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Voices: A cautionary charter school tale

Nick Avila, chief operating officer at the PODER Academy, says critics unfairly targeted the charter school and it deserves another chance in Westminster.

In August of 2007, Marcos Martinez opened a charter school in the Adams 50 School District that served a community of children who were primarily lower-income and Latino.

Students playing chess at PODER Academy.
Students playing chess at PODER Academy.

The school had a unique curriculum that focused on tennis and chess, in addition to the other core academic areas like reading, writing and math. Students would attend an extended day from 8:30 a.m. until 5 p.m. and were given an hour of homework every day. Parents were required to sign off on their child’s homework and students would lose privileges if homework was not complete, regardless of the reason.

The Ricardo Flóres Magon Academy became a model in the community as one of the few to achieve an A- on a statewide report card system and was placed in the top 8 percent of schools based on its standardized test scores. The chess team won several trophies that were displayed in a glass case by the school’s entrance, along with a variety of press clippings that told stories about defying the odds.

I decided to accept a job at the school managing a unique program where students received tennis lessons year-round as part of their school day. They would not only become some of the best tennis players in the state but would also benefit academically from the self-reliance and focus they developed in the process.

School embroiled in controversy

In the spring of 2012, a showdown would ignite that would turn the school upside down. A group of parents had grown frustrated with Martinez and began circulating a petition outside of the school doors outlining complaints about how children were being bullied by abusive teachers and how the school was overly militant.

The situation came to a boil when a story appeared in Westword as told through the eyes of employees who had been fired over the past five years. The former employees gave accounts of how they were mistreated and exploited by a tyrannical leader who promoted an environment of fear. Soon the school was engulfed in a flood of accusations that grew increasingly sensational as time went on.

Martinez drew criticism for being unapologetic when it came to firing teachers he felt were uncooperative or incapable of achieving results and for holding students back in grade who were falling behind academically. He had a stubborn management style and was dismissive of criticism from parents who didn’t agree with the school’s policies.

The ensuing firestorm would eventually prompt the school’s Board of Trustees to take action. In a drastic and questionable move midway through the school year, they put Martinez and two other staff on leave until they were able to sort out the situation. This led to a hostile conflict between parent groups that spilled into the school hallways forcing the Board of Trustees to hire security guards.

Meanwhile, the wheels had come off inside the school, which was now severely short-staffed and reduced to utter confusion. The remaining staff struggled to keep things operating as communication broke down amongst the teachers who were now divided. The once structured student culture in the school was coming apart.

The nasty and divisive ordeal overshadowed much of the work we were doing inside of the school. Neither Martinez nor the two other employees placed on leave were given a chance to respond to the accusations and Martinez would eventually part ways with the school he created.

Support for the school overshadowed

Many questions remain that were never resolved. Questions like, why would more than 300 parents send their children to a school if it wasn’t in their best interest? Why would teachers and staff continue to work at a school that was abusive and dysfunctional? At least 75 percent of the students were returning students, some of whom had been there since the school doors opened. A majority of the faculty and staff had been there for three years or more. The situation inside the school was nowhere near as bad as the Westword article made it seem, but the fallout had already run its course.

The school’s pattern of high test scores that continued even after Martinez resigned were subject to ongoing suggestions of fraud, despite the fact that the Charter School Institute was present to monitor testing on at least two separate occasions and that student scores matched those on other similar tests taken quarterly.

Nevertheless, Martinez was determined to pick up the pieces and try again about 100 miles up north in Cheyenne, Wyo. The town’s school board approved his application to open the district’s first charter school and I signed on once again, this time in a management capacity. We both saw an opportunity to learn from the mistakes that were made the first time in order to build something even stronger.

PODER Academy opened its doors in the fall of 2012 and is now in full operation with more than 100 students in grades kindergarten through third. The school operates on the same model that brought success in Westminster. We recently submitted a proposal to the Adams 50 School Board to open another location in Westminster with more than 200 applications from parents, many of whom were familiar faces from the school we left behind. Yet the school board dismissed our application because of an association with the Magon Academy, along with the same mountain of unproven allegations that followed Martinez.

We are now considering an appeal to the Colorado State Board of Education.

While the next chapter of this story has yet to be written, I can say that I’m excited to be at the forefront of one of the hottest issues right now in the U.S. Charter schools will continue to grow in number and are capable of producing some of the world’s brightest scholars and athletes. If, of course, adults in the room can play nice.

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.

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