Life takes Visa 

But state Rep. Mike Merrifield wants to remove incentives from school-count game

click to enlarge $4,000 for Pueblo parents. $272,000 for Cesar Chavez. - SALLY PIETTE
  • Sally Piette
  • $4,000 for Pueblo parents. $272,000 for Cesar Chavez.

If the latest Colorado Student Assessment Program test results are to be believed, not all the kids in the popular Pueblo-based Cesar Chavez Academy School Network know their math. But, clearly, the administrators do.

In a Pueblo promotion, the Academy Network a collection of charter schools in Pueblo and Colorado Springs offered parents $100 Visa gift certificates and a chance to win a car or thousands in gift cards if they enrolled their kids in a Cesar Chavez school by Oct. 1. That just so happens to be the date of the head count that determines per-pupil state funding for schools.

(Apparently, parents are no longer clawing each others' eyes out to get their kids in one of the Cesar Chavez institutions. Once considered the cream of the crop, the network's test scores have fallen behind those in some Pueblo public schools.)

Every student is worth $6,800 from the state. And the clincher is, a school doesn't have to keep the kid to keep the money. Fliers for the Cesar Chavez promotion which appears to have been offered only at the three Pueblo schools, and not the two in the Springs say recruited students must stay at a network school for 30 days to keep their prizes. That means those little financial liabilities (or children, as they're often called) could promptly be some other school's problem. Or their parents' problem, if they're homeschooled.

The tactic ticked off Pueblo City Schools (District 60) administrators. It also riled state Rep. Michael Merrifield, D-Colorado Springs, who said last week that he's planning to introduce a bill, likely in late January, that would make bribery by all schools illegal. In fact, Merrifield was a little surprised it wasn't already illegal.

"This is a glaring loophole that needs to be closed," he says. "This law is going to apply evenly across the whole state."

That has to be music to the ears of John Covington, District 60 superintendent. Covington, who was unavailable for comment, wrote a letter to Colorado Department of Education Commissioner Dwight Jones in September, complaining about the Cesar Chavez "charade."

Covington wrote: "This practice is unprofessional and certainly defies a morale [sic] obligation to ensure that all children are adequately educated and not pawns to be passed around for fund raising ventures.

"Any assistance that you can provide to cease this sleazy practice on the behalf [of] Pueblo's children and families will be greatly appreciated."

A call to Cesar Chavez offices seeking comment was not returned. But chief executive officer Lawrence Hernandez told the Pueblo Chieftain in October that the promotion, detailed in fliers sent to Pueblo families, brought 42 or 43 new students to the Pueblo schools.

Oddly, the school network apparently already has a waiting list. Its Web site notifies parents that new students are selected for the school by lottery, or based on whether a child has a sibling who's already enrolled in a network school.

"According to [Hernandez], they have thousands of students [on a waiting list]," Pueblo City Schools spokesman Greg Sinn says. "Why is he spending so much money on marketing? It doesn't make any sense."

Sinn says the district isn't sure how many of those 40-plus new students have stayed in the Pueblo charters. But in 2007, he says, 28 kids from Cesar Chavez charters transferred to public schools after the state head count.



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