Karen Dandino is out to teach Colorado Springs School District 11 the most fundamental lesson: If Mama ain't happy, ain't nobody happy.
Dandino is the mother of two boys who attended D-11's Wasson High School. Her older son has since graduated, but her younger son, Jason, is a sophomore there, and a member of the school's arts magnet program.
Since 2005, the school has recruited kids from D-11 and beyond to a magnet program focusing on music, and visual and performance arts that is advertised as "outstanding." Jason went to Wasson for marching band, and Dandino's paid a $25 quarterly fee just for the privilege of having her son in the program.
As time's gone on, she's been bothered by how Jason's frequently pulled out of academic classes, like his honors science class, to tend to "required" band commitments. She's been upset with actions of the band director.
But now, she's mad. Because the "magnet program" may not even really exist.
"These kids came in, they paid their $100 a year, only to find out it was nothing but a fraud," she says.
D-11 is investigating Wasson. Administrators won't validate all of Dandino's complaints, but they do admit to at least one large error in judgment.
"I don't think we have a specific policy that says how we define a magnet," says John Keane, D-11 executive director for student achievement and school accountability for high schools and alternative schools. "[Wasson] began to use the terminology whether or not they formally adopted it."
Any administrators who adopted the title "magnet" would not include principal Sean Dorsey, who is a relative newcomer.
Lack of standards
Magnet schools were originally developed as a way to desegregate schools; they'd draw kids from other areas with high-level programs, usually in specific areas of interest. Some, such as D-11's East Middle School, which will open under a new name as a math-science magnet next year, get state or federal grants.
Those grants tend to come with a lot of requirements. But if a school receives no grants, then the state of Colorado leaves it up to a district to set its own standards for magnet schools.
D-11 simply doesn't have any.
Nor does D-11 have a district official specifically charged with overseeing magnets and holding them to rigorous standards or, at least, nobody that Keane or several school board members could think of.
Keane says he and others in the district are working to resolve the oversight.
"We're going to talk about how the district is defining its schools," he says. "There's a team that's working on this."
The team hopes to define not only magnet schools, but schools with a focus, schools within schools, and comprehensive schools. And while Wasson touched off the debate, there's no telling how many district schools could be affected in the coming weeks and months.
The group gave a preliminary assessment at D-11's board meeting Wednesday night. Parents and kids were allowed to voice their concerns at the meeting, which occurred after the Independent's deadline.
Keane says the district will decide whether or not Wasson is a magnet after they decide what a magnet is.
D-11 board treasurer John Gudvangen says he wants policies such as this to be handled in the future by an administrator.
"I wish we could get to a point in our governance system where we're governing and leading and others are administrating," he says.
In the meantime, is it really appropriate to be pulling kids out of class for magnet activities and charging them magnet fees? Keane says kids miss class for a variety of reasons, and parents can usually intervene if they're uncomfortable. (Dandino, for her part, says she met with resistance when she tried to intervene in the past.)
No fees for now
The magnet fees at Wasson which Dandino is trying to track through accounting records have been suspended for the time being. Keane says he thinks the fees were probably appropriate program fees, possibly with inappropriate names.
However the situation is resolved, D-11 can likely look forward to a good deal of criticism. Dandino isn't the only parent at Wasson who's upset.
Jackie Porter is on the executive committee for the Wasson Thunder Booster Club. Her son graduated from Wasson, and her daughter Kaitlin, a junior, attends Wasson for the magnet choir and drama programs. Porter loves some of the programs; she thinks others are just OK. Her daughter does miss a lot of her academic classes.
Overall, Porter says, it's not the excellent program she hoped for. And Wasson, though rated "average," is D-11's lowest-performing high school on the Colorado Student Assessment Program test.
"My husband said, "So, I spend $100 a year to drive my daughter to an underachieving school?'" she says.
Board member Charlie Bobbitt says he hopes that once the dust settles, D-11 can find a way to formally make Wasson a legitimate arts magnet.
"It's something that, as a district, we're looking for," he says.
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