September 17, 2009 News » Cover Story

Zachary McComsey 

Founder and executive director, Atlas Preparatory School

A great irony in Colorado Springs is that many lower-income students are not prepared for college, but spend all day with adults with college degrees. This is because to be a public school teacher in Colorado, you have to graduate from a four-year college, without exception. And yet for many students living here, going to college and becoming a teacher is never an option.

Colorado Springs has an achievement gap between its lower-income kids and their more affluent counterparts, whether anyone wants to say it or not. Last year, fewer than 15 percent of the students qualifying for free and reduced lunches in our city were at grade level on the 10th-grade CSAP math exam. The majority of these students were also very likely to attend a high school where the average ACT score was a 17 or less. (On average, you need at least a 24 to be competitive.)

These may sound like more meaningless standardized test scores, but in reality these numbers state the following for a local kid: If you qualify for a discount on your chicken nuggets (as some 25,000 students in the Springs do), it is statistically unlikely that you will ever get into and/or graduate from a four-year college. Fair or not, this is a fact.

Put simply, Atlas Preparatory School aims to be part of the broader solution that unlinks the prevailing correlation between discounted chicken nuggets and college preparedness. Our idea is not that everyone has to go to college to be happy or to contribute meaningfully to society and family; we all know this to not be the case. But think about what the words "equality" and "diversity" and "fairness" mean when more than 85 percent of a very large swath of the student population here are denied preparation for the college degree required to be a doctor, accountant, lawyer, architect, and, yes, teacher.

College may not be for everyone, but college preparation and the academic and professional opportunities that come with a degree should be a choice for every student in Colorado Springs. To get there, the following tangible suggestions could help further close our achievement gap by 2010:

• Mandate that all Colorado Springs high schools track and publish how many of their students attend and graduate from a four-year college. This data is not currently available and significantly limits the quality of discourse around education equity and reform when it comes to college readiness.

• Visit actual schools and get a feel for what excellence looks like here in the Springs and elsewhere when it comes to schools serving a high percentage of lower income students. Feel free to visit Atlas Prep anytime (atlasprep.org has our contact info). We also recommend watching the videos of the following wildly successful urban school networks: KIPP (kipp.org), Uncommon Schools (uncommonschools.org) and Achievement First (achievementfirst.org).

• Convene admissions directors from local colleges to hear what they have to say about how many qualified lower-income student applications they receive from high schools in the Springs. These are the true gatekeepers of post-secondary education, and they can accurately inform local leaders of what the current state of education for lower-income kids looks like, in terms of college entrance, readiness and graduation.

Zach McComsey, founder and executive director of Atlas Preparatory School, studied successful urban schools across the country through the Building Excellent Schools Fellowship and worked locally as an El Pomar Foundation Fellow. He holds degrees from Colorado Christian University and Harvard Divinity School.


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