<h2><I>Western National Bank owners incubate schools</I></h2><B>By LAURIE BUDGAR</B> <FONT SIZE=-1><I>Contributing Writer</I></FONT>

Colorado Springs residents Donald and Susan Sturm have established the Colorado Incubator for Charter Schools, which will provide an “opportunity for kids to get an education that will open a lot of doors for them,” said Sturm Family Foundation executive director Virginia Maloney.

The Sturms are owners of several Colorado banks, including Western National Bank in the Springs, Mesa National Bank in Grand Junction, First National Bank of Boulder and the Bank of Cherry Creek. In addition, Donald Sturm is a “major shareholder” in Continental Airlines and MCI WorldCom.

Using resources from their foundation, the Sturms will operate an “incubator” that offers funding and “hands-on” assistance to groups from low- and moderate-income neighborhoods wishing to develop charter schools. Charter schools represent a method of improving the quality of education, “but are still public,” Maloney said. However, low-income communities often face “almost insurmountable” barriers in starting charter schools.

Barriers include developing the “expertise both in education and in the business of running an organization,” finding suitable facilities for the charter schools and getting the support of the local school board. Funding is also often an issue, since charter schools do not have access to the bond money available to other public schools.

The incubator has “proven to be a good model for helping small businesses get started,” Maloney said. “We figured that the same concept might be very helpful in getting charter schools started.”

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The incubator consists of three tiers. First, a team of consultants, staffed by SBMI Educational and Business Services, meets with the group to help them develop a budget and a sound educational charter that is likely to be accepted by the local school board. “It shows that the group can run the school in an economically meaningful way and they’re not going to fall flat,” Maloney said.

Next, the group can apply to the foundation for a $75,000 grant to be used for staffing and training. They may also be eligible for federal assistance available through the state Department of Education.

Once their charter has been approved, the group can apply to the foundation for low-interest “occupancy support” loans of up to $250,000.

To qualify for the incubator, groups must be located in one of the counties where the Sturms own banks and plan to serve at least 40 percent of their neighborhood children who are eligible for free or reduced price lunches in the public school system.

Finally, the group must demonstrate a commitment to evaluation and quality. “That means being willing to be accountable for the results you achieve with kids,” Maloney said.

Currently, there is one school in the incubator. The foundation hopes to assist four or five schools this year. After that it will assess the success of the program and proceed from there.