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Stories of Promising Practice: CIVA Charter High School

Thursday, October 5, 2017


When CIVA Charter High School in Colorado Springs opened its doors 20 years ago, it viewed itself as a college preparatory high school with strong emphases on arts and character development. Somehow, though, the school in its first years was informally labeled an “alternative” high school, said current principal Randy Zimmerman, who has been at CIVA’s helm for 11 years.

That wasn’t how CIVA and its founders viewed the school, but the label stuck for a time and became a self-fulfilling prophecy. Other high schools in Colorado Springs District 11 tended to steer kids who didn’t fit in or weren’t experiencing success, toward CIVA.

During Zimmerman’s tenure, CIVA has worked steadily to transform the school’s reputation so that the district, families, and others in the community see it as a rigorous, college prep high school with a sense of connection among students and staff, and an extensive highly celebrated fine arts program.

The school located in a light industrial area just off Interstate 25 in north-central Colorado Springs. CIVA, an acronym for Character, Integrity, Vision, and the Arts opened 20 years ago as an intentionally small school with a total enrollment in grades 9-12 of just under 200 students.

Some 38 percent of CIVA students qualify for free or reduced-cost school lunches. The student body is about 70 percent white, 15 percent Latino and 15 percent African American.

CIVA also places a high value on welcoming foreign exchange students. Roughly 10 percent of the student body consists of students from countries around the globe who spend one year studying at CIVA.

When the school opened in 1997 it was closely modeled on the Hyde School in Bath, Maine, a boarding school that places a strong emphasis on character development. The Hyde influence is still in evidence at CIVA but is no longer the school’s dominant guiding philosophy.

A major turning point in transforming the school came when Zimmerman decided to bring in a program called Quantum Learning just over eight years ago. He described the program as a brain-based approach to the educational process. Quantum Learning teaches educators how “the brain naturally codes information,” and provides quality instruction on how to structure lessons accordingly.

One focus is on attention span, following the theory that 15 minutes is the longest most people can focus on a specific task using a single approach. Consequently, most classroom lessons at CIVA are taught in 15-minute blocks, with teachers shifting between visual, auditory and kinesthetic approaches to instruction.

Quantum Learning also focuses on classroom and school culture, and this aspect of the program contributed significantly to CIVA’s transformation. Sean Dineen, a social studies and English teacher in his 11th year at CIVA, explained staff and students alike have worked diligently to create an intimate environment where everyone feels known, cared for, and safe.

“We as teachers try to role model in all interactions -- with kids, among teachers, with parents -- the respect that creates that safe environment,” Dineen said.

Quantum’s character education program stresses what it calls the “eight keys of excellence:”

  • Integrity – Match behavior with values
  • Failure Leads to Success – Learn from mistakes
  • Speak with Good Purpose – Speak honestly and kindly
  • This Is It! – Make the most of every moment
  • Commitment – Make your dreams happen
  • Ownership – Take responsibility for actions
  • Flexibility – Be willing to do things differently
  • Balance – Live your best life

To that, CIVA has added a ninth key, inspired by Ultimate Frisbee, which until recently was the school’s only varsity sport.

  • Spirit of the Game -- Maintain a spirit of goodwill in everything we do.

Every month of the school year features a “key of the month.” During weekly all-school assemblies, called Forum, teachers and students tell stories from their lives that highlight the current month’s key.

Students are introduced to Quantum’s major points during a class called Freshman Seminar, which meets twice a week. The class teaches students about “how the brain is inclined to learn,” Dineen said and helps students craft strategies to be successful at CIVA.

Unlike, many schools, where posters listing character values hang from walls but are rarely emphasized on a consistent basis as a foundational part of the learning environment, the keys at CIVA are intentionally woven into the school’s fabric.

The arts remain an important part of the school as was this charter’s original intention. All of CIVA’s electives classes fall under the arts umbrella, and students earn physical education credit by enrolling in courses such as ballet, ballroom dancing, jazz and yoga.

Over the past couple of years, CIVA has introduced a few Advanced Placement (AP) classes, with plans to roll out more over the next few years. Zimmerman said adding AP is the next logical step in transforming CIVA into the rigorous college prep high school it was always intended to be.


Early in 2017, CIVA learned that it had received Gov. John Hickenlooper’s Distinguished Improvement Award for demonstrating exceptional student growth. The school scored a median growth percentile of 62 in English Language Arts and 65 in math.

Last year, 100 percent of CIVA students gained acceptance into four-year colleges. Clearly, the transformation Zimmerman and his staff have been pushing is beginning to bear fruit.

Part of the reasons for the school’s turnaround in recent years has been its ability to attract top teaching talent.

What really made CIVA stand out to visitors was the great affection students feel for the school.

Senior Sean Bergland almost flunked out of middle school and arrived at CIVA with a bad attitude. “My middle school GPA was 1.2. Here it’s 3.8,” he said. “What stood out to me as soon as I got here is how much it seems to be a real community. I felt more at home here from day one.”

Sean will be attending the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs in the fall, and plans to work toward a doctorate in dentistry.

Senior Nate Kaminski came to CIVA at the beginning of his sophomore year, after having a rough experience at one of Colorado Springs’ comprehensive public high schools.

“This is an actual community as opposed to a building with a bunch of people in it,” he said. “Everyone knows everyone, and we treat each other with respect.” Nate will be attending the University of Northern Colorado, and has applied for the honors program.

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