When new teacher James Cryan ’07 walked into his sixth grade reading and writing classroom on the first day of school in 2007, he was faced with a daunting task.
Teach For America had placed Cryan in a public school in southwest Denver. Ninety-five percent of the students were at or below the poverty level, and half spoke a language other than English at home. Cryan’s sixth graders had yet to progress beyond a second-grade reading level.
Despite those significant obstacles, Cryan was determined to get his students up to par—and he did. During his two-year stint teaching at the school,
Cryan’s team’s students demonstrated double-digit improvement on state tests—the greatest increase of any reading and writing middle school class in the district. “My kids were just rock stars,” Cryan said. “But knowing the quality of their middle school and the high school they were going to, I can’t promise you that they’ll make it.”
Of the more than 400 students who started in West High School’s Class of 2008, only half graduated, and only four were able to enroll in a college without first taking remedial coursework. “These kids need tremendous and transformational leaders in order to beat the odds that are stacked against them,” said Cryan. “I was a good teacher. But I don’t think I was a great teacher.”
So after two years Cryan left Teach For America to take up what he thought was his true interest: interning for a clean-energy firm in Massachusetts. Cryan had spent much of his free time at Colby in the outdoors, climbing mountains and scaling cliffs. Working on environmental issues seemed a natural fit.
But, to his surprise, the work didn’t excite him. “It didn’t seem that important after teaching in Denver,” Cryan said. “It wasn’t impactful enough. I couldn’t see any immediate change coming out of my work.”
He began daydreaming about how he could help his former students get into college and came up with a plan—to establish a new charter school. He had seen successful charters before, and he knew southwest Denver would be fertile territory.
So in 2010 he enrolled in an M.B.A. program for school leadership and began working long hours in order to build a new school from scratch. Cryan earned the board of education’s stamp of approval early this summer, and Rocky Mountain Prep is scheduled to open its doors to its first class of students in the fall of 2012.
“In my old classroom I was successful for most kids, but not all kids,” said Cryan. “But if you can have these kids for ten years, instead of an hour, you’re truly sending them on a path to be competitive with some of best school districts in the country. That’s who we’re pitting ourselves against.”
Some already have said that Cryan, 27, is too young to found a school, but he shakes off their skepticism. “I’m certainly young, but that’s a bit of an advantage too,” he said. “You have to be pretty young and dumb and willing to work crazy hours to make this happen. It’s motivating for me.”
—Robin Respaut ’07