Denver's Rocky Mountain Prep Opens Door to Cutting-Edge Learning Success

Last week a couple of my Education Policy Center friends had the privilege of visiting an innovative Denver charter school that’s serving kids close to my age: Rocky Mountain Prep. This new school is following in the footsteps of successful forebears that serve high-need student populations — placing a foundational emphasis on high expectations with competent, caring and dedicated teachers. But at the same time Rocky Mountain Prep is also pioneering a blended learning model for delivering instruction to enhance the number of students who can be effectively reached.

Currently, the southeast Denver school serves students in pre-kindergarten through 1st grade, but is slated eventually to go through 8th grade. Classrooms use a rotation model in which some students at a given time will be learning on specialized software (including Dreambox), receiving small group instruction, or more focused attention on areas identified where they are struggling. Special grant funding enables a teaching apprentice, rather than an aide, to join the classroom’s lead instructor. The idea enables class sizes to be a little larger while maximizing the impact on student learning during these important formative years.

Photo by Elizabeth Cryan Photography, via Rocky Mtn Prep Facebook page

Interestingly, a couple of the nation’s leading experts on blended learning — Michael Horn and Heather Staker — made their top prediction for blended learning in 2013 that there will be “more rotation models at the elementary school level.” If that’s the case, then Rocky Mountain Prep may be at the cutting edge of an important trend in Colorado. Extended learning time gives the staff more opportunity to have a positive effect, as well as something that other schools might emulate.

School founder James Cryan (old to me, but young to some of the big people I know) is a former Teach for America middle school instructor with private-sector experience whose humility and compassion for students are evident. Four months into a monumental challenge that also offers some promising rewards ahead, he clearly has a desire to help students overcome challenges and to better figure out how to make the enterprise work. The 21st century environment increasingly demands administrative flexibility in the service of customized learning opportunities.

The recent visit offered a reminder of the importance of getting it right. More educational entrepreneurs are needed who are both committed to applying the well-established principles of successful learning, and willing to test innovative approaches that will end up disrupting the broken system. Until then, all the best to the scholars and staff at Rocky Mountain Prep!