Launch High School students. Photo by Cameron Moix
Photo by Cameron Moix

Launch High School in Colorado Springs is finishing its first semester — and although the charter institution is smaller and more streamlined than originally anticipated, its educators say they’re pleased with its trajectory.

When the Business Journal first spoke to Head of School Patrick Cush and his brother David Cush (CEO of Virgin America airlines) in 2014, the two had plans to start an entrepreneurial high school — the first of its kind — in Colorado Springs that would be graduating its first class by 2020.

At the time, the school-to-be was submitting a charter application to Colorado Springs School District 11 — which included an endorsement from Sir Richard Branson himself — to become an alternative to the traditional learning environments available in the city. The Cush brothers’ vision was to create a collaborative, free-flowing learning environment for children in need of a change from the norm.

But in winter 2014, District 11 denied authorization of Launch’s charter application, forcing Patrick Cush to submit an appeal to the state of Colorado. After much negotiation, Launch High School was given a charter through the Colorado Charter School Institute, the state’s only non-district charter school authorizer.

“We applied with CSI [the charter institute], received a large grant and were on our way,” Cush said.

Although the school is geographically located in 20,000 square feet of leased space (the former Holy Trinity Catholic School) at 3115 Larkspur Drive in District 11, it is not a D-11 school.

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After the school’s charter was sorted out and a location was pinned down, Cush got to work recruiting potential students. In August, as the first day of school was approaching, he thought Launch was on track to fill the 85 desks they had accounted for — but only 40 showed up for class.

“We had our numbers, and then a lot of people got cold feet,” he said. “Enrollment was only about half what we were hoping for. … In a way it’s a blessing, because it allows us to be nimble and adapt to any changes that come along.”

Because of the lackluster student population numbers and its innovative programming, Cush said “people wondered if [Launch] would make it past year one.” But with help from the charter institute, grants and additional donations, he said Launch continues to approach cruising altitude.

Not only is the school entirely focused on the concept of entrepreneurialism, it is also based on a completely nontraditional learning platform. Launch uses a self-paced, project-based, personalized learning platform, Cush said.

And he is convinced that the way the school teaches is the future of education.

“This is the best personalized learning platform I’ve ever seen — pretty much the Holy Grail of education, in my opinion,” Cush said. “And the kids love it, and the parents love it. We almost look for kids who don’t fit in,” he said. “Our students are self-proclaimed weirdos, and they wear that badge with pride.”

Student progress is monitored by teachers, who provide assistance and some traditional classroom instruction. The classes, which also include traditional courses such as science and math, are graded based on practical application and assessments, as well as an annual “demonstration of knowledge and skills.” Most of the work is done on the Google Chromebooks that students receive through the school.

“It’s really about impact, being self-directed, making change and owning your own life,” Cush said. “That’s the entrepreneurship lifestyle — to follow your own path and make things happen.”

Launch includes courses on entrepreneurship, which take students through the steps of developing business plans and proving their concepts from inception to the marketplace.

But Eric Meldrum, who teaches entrepreneurship, said the school is about more than creating future business owners.

“We’re trying to give students the tools and the resources they need to create change in their communities,” he said. “Being an entrepreneur is not just about starting a business — it’s about creating change.”

While some students were drawn to Launch because they already viewed themselves as entrepreneurs, Meldrum said his mission as a teacher is to empower and motivate those who don’t. Teachers at Launch do that by helping to boost students’ confidence and social skills and increasing their access to valuable resources.

Dean of Students Heather Fubelli said the focus on a well-rounded education allows students to succeed.

“We need to bring students better tools for learning,” she said. “I think what we’re churning out now as far as good students and effective citizens isn’t good enough. We don’t have an industrial society anymore, and I think this platform could go global because this is the way people learn now.”

Originally designed as an 11th- and 12th-grade capstone program, Launch is now a dedicated school for students in grades 9 through 12 interested in entrepreneurship. Cush said students must enter the program in 9th or 10th grade. He now expects the first class to graduate in May 2019.

Cush said the staff is currently composed of 11 employees, five of whom are teachers.

“We’re a little bit top-heavy right now because we’re anticipating growth,” he said. “Culture, the personalized learning platform and entrepreneurship — those are our three big draws. One or all really attract kids. I think we’ve only had one student visit and not enroll.”

Cush said that the current location of Launch High School is different than what he had initially envisioned, but that the convenience was too good to pass up.

“We wanted to get a giant warehouse and make it Google meets Starbucks,” he said. “But there are so many codes you have to meet … and finding a place you can cheaply modify is very difficult.”

It’s only temporary, after all.

Cush said students and employees at the school are eagerly awaiting the day they will move into space at the yet-to-be-built YMCA recreation center in downtown Colorado Springs.

“We’re anxious,” he said. “It’s kind of a selling point for us, actually.”