Their names may not often make headlines, but their power as catalysts for transformational work is indisputable. Meet six individuals who are crafting innovative solutions to our community’s most pressing social, educational, cultural, and civic needs.
Founder and CEO, West Denver Prep
West Denver Prep schools look like any other middle school: Kids carry backpacks exploding with textbooks; classrooms are filled with the sounds of binders snapping closed and pencils scribbling. But West Denver Prep has an ambitious goal: ensuring that every single student not only attends, but also graduates from a four-year college.
The man leading the charge is 33-year-old Chris Gibbons, the charter schools’ founder and CEO. Gibbons will be the first to tell you he has a lot of work ahead, because the numbers are nothing short of abysmal: Forty-eight percent of children in Denver Public Schools don’t graduate on time from high school. In 2010, only half of DPS students (grades three through 10) were at or above proficiency level in reading; that statistic drops to 39 percent in math. But Gibbons has lofty ambitions to help fix the state’s education crisis: Within 10 years, he plans to have opened 12 charter schools in four “clusters” (each with two middle schools and one high school) in neighborhoods of need around Denver. He’s already opened four in the past six years.
Students entering West Denver Prep schools—currently located in Southwest and North Denver neighborhoods—are an average of two years below grade level in reading and math. Despite the fact that 90 percent of West Denver Prep’s students receive free or reduced-price lunch and 95 percent are Hispanic or black (both socioeconomic status and race have been correlated to academic performance), all four campuses ranked in the top seven for academic growth within Denver Public Schools, based on the 2011 Colorado Growth Model. The schools were also classified as four of the five highest performing secondary schools in DPS (the other was Denver School of Science and Technology at Green Valley Ranch). “There are lots and lots and lots of students in this country, many low-income, who have been tragically underserved by our education system, and we have an opportunity to believe that can be different,” says Gibbons. “I couldn’t imagine something more important to be doing.”
A high school science teacher by trade, Gibbons spent two years completing the Building Excellent Schools Fellowship, part of a national, independently funded program for charter school creation, before opening his first West Denver Prep campus in 2006 at age 28. Today, it’s still too early to tell if Gibbons’ vision is a success: None of West Denver Prep’s students have gone to a four-year college yet, simply because the first senior class won’t graduate until 2013. But Gibbons has no doubt they’ll get there. “By comparison to what schools in Denver are doing for low-income students, we’ve been very successful,” he says, “but that’s not a bar I’m happy with. By the bar I want to be held to, I think we’re on the right track.”