School Spotlight: Westgate Community School
Thursday, November 14, 2019
School Spotlight: Westgate Community School
Director of Communications
It has been so rewarding to visit the wide variety of charter schools across the state. As many of you know, the League is planning to visit all 262 charters in the state to learn more about each individual school, strengths and challenges, and how the League can best support them.
Recently, the League visited Westgate Community School, a charter school serving gifted students, K-12 in Thornton. We met with Sharon Collins, their school leader of seven years and Holly Peterson their communications director. Holly is a parent there, former board member now a full-time employee. Funny, how this happens with invested parents! They were so enthusiastic to show us what makes their school special.
We learned that Westgate is in its 11th year, owns two buildings and 20 acres of land. Not many charter schools can say this. The facility itself was an older office building from the late 1970s. They recently repainted the entire school and updated classrooms with new modern furniture for the students.
The school’s mission states the following: Westgate Community School is a small school of innovation that seeks to serve gifted students who would benefit from a creative, collaborative and less traditional educational environment. Westgate serves 520 students, and Sharon told us they don’t want to expand and increase the overall environment. That was never the plan. They want to stay true to their mission and vision. The small nurturing environment promotes a community where students feel safe, can take risks, and where teachers can individualize curriculum. Their goal as a school is to foster critical thinking, problem-solving, and implement a whole-child approach. They teach kids how to advocate for themselves through classroom projects and service-learning. They’ve hired a restorative educator who incorporates restorative practices throughout the curriculum with the mission of maintaining a positive school culture.
Westgate is non-traditional, not only in its facility but in its approach to educating their students. There are no traditional grade levels. At this school, there are multigrade classrooms such as grades 1-2 and grades 5-6. Students benefit from differentiated, needs-based instruction in language arts and mathematics meaning they are supported or challenged depending on their needs and the subject area.
The classrooms are set up as pods. They include a community space in the center; a gathering place for students to collaborate. The classrooms surround this space. Teachers chose their own furniture. Each pod has its own vibe. Many student projects and artwork are on display in these areas.
An education specialist was hired for the environmental service-learning component which is a fundamental part of the curriculum. Every Friday morning, students gather in groups and study a year-long topic they are passionate about (passion groups). This specialist helps facilitate projects as well as field trips that complement the units of study. One of the passion groups simply called “Bees” is starting with an educational campaign for the entire school. They are creating a pamphlet about safety, benefits and general bee knowledge. The group will be receiving their hives in the spring so their current mission is to ensure the entire community -- students, families, and staff -- are well educated prior to their arrival on campus.
“Special” classes occur on a four-week rotation – art, music, PE, and computer science. Since it was too hard and disjointed for the “special” teachers to meet students once a week, they made a change. When something isn’t working or benefitting the children, charter schools have the advantage of making a shift to see what works better.
The high school located in its own private area in the lower level of the school has about 25 students per grade level. Teachers really know their students. Westgate also partners with Front Range Community College where students take classes and can earn an Associate’s Degree upon graduation. Another unique component of this small school. They had their first graduating class of seniors four years ago.
Due to a generous grant/bond, an environmental education campus is currently being built. This project encompasses about six acres and includes an amphitheater, outdoor classrooms, groomed green space/playing field, classroom gardens, walking paths and an enhanced chicken coop and goat pen. What an amazing vision and just think of all the learning opportunities these students will have!
At the end of our visit, we asked Sharon why she thinks families choose Westgate? She replied, “they believe in our mission and vision along with a K-12 environmental education, the small community, education of the whole child, and a place where teachers really know their students and the individual needs they possess.” How lucky are we that families have a choice like Westgate, where children are accepted for who they are and pushed to meet their full potential in a nurturing, safe environment.