When featuring Carrie Olson, a story inevitably tells the tale of hundreds of children and parents who, despite living in the poorer parts of the city, have raised thousands of dollars to send their children on trips to Washington, D.C., and Europe. Trips that Olson started and continues to manage as a Denver Public School (DPS) teacher and founder of the nonprofit KEEP, or Kepner Educational Excellence Program.
The trips began in 1993, when Olson, a fifth grade teacher at Munroe Elementary, took her students to Washington, D.C., to see the nations Capitol and the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, which had just opened. The trip applied to the students lessons the curriculum for fifth graders includes Americas governmental system, and that year the students were participating in a DPS Anne Frank writing competition.
Its one thing to read about the three branches of our government, but quite another to walk up and see them, Olson said recently, sitting in her classroom at Kepner Middle School.
With this first trip, students and parents were bitten by the travel bug, which had bitten Olson years ago when she traveled to Spain in high school and again in college, when she studied in Seville and Madrid while earning her elementary education and Spanish degree from Wartburg College in Waverly, Iowa.
I took something that was a passion of mine, and it fit with the community. It resonated with a lot of parents, said Olson.
From 1993 to 2000, parents, teachers and students at Munroe worked together to raise money each year for the students to go to D.C.
In 2000, Olson moved to Kepner Middle School with the intention of creating an elective around the D.C. trip for the sixth graders and adding a Europe trip class for eighth graders.
Traveling really opened the world to me, Olson said, and she wanted to share with more students.
Finding success at Kepner, Olson created KEEP five years later and serves as its executive director even though shes still teaching at Kepner.
KEEP provides support for the traveling program, as well as helps manage the students and parents fundraising efforts. KEEP also provides grants to Kepner teachers for projects, books, field trips and more, as well as money for teachers to pursue professional development classes, but its main focus are the trips to D.C. and Europe.
The students on the trips are required to take a class, which immerses themselves in the culture they will witness and also teaches them how to travel.
But the unique aspect to these trips is the students really earn the trips, which can cost $2,000 to almost $4,000 (the cost covers everything from meals, transportation and lodging to a free rain coat and a travel pouch for students passports).
For many of the students families, majority of which live on incomes below the national poverty level, it is difficult if not impossible to provide money for a trip like this. So students must work at least 50 hours during the course of the class to save toward the trip; they earn $3-$6 an hour, depending on their grade level and work ethic. Students can work in the school store, the concession stand, or in special education classes, helping teachers prepare the classroom before the school day begins and greeting students off the bus. They can also earn money by improving their grades or reaching certain goals in the classrooms.
Its a hard lesson for kids to learn, said Olson, referring to working for their money.
All monies go to KEEP, who tracks the students hours and money earned, and the money is nonrefundable, so if a student backs out after raising money, the money goes to help other students attend trips.
Olson said KEEP has to do this, primarily because a nonprofit cannot legally hand out donated monies, which is what the students are paid from, and this also protects students trips from potentially being sacrificed for more practical needs, which Olson acknowledges can be tempting, especially for a family hurting to pay the mortgage.
Parents are also required to help the students raise money.
Through the KEEP travel program, parents attend monthly meetings designed to both alleviate protective stress and provide them with fundraising opportunities, such as manning the KEEP booth at the Denver Broncos home games.
In special circumstances, KEEP will step in to help students and their parents who really are having problems raising the money, but only if the students are making a real effort.
If a child is always there for us and the family really is in a situation where they cannot raise the money, we will make it happen, Olson said.
Olson, who is a literacy coach at Kepner as well as the teacher of these travel electives, believes that childrens academic performance and social skills are seriously improved by taking trips like these. Shes intends to focus on this in her dissertation for Denver University, where she is earning her doctorate in curriculum instruction and Judaic studies.
Olson, who grew up in a small town in northern Minnesota, came to DPS in 1985 as a bilingual teacher who could also read and write Spanish. She wanted to be in Denver, and besides traveling hasnt left since and now lives near George Washington High School with her husband Wayne and 12-year-old daughter Katya.
In the summer, Olson works at a horse riding camp. She got into horse riding to spend more time with Katya, and now rides regularly on Tuesday evenings and Saturdays.
She said shes not very good at riding, but thats to her advantage.
I think its always good, as a teacher, to be a student, especially with something youre not good at, she said.
Horseback riding might come as a challenge, but traveling shes got down pat.
This year she took 25 students to D.C. and 36 to Europe, the latter of which is organized through EF Educational Tours, an education touring company. Olson coordinates the D.C. trip herself, and on both trips Kepner teachers are the chaperones.
To read more about KEEP and Olsons award-winning career, visit keepdenver.org.