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Ascent appeals Durango 9-R’s denial of charter school application

Classical academy says review process was unfair; review hearing set for Sept. 14
Derec Shuler, CEO of Ascent Classical Academies, speaks during the Durango School District 9-R public forum on May 31. The Colorado State Board of Education will review the denial of Ascent Classical Academy’s charter application Sept. 14. (Christian Burney/Durango Herald file)

Ascent Classical Academy has appealed the denial of its charter school application by Durango School District 9-R saying it did not receive a fair review from the school board.

The appeal is scheduled to be reviewed by the Colorado State Board of Education on Sept. 14.

According to Ascent Classical Academy CEO Derec Shuler, the first briefs are due this week. He said ACA intends to show 9-R’s review process was unfair and that the district provided poor guidance throughout the application process.

“The district repeatedly provided incorrect guidance and then claimed we provided bad financial models based on their guidance,” Shuler said.

ACA wanted to build a charter school that offered what it deemed a “classical education,” in which children would be in the classroom most of the time learning core subjects rather than what it views as a shift toward “innovative learning.”

An excerpt from ACA’s website says: “Ascent Classical Academies achieves this by training the minds and improving the hearts of young people through a classical, content-rich education in the liberal arts and sciences, with instruction in the principles of moral character and civic virtue in an orderly and disciplined environment.”

9-R denied Ascent on the basis that the school did not provide evidence of equal educational opportunities for students regardless of disabilities, gender identity, income or race. 9-R also took issue with Ascent’s affiliation with Hillsdale College, a conservative Christian institution.

In the 9-R Board of Education denial resolution, the board said Ascent did not establish a viable financial plan and the minimum budget provided did not detail how the school will staff grades seven through nine or provide special education paraprofessionals.

Shuler said claims that the school would not serve various students were unfounded and the financial impact estimated was overstated by at least double.

District staff members evaluated Ascent’s fiscal impact as coming at a loss of more than $3 million to the district. Shuler is also arguing the school district provided the rubric used to grade Ascent’s application after it had already been submitted.

“These and other factors show the district’s lack of experience in good charter authorizing and their violation of State Board of Education rules around transparency for charter authorizers,” Shuler said.

9-R Superintendent Karen Cheser said such accusations are untrue.

“Ascent leadership received the review rubric on Jan. 5 in response to a CORA (Colorado Open Records Act) request,” she said. “Our policy outlines the specific components to be included in the application.”

Cheser said Ascent received the same application process and review used for all charter applications.

“Ascent wanted us to use a different one; however, we have remained with the system we have consistently used,” she said.

Ascent also plans to address concerns about its so-called affiliation with Hillsdale College.

“Most problematic are the inclusion of claims about Hillsdale College, with whom this campus is not affiliated, and their associated claims about it being a religious college,” Shuler said. “The text in their denial resolution was a cut and paste from a letter sent to the district that was unfounded and opens up a religious discrimination claim in the courts, though we are not a religious institution and follow the law in all regards on this.”

The 9-R denial resolution said: “Additionally, Ascent’s reliance on Hillsdale College and its Barney Charter School Initiative for curriculum, including the 1776 history curriculum, is concerning. Hillsdale’s ideological bent is apparent from its website, where articles such as ‘The January 6 Insurrection Hoax,’ ‘The Disaster at Our Southern Border,’ ‘Critical Race Theory: What It Is and How to Fight It,’ ‘Gender Ideology Run Amok,’ and ‘Science, Politics, and COVID: Will Truth Prevail?’ are accessible. The Barney Charter School Initiative’s original ‘Educational Philosophy’ proclaimed that it sought to ‘lead in the effort to recover our public schools from the tide of a hundred years of progressivism that has corrupted our nation’s original faithfulness to the previous 24 centuries of teaching the young the liberal arts in the West.’”

The denial resolution goes on to say: “Hillsdale is an overtly religious institution, which describes itself as a ‘Christian, classical liberal arts college’; it proclaims on the first page of its website that, ‘learning, character, faith, and freedom ... are the inseparable purposes of Hillsdale College.’”

Furthermore, the Colorado Department of Education’s Charter Schools Act says a charter school shall be a public, nonsectarian, nonreligious, non-home-based school, which operates within a public school district.

“ACA operates good schools,” Shuler said. “The denial was a stretch and disregards that Ascent Classical Academy Charter Schools, the network parent, has high-quality schools successfully operating throughout Colorado with strong finances and performance exceeding Durango 9-R.”

According to Shuler, ACA had a recent review for a Grand Junction location and was given an approval recommendation. Ascent has also resubmitted a charter school application to 9-R and newly submitted an application to Ignacio School District.

“We understand the number of parents wanting something else may be uncomfortable for 9-R, but we know our program is in the best interest of the community and families,” Shuler said.

The state board has ruled in favor of Ascent before. On May 12, the state board ruled 4-3 to deny the district’s motion to require that Ascent apply within the charter application window mandated in the state statute of Aug. 1-Oct. 1.

tbrown@durangoherald.com

An earlier version of this story incorrectly described the Colorado Board of Education’s 4-3 ruling in the charter application case involving Ascent Classical Academy and Durango School District 9-R.

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