prepare kids for college

In July, James Cryan’s application to open a charter school in Denver was approved by the Denver Public Schools (DPS) board. A month later, the 27-year-old earned an MBA in school leadership from the University of Denver.

Cryan’s charter school, Rocky Mountain Prep, will be a rigorous academic preparation school for pre-K through eighth grade. It is scheduled to open in August 2012. In the interim, Cryan and his two-person leadership team are busy doing everything from developing a curriculum and starting the process of hiring teachers to searching for a building in south Denver to house the school.

By this time next year, “we need to be perfect operationally,” says Cryan, a former teacher. “In education, so many good plans fall down in the execution phase.”

On his LinkedIn page, Cryan lays out his philosophy for the school: “Rocky Mountain Prep believes that there are no excuses for failure in education. Currently, 91 out of 100 students in south Denver will not graduate from college. Every day we will work to dramatically change the educational outcomes for our students by delivering a rigorous, standards-based college-prep education. The mission of Rocky Mountain Preparatory School is to prepare children in grades PK-8 with the academic preparation, character development and individualized support necessary to succeed in and graduate from high school and a 4-year college.”

Cryan has visited more than 60 charter schools around the country that serve low-income, high-risk populations similar to those his school will serve, he says. A charter school is a public school that uses public money — along with donations — but is governed independently, with autonomy to experiment with curriculum, teacher contracts and special services.

Cryan has recruited experienced board members for the school and also is getting advice on curriculum development and early childhood education from DU professors and several organizations that support innovative schools.

One of the people Cryan reached out to for advice is Ginger Maloney, director of DU’s Marsico Institute for Early Learning and Literacy and former dean of the Morgridge College of Education.

“I think he’s part of that new breed of educational entrepreneurs,” Maloney says of Cryan. “He’s clearly passionate about the goal and mission. There are lots of us standing behind him to help.”

The process of getting approved for the charter school was grueling. Cryan wrote a 585-page application. With a group of volunteers, he visited families in south Denver to get support for the school; they responded with 300 letters that he submitted with his application to DPS.

The DPS board voted unanimously to approve the school. The Colorado Department of Education recently named the Rocky Mountain Prep the “high potential” school in Colorado, selecting it as the most promising start-up charter school, Cryan says.

Cryan came up with the idea of a charter school after teaching for two years at Denver’s Rishel Middle School through the Teach for America program. As a sixth-grade teacher, he led his students to more than 2.3 years of reading growth in one year. “But they came to me 2½ years behind from where they should have been,” he says.

He decided that to help more students before they fell behind in middle school, he would start a charter school that offered a rigorous education starting in pre-K.

“Research has shown that students who receive a high-quality education starting with pre-K are more likely to graduate college and make more money and report living happier lives,” he says.

To accomplish Cryan’s rigorous goals in teaching literacy and math – and so students can take art, physical education and a dedicated science class every day – Rocky Mountain Prep students will attend school 90 minutes longer each day than Denver Public Schools students. The school year will be 19 days longer, Cryan says.

The school also will have a strong and regular assessment system, “so we know how every single one of our scholars and teachers are performing,” Cryan says. “Once we have that knowledge, we’ll be able to respond to our scholars’ needs as a school.’’

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