It is telling that the founders of Atlas Preparatory School in Colorado Springs, including Antonio Rosendo ’02, chose this name for their school. The teachers and administrators at Atlas feel the weight of the task at hand.
Their students come from low-income, often single-parent homes. Many are reading below their grade level. Some possess behavior problems. Some have grown up disrespecting authority and shouting at one another to communicate, according to Rosendo.
At Atlas Prep, expectations are high. The school day is longer (8 a.m.-4 p.m.) and so is the school year. At 199 days, it is considered a year-round school. The culture is strict. Students wear uniforms and are taught to embody the “REACH” core values of respect, excellence, authenticity, curiosity, and hard work. They double up on reading, writing, math, and science, compared to other schools. These students, starting in fifth grade, are being prepared for college.
“The goal is that these students will attend and graduate from college, and everyone — students, families, and staff — is committed to that goal,” Rosendo said. “We’re asking a lot of them.”
Tony Rosendo was born in Puerto Rico and grew up in Denver. CC recruited him to play football and after a bumpy start, he loved it.
“Comparative literature was my first class, and I felt I was in way over my head. I called my mom panicked saying, ‘I have to read a whole book tonight!’ CC asked a lot of me. I had to work really hard, but I got a lot of support from my coaches and from the registrar, Phil Apodaca. They were always checking in, asking, ‘How’s everything going?’”
After a short time, Rosendo was in the groove at CC and taking advantage of everything offered. He studied abroad three times, in Italy, Wales, and Puerto Rico. He played sports, got involved in community service, and worked in Bemis Hall.
After graduating with his major in English, Rosendo worked at several Denver public schools and became intensely interested in education reform. He got his M.A. in curriculum and instruction from the University of Denver. He came back to CC and worked for two years as assistant director of admission and it all started coming together. Rosendo realized he wanted to start a school.
Working at the public schools, he said he saw a lot that didn’t work: Unmotivated or burned-out teachers who had low expectations of their students, uninvolved families, students who were allowed to act out and misbehave, disrupting classes. But at CC, he saw the type of education he wanted to model in a public charter school.
“I want our students to be able to have experiences like my peers and I had at CC.”
He met Zach McComsey and Julian Flores, who were also passionate about creating a new kind of public school: Intensive, hands-on education with a dedicated, high-quality staff who were committed to supporting the students. The trio decided, “let’s all do this together.”
Rosendo, McComsey, and Flores started Atlas Prep in August 2009 with 87 fifth-graders. Atlas now has 350 students in fifth through seventh grade and nearly 50 staff members. It is a public, charter school and it does not turn away any student who wants to come and work hard. In one year, Rosendo wrote the curriculum for the school, hired all the teachers, and worked to get it chartered in Harrison School District 2 in Colorado Springs.
Only three years after its inception, Atlas Prep’s founders have a lot of be proud of. Kids who came to Atlas reading at a third grade level, three years later are reading at a 10th grade level. The Colorado Department of Education honored Atlas as a “Center of Excellence” in 2010, as part of its effort to recognize schools that are improving academic achievement.
Atlas’s leaders have big plans for the school’s future. A competitive sports program recently started up. In 18 months, they will open Atlas High School, where they hope many Atlas Prep graduates will attend. And a new director of community programs is working to provide support for students’ families, such as on-site childcare, a parent-teacher organization, and after-school programs emphasizing character development and communication skills.
“Many of our students come from families that are challenged to the limit. They struggle to get their kids fed and to school everyday. We want to remove some of their obstacles so their students can come here and be successful,” Rosendo said. “That’s what it’s all about. Student success. In fact, a goal of mine would be to get some of our students into CC in the freshman class of 2017.”
A Natural Connection: Colorado College Alumni and Atlas Prep
Why are there so many CC graduates working at Atlas Prep? Obviously, Rosendo is a big fan of CC and knows many of its graduates. But it’s more than that. The Atlas Prep administration has found CC grads are a natural fit.
“The CC grads we’ve hired have had great success with the kids because they’re up for any challenge. They jump in; they’re used to hands-on education. And they want to make a difference. Our teachers don’t get paid a lot and they work really hard, so they have to be driven to do something that matters.”
On the Atlas Prep Board of Directors: Heather Carroll ’89, president and executive director of the Joseph Henry Edmondson Foundation; Roberto Garcia, director of admission at Colorado College; Steven Vela ’86, president of Ramsay, Stattman, Vela and Price, Inc.
Administrators or teachers at Atlas Prep: Brittney Moore ’10 director of admissions; Brittany Kernan ’04, assistant principal; Stephanie Kernan ’06, fifth-grade writing teacher; Kate Chadwick ’06, homework center teacher and coach; Jessica Kautz ’10, homework center teacher and coach; Margaux Frank ’11, learning lab director; Shiho Ushijima ’11, school counselor aide; and Kevin Cady MAT ’12, seventh-grade writing teacher.