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Ascent Classical Academy charter subject to Durango school board’s decision

School board to vote on passing charter school to Colorado Charter School Institute
(Durango Herald/file)

A charter school looking to open in Durango isn’t getting what it would like from Durango School District 9-R.

Close to 500 families submitted nonbinding comments showing interest in the sort of schooling Ascent Classical Academy provides, Derec Shuler, CEO of Ascent Classical Academies, said.

Ascent Classical Academy is a liberal arts and science school with a focus on traditional classical education.

The charter wanted to apply to have a school in the district ahead of a two-month application period starting Aug. 1. The school board denied it the opportunity to apply early, so now the charter wants to apply at the state level.

The problem for Ascent Classical Academies now is that the Durango 9-R School Board doesn’t have to let that happen. The board is scheduled to decide what to do at the Tuesday board meeting.

If the school board allows the charter to apply with the state, Ascent Classical Academies will contact Colorado Charter School Institute. If the board denies the charter’s request to do that, then the charter is stuck waiting until Aug. 1.

Why can’t the charter wait until the regular, state-defined application period? Superintendent Karen Cheser wonders the same thing.

Cheser said she isn’t sure why Ascent wants to apply months ahead of the regular application window, but she speculated it is because it isn’t sure if it can lay the groundwork to get a new school and staff before the fall 2023 quarter.

Shuler said that the timeline for finding a parcel of land and staffing a building all in time for the 2023-24 school year is exactly what he is concerned about.

Colorado school districts with charter authority have three months to decide to accept or reject an application. Cheser feels that should leave charters with plenty of time to get their schools ready, but Shuler disagrees.

“But they would know by December,” Cheser said. “I would expect, since there are two other Ascent schools in the Front Range, that they probably have a well-thought-out application.”

Ascent Classical Academies has tuition-free schools in Lone Tree and Windsor, with a third being planned in the Brighton area. Shuler said he’s worked with six different school districts on charter applications in Colorado, and none of them made a decision ahead of their three-month deadline.

Shuler doesn’t think that a favorable decision in December gives him enough time to build his school. He said best practices in colleague charter schools include hiring a school leader six to 12 months in advance of opening.

He said charters regularly request an application before the state-defined window to get ahead of staff recruitment and land buying.

Shuler estimated he would need 30,000 square feet to open a school in the Durango area. He said he doesn’t expect any luck with property owners in securing a land parcel until he has a charter contract in place.

He said if he can secure a charter contract by June 2022, he would have a full year to work with a landlord or property owner.

Cheser said when the charter first asked the school board in September to consider granting it an early application window, the board consulted with its attorneys and decided to consider applications during the August to October time frame.

The board has several reasons for its decision, Cheser said. Its District Accountability Advisory Committee, a group of parents, teachers and administrators, must first review any charter applications received by the board.

Members of the DAAC also need to be trained on that process. Cheser said the DAAC is tasked with making important decisions that can impact students, their education and their families.

Another concern for the board is that it has chartering authority for a reason and the board isn’t eager to release that authority, she said.

Cheser said the graduation rates in 9-R-approved charters reflect back on the school district. Test scores are counted toward the district’s test scores, too. She said the board still looks forward to going through the application process with Ascent Classical Academy.

“Just like we would with any other charter school,” she said.

Shuler said he doesn’t think the school board has a defined charter application process and that he hasn’t been invited to public meetings to discuss the option of an early application. So, he would prefer to just go through the state charter institute.

The school board meeting where a decision is anticipated is scheduled for 5:30 p.m. Tuesday on Zoom.


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