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August 2011

Head Start

This month, University Prep charter school opens its doors. Founder David Singer, a former secondary-level math teacher, wants to ensure that all his new elementary students end up graduating from college. Here's how he plans to do it.

Every young teacher wants to make an impact. I wanted to teach mathematics and fix mathematics in America. I taught high school for six years and realized I was starting too late in their academic years.

Third grade reading is the number one predictor of academic success. If you can solve that problem, you can solve high school dropout problems—and even some health-care problems. Our students will spend three hours a day working on literacy with two full-time teachers, nearly 190 days a year.

Want to fix the economy? Fix education. You want to fix health care? Fix education.

It should be vigorous and challenging to open up a school. But the difference-maker isn’t money, it’s people. We still need to do a better job funding schools, but nothing is more important than selecting the adults we put in front of our kids.

We’re looking for teachers who are humble, hungry, and smart, ready to change the world but still wanting to be molded and grow.

Teaching is a performance-based profession. Our teachers plan lessons, present them to our team, and get feedback. Then they present the lesson again.

Everyone here has skin in the game. We have four to five parent-staff “touches” before school starts. We sit around a table and explain our expectations. Every teacher does a home visit. We have a contract: Your child has to be at school every day, has to do her homework, and wear a uniform every day. We all sign it.

We use everything as a learning opportunity. If a kid comes into the school, we ask him how he’s doing, and he says, “Good.” We say, “Give me another word for good. Jubilant, joyous, fabulous.”

We’re starting with kindergarten and first grade because getting it right is really tough. The smaller you are, the quicker you can adjust and fix errors and ensure that everyone is moving in the right direction. You have to get the culture right.

Five-year-olds don’t take themselves off the college path. Adults take them off. I’ve never met a five year old who doesn’t want to learn.

I want 100 percent of our high school seniors ready for a college program, with an admissions letter to college in hand.

Our first college trip with our students and parents is this September. It might be the first time that some of the parents have stepped on a college campus. The University of Denver is only a few miles away, but right now, it’s another world.

-Interview by Patrick Doyle