Charting the waters 

Cesar Chavez Academy takes a bumpy ride into District 11 territory

click to enlarge Lawrence Hernandez says D-11s politics swayed him to - file his charter application with the state instead of the - district.
  • Lawrence Hernandez says D-11s politics swayed him to file his charter application with the state instead of the district.

Two charter schools slated to open in Colorado Springs in the next two years have already sowed disgruntlement in School District 11, where the school board recently endured a seven-month long recall effort that ousted and replaced two board members.

The Cesar Chavez Academy, which has won statewide and national awards for high student achievement at its two Pueblo schools, originally petitioned D-11 to enter the district. But it withdrew its application on the eve of the recall election that exiled Sandy Shakes and Eric Christen, the latter of whom was a vocal proponent of the school.

"Because of the politics, our concern was that we didn't want to get approval for our charter schools with one board, and then have another board that we would have to work the charter with," says Lawrence Hernandez, academy founder.

The academy instead solicited and received state approval, through the Charter Schools Institute of Colorado, last Tuesday. It plans to open the first of two K-through-8 charter schools in the city next August.

Though they won't glean funding from D-11, the schools will likely lie within the district's boundaries. Hernandez originally had hoped to replace Helen Hunt Elementary with one school, a suggestion that drew ire from the surrounding Hillside neighborhood and was ultimately dropped. Hernandez says one charter may move into a former Kmart store facility at the intersection of Airport Road and Circle Drive.

The charter's original petition to D-11 raised concerns with some in the administration. A team review spearheaded by chief financial officer Glenn Gustafson noted several problems with the Cesar Chavez plan. For instance, the academy hoped to attract low-income students whose parents would drive them to school. Yet individual transportation, noted the review, is often unaffordable for struggling families.

The group was also skeptical that the first school would open on schedule without the use of an existing district facility.

D-11 board member Craig Cox, who submitted his resignation to the board the morning after the recall election, blamed the district administration for the academy's application withdrawal on Dec. 1.

In a Dec. 5 e-mail sent to Superintendent Terry Bishop and Gustafson, Cox wrote, "I was disappointed to see your administration push away another quality school. I understand the pressure from the union and the anti-choice board members, but I don't understand the lack of leadership on this issue of Cesar Chavez.

"I am disappointed in the absence of leadership, Dr. Bishop," he continued. "It never fails to amaze me (in a sad way) that leaders in the district are perfectly satisfied with mediocrity."

D-11's enrollment has declined by around 2,600 students over the past nine years, causing its state-designated per-pupil dollars to decrease significantly. At the same time, the district has been mandated to take money out of the public school pot to help fund district-approved charter schools. The state requires that D-11 send around $6,200 with any student who chooses to go to such a charter school.

As state-approved schools, the Cesar Chavez institutes won't aggravate those funding problems. But they could still draw students and dollars away from District 11.

Hernandez says he hopes to target students in D-11, Harrison District 2 and Academy District 20; the charters will eventually enroll 1,700 pupils in total. The U.S. Department of Education named Cesar Chavez as one of the top six schools in closing the achievement gap between white students and students of color, he adds.

"We have tremendous success with low-income Latino kids in particular."


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