Atlas world scholars enjoy the fountain at Penrose House before taking an exam there. The school stresses education, character and community.
Atlas world scholars enjoy the fountain at Penrose House before taking an exam there. The school stresses education, character and community.

Atlas Preparatory School began developing Colorado Springs’ workforce years ago.

The nonprofit public charter school launched to help grow the community from the ground up, student by student. Efforts target children from low-income families, and the teachers work individually with each student, instructing them in both academic and life lessons to prepare them for adulthood. Each student wears a uniform, and teachers outline the high expectations they have for the students’ behavior.

“Our goal is to get them on a better path, support them academically from a community standpoint, so they can pursue college, a vocational career or going into the military,” said Atlas Executive Director Brittney Stroh. “We go beyond what it means to be a school.”

The Colorado Springs Regional Business Alliance “hears frequently that workforce development really begins with K-12 education,” said Hannah Parsons, chief community development officer for the RBA. “We are in the process of working across the community to better understand unique offerings in the K-12 education space. Atlas Prep definitely fills a void in this area.”

The school is working to fill area workforce needs through two programs that teach skills needed in the local business community: construction and health care. The construction track teaches hard and soft skills for two hours a day. Pikes Peak Community College partners with Atlas for students who want to work in construction.

“We’re helping them get a solid start with health care

before they even graduate high school,” Stroh said. “The idea is that they’ll be workforce-ready.”

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Students at Atlas Preparatory School receive individualized attention from teachers.
Students at Atlas Preparatory School receive individualized attention from teachers.

Building potential

“The goal is not to send every kid to Harvard. It’s to allow kids to have a future,” said Atlas board member Stuart Coppedge of RTA Architects.

“If a kid drops out of school, they’ll probably stay in that community. These kids have greater-than-average challenges. Sometimes the families aren’t really stable or they have a deployed parent.”

And that’s where the school comes in, filling in the gaps and teaching students their own potential.

“The biggest impact has been showing these kids the potential of what they can do,” said board member Rick Mueller. “In many cases they really haven’t been exposed to a lot of opportunities most people have. Atlas has expanded their vision.”

During its first year in 2009, the school enrolled 80 fifth-graders. Each year, another grade was added. Now more than 800 students attend fifth-through-11th-grade classes with 40 teachers.

Using federal education standards, 91 percent of students are qualified for free or reduced-price lunch.

“We quickly realized we needed to serve the whole student,” said Zach McComsey, an Atlas co-founder. “We have a lot of school counselors, a longer school year, a lot of before- and after-school programs.”

Lessons include financial literacy, sex education and health education. Teachers have been a priority to the school’s founders and its board.

“We really pride ourselves on having a professional faculty,” McComsey said. “Our teachers have gone to some of the very best schools, and they work from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. every day.”

All parents and guardians are required to sign an agreement that they will attend parent-teacher conferences and that the students will attend school.

The school helps families with free school supplies, free- or reduced-price uniforms, food and scholarships. In addition, each student receives astipend that can be used for for food, clothing, medical or housing costs, Stroh said.

With the family’s basic needs addressed, the student is better able to focus on schoolwork.

Teachers help the children develop critical-thinking skills in a structured environment. They take on the additional job of teaching them to become responsible members of society by developing values — community service, respect, authenticity and curiosity.

Students are required to complete a community-service project every three months.

Making a difference

Without giving his name, Stroh identified one student as an example of Atlas Prep School’s success. The boy was homeless and separated from his mother when he arrived to begin fifth grade in 2009.

A consistent and positive school environment nurtured the boy as he grew up. Today, he lives with a legal guardian and rides the city bus to school. He always gets there early and leaves late, she said.

“He’s one of our top-performing students,” Stroh said. “For better or worse, Atlas has been the most stable aspect of his life.”

Students don’t pay to attend the preparatory school. Instead, funding comes from grants, gifts, donations and state money.

Because Atlas is a public charter school, it receives per-pupil funding from the Colorado Department of Education every year — $7,192 per child in Colorado Springs. But because the school also covers financial assistance and transportation costs, it needs to raise other money as well.

According to the most recent form 990 filed with the Internal Revenue Service, Atlas received $4.7 million in its tuition segment, $807,000 in government grants, $1.7 million in gifts and grants, and $300,000 from other organizations.

Total revenue was more than $7.5 million, while expenses amounted to more than $6.9 million.