Flight Plan: Brothers hope to launch entrepreneurial high school

Educator Patrick Cush (above) and brother David Cush, CEO of Virgin America, are presenting the District 11 Board of Education with an application for a new charter school to be located downtown.

Educator Patrick Cush (above) and brother David Cush, CEO of Virgin America, are presenting the District 11 Board of Education with an application for a new charter school to be located downtown.

The only things bigger than the bites on a Cush brothers fishing trip are the ideas.

“Some beer, sunshine and time on a boat and it all came together,” said David Cush, the San Francisco-based CEO of Virgin America airlines.

“It was like a lightning strike,” added his brother, Patrick Cush. “Let’s start an entrepreneurial school.” Patrick, a Colorado Springs resident, worked as a District 11 administrator for nearly eight years, including as an assistant principal and dean of students. He earned his master’s in leadership in education from UCCS.

David worked his way to the top of Virgin America via 22 years with American Airlines and two years as COO of Argentinean airline Aerolineas.

Now the two are joining forces to bring the first entrepreneurial charter high school to Colorado Springs.

The timeline

If all goes according to plan, Launch High School’s downtown campus, at a location to be determined, will graduate its first class in 2020, Patrick said.

“Over the past couple years, this has been going in fits and starts,” he said. “We decided to go full steam ahead in March 2013. We went to the community to recruit help and to find families who’d like to be involved.” 

Patrick said they are in the “crucial phase” of submitting a charter school application to District 11’s board.

“The board will take a few months to review the application,” Patrick said. “I guess there is some concern they wouldn’t be interested, but the reception so far has been positive. I’ve spoken with board members and the interest seems to be there.”

David said one thing that sets this charter school apart is a substantial endorsement — that of the Virgin Group and Sir Richard Branson himself.

“Virgin’s mentorship is the first step toward incubator financing, a low level of financing,” David said, adding, “Virgin is careful about what it lends its name to. It’s one reason the district should look on this favorably during the decision-making process. This school will have access to tools, information and methods that other charter schools don’t have access to. I spoke to Richard [Branson] in Dallas and he thinks it’s tremendously interesting.”

Virgin Unite, the philanthropic arm of the Virgin Group, has used its resources to support education before, including the creation of the Branson School of Entrepreneurship in Johannesburg, South Africa, and a similar school in Kingston, Jamaica.

“Charter schools have to meet the needs and demands of the area and the demographic,” Patrick said. “While Launch will be very different from Johannesburg and Kingston, we’ll learn what we can from them, especially on the curriculum front. And they all share a system of mentoring. A big part of the program is connecting students with like-minded mentors.”

The model

David Cush said his involvement with education, including serving on the board for an inner-city charter school in Las Vegas, as well as on the development board for his alma mater Southern Methodist University, has provided him with very different perspectives.

“I’ve been involved with education in very different ways. The school in Las Vegas had a very traditional structure,” he said. “There was discipline and uniforms, and it was effective back then and still is. On the opposite end, I spent a lot of time with SMU, a wealthy, private university where you either have to be extremely wealthy or extremely gifted to attend. I have lots of respect for both institutions.”

David said Launch’s curriculum will build from those experiences and involve “blended, personalized and authentic, project-based learning.”

Blended learning includes the traditional teacher-student dynamic combined with web-based instruction. Each student will receive an “Internet device” to access curriculum.

“Denver and Boulder have reputations as entrepreneur towns. Colorado Springs is on the cusp of breaking into that realm. We want to be a part of that and sustain it over time.” 

– Patrick Cush

Personalized learning, Patrick said, includes addressing individual learning styles and assigning specific personnel based on interests. Project-based learning involves starting a business while still in high school.

“Students can start a nonprofit or an enterprise,” David said. “They can start their lives now. This is a great way to have a practice run. It won’t matter if they fail a little.”

Patrick Cush said times are changing, and education must adapt: “There seems to be a shift for those in their 20s and 30s and even their 40s. The entrepreneur economy works for them. I’ve seen estimates that in 2020, half of the country’s workforce will be freelance. Younger generations like the idea that they can learn and earn from anywhere and at any time. We’re taking that thinking to secondary learning.

“We’re seeing a shift in young minds toward an entrepreneur economy,” Patrick added. “Denver and Boulder have reputations as entrepreneur towns. Colorado Springs is on the cusp of breaking into that realm. We want to be a part of that and sustain it over time.”

A matter of choice

According to Glenn Gustafson, District 11’s deputy superintendent and chief financial officer, charter schools exist to provide an alternative to traditional public education while still functioning “under the public education umbrella.”

Gustafson said charter schools are held to public school standards regarding testing because they receive public funds, but they often opt out of employment agreements, policies and regulations, allowing more flexibility regarding curriculum. He said all charter school applicants will be weighed equally following the Sept. 1 application deadline.

“We give every charter school applicant a fair shake,” he said. “It’s almost skewed in their favor because we review, then provide feedback and they can change their application before we approve or deny it.”

Gustafson said odds are in a charter school’s favor, as only two applications have been denied in his 20 years with D-11. He added that the board of education takes into consideration four primary factors when considering applications.

“We evaluate each applicant based on the criteria of governance, academics and curriculum, financial viability and operations,” he said, adding there are around 20 sub-characteristics with the four main criteria.

“We look at everything from food service to the school’s mission to its board,” he said. “We want to be sure they are successful and, like any small business, they are dealing with the most risk in the first four years.”

Gustafson said he was reluctant to talk about the specifics of Launch High School because he had not yet seen the application, but did say any monetary backing garnered from an organization like Virgin Unite would certainly add financial sustainability, one of the top criteria.

“All schools have outside resources,” Gustafson said, adding that could take the form of parent/teacher associations, booster clubs or Richard Branson. “Small businesses often fail because they are undercapitalized. Any time a charter is terminated, it’s almost always because of finances, not student achievement.” 

District precedence

District 11 currently has 19 charter schools. Ten of those schools report to the Colorado board of education, seven are within the district’s jurisdiction and two are multi-jurisdictional because of online components, Gustafson said. 

He said charter schools bring with them positives and negatives.

“Charters go one of two routes,” Gustafson said. “One model follows schools opening to a very engaged parent community. The school doesn’t opt for a management company to manage the school but rather allows the parents and board to do it.

“It’s cheaper, and what they don’t pay for management fees can go to curriculum. Management can be 10 to 15 percent of funding. That’s a big cut off the top.”

Gustafson said those schools do well at first, but they can be vulnerable later as students and engaged parents move on.

“These schools can see a roller-coaster of governance, and it can be unhealthy and damaging,” he said, stating the other route involves contracting with an education management organization that can significantly reduce funding from the start.

“Charter schools can be a rub for the district,” Gustafson added. “We’re a declining-enrollment district. We’ve lost 5,000 students over 14 years and charters can create a financial strain on the remaining, traditional D-11 students. District 20 has the largest charter school in the state in The Classical Academy, and they can tell you it diverts resources. Charters are good in that they create healthy competition, but they can also make it challenging for those kids left in traditional schools.”

Patrick Cush said providing a choice for non-traditional students is what Launch is all about: “Public education is still working. This is a great country with a very good system. But the same model doesn’t work for everyone. There are kids in Colorado Springs who would really thrive with this model.”

Gustafson agreed, stating no model is perfect and providing choices is usually positive.

“I’ve seen charter schools do some amazing things,” he said.

For more information on Launch High School’s progress, visit online at launchhigh.org.