Set the scene: Colorado Springs 2006. A tiny, shag-carpeted, rented office across the street from a McDonald's. Three 20-something guys, "quite a bit chubbier" from all the burgers and fries they've been eating, revved up on nothing but a big idea for a new school.
"That was the sexiness," says Antonio Rosendo, co-founder and managing director of Atlas Preparatory School. "There was no game plan, no facility. There was nothing. And I think that was attractive. ... It was high-stakes."
Flash forward eight years. Rosendo and Zach McComsey, lead founder and executive director, have gone from pitching a one-sheet concept door-to-door in Harrison School District 2 to overseeing a six-grade charter school with expansion plans supported by a new $750,000 grant from El Pomar Foundation. (Third co-founder Julian Flores has moved on to start an outdoors-oriented company.)
Out of a remodeled '80s-era office building on Murray Boulevard, their program runs 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., basically year-round — this session started July 28 and wraps up June 26, 2015. Approximately 85 full- and part-time staff members, most of whom are young professionals, lead nearly 700 uniform-wearing students in grades 5 to 10. About 90 percent of the kids qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, and most actually eat three meals a day on-site.
The Atlas approach emphasizes education, character and community equally. As Rosendo explains, "We understand that you can't just say, 'Here kid, here's a book. Now all these other bad things in your life are gonna be better because you can now read this book."
Rosendo, 35, sits in a squeaky chair behind a standard teaching desk. As he leans forward into conversation, the bare white office walls can hardly contain his passion.
His journey here began in Englewood, where he got recruited to play football for Colorado College. Post-CC, he headed to Boston, working as a personal trainer while trying to write the Great American Novel. After a while, he came back to Colorado and got his master's in education from Denver University.
"I kinda always had a chip on my shoulder because I was from Englewood, and wanting to serve kids who didn't have a lot," he says. "You know, Englewood [High School] is kinda this middle- to low-income school, not a lot of high expectations. Good school ... but it wasn't like people were pushing super hard."
During grad school, Rosendo says, he was one of the only students who wanted to teach underserved populations. So in 2004, he landed back at Englewood for student-teaching. "I got pretty disillusioned," he says, "because there were a lot of teachers who were telling me to lower my expectations."
From there, he taught Spanish at a private school, then worked for a turnaround elementary in Denver that was 100 percent Latino and 99 percent free or reduced-price lunch students. His next step was back at CC, as assistant director of admissions and athletic liaison. And it was there where he started pondering his future more seriously.
"I think that was where some of the hunger, the entrepreneurial hunger started to grow, right? You're at an institution that's been around for 150 years — and this is not a bad statement on CC — it was just more like, what's possible? What's out there? ... Where can I have impact?"
Along the way, he'd met Zach McComsey, who was having many of the same thoughts. McComsey had graduated from Colorado Christian University and Harvard Divinity School, then spent two years in an El Pomar Foundation fellowship before training for a year in Boston at the "high expectations, high performance"-focused Building Excellent Schools program. But it was a teaching gig in the Dominican Republic that lit his fire to impact underserved populations.
It takes two weeks to get McComsey on the phone — for good reason. In the background of the call, bells chime, reminding students it's time to reconvene and accentuating his newest role at Atlas. This semester, the 33-year-old is teaching a full load of classes on top of handling executive director duties.
"We just realized that we needed to emphasize more the profession of teaching," he says by way of explanation. He adds: "I think a lot of teachers are respected, and I think a lot of people have had really good teachers in their lives, but I think it's pretty hard for accomplished professionals to consider the profession."
It's a rare person in particular, he adds, who gets into urban education as a teacher and stays on as a teacher, because they feel pressure to become an administrator or leader of some sort — not necessarily because they want to, but in many cases because the pay is better.
After trying out a number of innovations over the years, McComsey and Rosendo pride themselves this year on getting back to basics, putting "a really great teacher in a classroom with some really great kids that may have some needs," McComsey says. They're investing in higher salaries, and encouraging teachers to stay longer, particularly by trying to reinforce an entrepreneurial spirit. "Even though you're just teaching a class right now," Rosendo asks their employees, "do you understand that you're creating Atlas right now, in the day-to-day, as you're creating this class?"
Even with all of his other duties — working with the school's board of directors, budgeting, fundraising and more — McComsey wanted to be part of that.
"When you're a doctor," he says, "you're a doctor until you're probably 50, 60, 70 years old. If you're a lawyer, you're practicing law until you're 50, 60, 70, and we want teachers to feel that same pride and prestige."
Rosendo isn't teaching, but he's taken on more at the other end of the school's spectrum: running two grade levels, managing some of Atlas' principals — there is one for each grade — and keeping "the school's largest interest in mind."
As part of D-2, Atlas receives the same per-pupil funding as other schools. So to grow its specialized programs, it relies on outside fundraising. One mechanism this year is Indy Give! But the biggest boon in school history is October's $750,000 gift from El Pomar, which will fund the renovation of new space so Atlas can add both 11th and 12th grades, one grade each over the next two years.
El Pomar chairman and CEO Bill Hybl told the Gazette that trustees recognize the school's "sense of learning, sense of commitment and sense of dignity that transcends to the students and parents involved."
Rosendo emphasizes that Atlas' team is not just teaching kids, but "trying to figure out some secret sauce that gives them access to chase what we all get to chase, which is, why shouldn't you be able to chase a good life? You shouldn't, because you're in fifth grade, be [limited] to have only what your parents have. ...
"Our big dream is to create a partnership and/or infrastructure that really is sustainable. And I think that our population here has that potential, but someone has to step up. That could be individuals, that could be a tax base ... I don't pretend to dream the exact road map to what that is, but if people start investing and caring about this, there's real potential."