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Denver charter networks Rocky Mountain Prep and STRIVE Prep to merge

Students and staffers at Rocky Mountain Prep’s first charter school in Denver cheer in 2012. (Photo by The Denver Post)

Rocky Mountain Prep opened its first charter school in 2011. STRIVE Prep dates back to 2006.

The Denver Post

Denver charter networks Rocky Mountain Prep and STRIVE Prep will merge to create one system serving students in preschool through 12th grade, leaders of the local networks announced Wednesday.

Collectively, the two systems serve more than 5,000 students at 14 schools, the large majority of them students of color from low-income families. The combined system would be the second-largest charter network in Denver after DSST. 

The decision comes as STRIVE Prep founder Chris Gibbons leaves after 16 years and as Denver schools — district-run and charter alike — struggle with declining enrollment and meeting the needs of families that have endured intense stress during the pandemic. The charter sector also faces a more skeptical school board after many years in which Denver Public Schools embraced what leaders called “a family of schools.”

The merger will take effect July 1, 2023, with the next year spent working out the logistics. Rocky Mountain Prep CEO Tricia Noyola will become the head of the combined system, which will operate under the STRIVE Prep name. Both networks’ boards approved the merger in separate meetings Wednesday. 

A woman with funky red highlights, bold makeup and chunky earrings smiles for a portrait. She’s Tricia Noyola, educator and CEO of Rocky Mountain Prep. In 2023, she’ll become the CEO of a combined Rocky Mountain Prep and STRIVE Prep network.

Tricia Noyola

Courtesy of Strive Prep

Each network will continue to operate independently for this school year. Former STRIVE Prep General Counsel Jessica Johnson will serve as interim CEO of that network until the merger, while Noyola will continue to lead Rocky Mountain Prep.

Charter leaders said the merger will allow them to reduce spending on administrative costs and put more resources into programs that directly benefit children, while bolstering social and emotional support, college counseling, and academic rigor across their schools. 

“We have to dedicate every resource we can as close to the kids as possible,” Noyola said in an interview. “We’re going to be able to do a much better job serving our families.” 

Ulysses Estrada, a STRIVE Prep alum and board member who led the succession planning after Gibbons’ departure was announced, said the network’s families had an interest in finding elementary schools that would prepare their children well, improving academic rigor across grades, and sustaining the things the network does well.

Leaders at both networks, he said, “are really passionate about serving every student and about the power of education to change the trajectory of your life.” The shared mission and values make the merger exciting, he said.

Noyola grew up in the Rio Grande Valley in South Texas before working as a teacher, principal, and executive director of the IDEA Public Schools charter network in Austin. She came to Rocky Mountain Prep last year. 

Noyola said she knows from personal experience that dreams and ambitions exist everywhere but opportunity does not. When she coaches teachers, she emphasizes the importance a few caring adults can make in the life of a child. She’s proud of the high levels of reading proficiency Rocky Mountain Prep students show on nationally normed tests, as well as the love of learning she sees in its classrooms. 

Families have been asking for secondary options so their students can continue in similar learning environments, she said. Noyola said the merger also provides an opportunity to strengthen programming in fourth and fifth grade to make sure students are prepared for more advanced work. Having one system allows for more alignment of expectations from one grade to the next, she said.

“I truly believe that every child can achieve with supportive adults around them,” she said. “I’m honored to come to this work. We’re going to do our best to fulfill our promises to every family we serve.”

​​Bureau Chief Erica Meltzer covers education policy and politics and oversees Chalkbeat Colorado’s education coverage. Contact Erica at emeltzer@chalkbeat.org.

Read the joint letter to the community in English and Spanish below:

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