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Ascent is back, this time with sights set on Ignacio School District

Charter school wants to locate near Durango-La Plata County Airport
Derec Shuler, CEO of Ascent Classical Academies, speaks before the Durango School District 9-R school board on May 31. Ascent Classical Academy was denied a charter from Durango School District 9-R and has now applied for a charter through Ignacio School District. (Christian Burney/Durango Herald file)
Oct 17, 2022
Colorado Board of Education denies Ascent’s appeal for Durango charter in 4-3 vote

IGNACIO – After being rejected by Durango School District 9-R, Ascent Classical Academy has applied for charter school approval through Ignacio School District 11-JT.

Representatives for Ascent interviewed with the school district board last week as part of the application process.

Ascent offers a classical education with an emphasis on liberal arts and removing technology from the classroom. The school has stoked controversy for its linkage to Hillsdale College, a conservative Christian institution based in Michigan.

Ascent’s CEO Derec Shuler answered questions about Ascent’s interest in the Ignacio community, working with the Southern Ute Indian Tribe and historical curriculum.

Ignacio school board members repeatedly inquired about Ascent’s level of dedication to the Ignacio community.

Ignacio School Board Director Jay Dee Brunson asked what the school district would gain through a partnership with Ascent.

Shuler said having Ascent be chartered through the school district would provide choice for families within the district and La Plata County.

“In a county with three school districts, there is a wide demand and interest from having an option like this,” Shuler said. “The entire Southwest Colorado region does not have a core knowledge or classical school.”

According to the Colorado Department of Education, school districts with exclusive chartering authority must give permission to the applicant before the Colorado Charter School Institute can be authorized to accept school applications. Or, school districts can allow the CSI to rule on charter applications rather than making school districts go through the due diligence process.

Some parents have asked Ignacio School District to allow CSI to decide whether Ascent should be chartered in Ignacio, said School Board President Allen McCaw.

He asked why Ascent chose to apply to Ignacio rather than Bayfield School District.

Shuler did not give a direct answer, but said Ascent is interested in locating in the Ignacio School District.

According to the charter school application, Ascent wants to open the school at 380 Airport Road, near Durango-La Plata County Airport.

“From our perspective, there’s a building and I think the benefit there is having a high-quality school model that would be a strong benefit to the community,” Shuler said.

In its application, Ascent said it has hosted information meetings in Durango, Animas Valley, Hesperus, Three Springs, Florida Mesa and Bayfield.

Ignacio School Board Treasurer Leila Baker asked why Ascent did not host meetings in Ignacio as it did in other communities.

Ascent Classical Academy Chief Executive Officer Derec Shuler answers questions from the Ignacio School District Board of Education during Thursday night’s interview. (Tyler Brown/Durango Herald)

Ascent Director of New School Development and Outreach Kim Gilmartin said Ignacio families have been interested in Ascent, but they are not enrolled in Ignacio School District.

She said the Ascent steering committee held meetings in locations where Ascent members knew there was more expressed interest. But since the application was submitted, Ascent has stepped up its community outreach in Ignacio, she said.

“We’ll absolutely be working to have a tighter and closer relationship with organizations that are serving residents,” Shuler said.

Brunson asked how Ascent will work with the Southern Ute Indian Tribe.

Shuler didn’t have an answer but said he looks forward to addressing those issues in the future as part of working with the tribe.

Baker also asked about Ascent’s curriculum, which was a point of contention in Durango School District 9-R’s review of Ascent’s charter application.

“A lot of what I am reading says ‘our’ civilization. Is that really everybody’s civilization?” Baker said. “Because I’ve looked at the book titles and I’ve read some of these books and it doesn’t fit our community. It’s a very westernized philosophy with an emphasis on the Founding Fathers.”

Baker questioned whether the school would study the history of colonization when studying the history of the United States.

Shuler said Ascent follows the core knowledge curriculum and referenced Hozho Academy Charter School in Gallup, New Mexico, as an example of a predominantly Native American population in which the school district approved a school with a classical education.

“This exact concern came up there about whether this program is relevant,” Shuler said. “I think when it was approved and they opened, there was just overwhelming support for the program from the tribes down there.”

Supporters of Ascent spoke up during a public comment portion of the meeting.

According to the Colorado Department of Education, school districts with exclusive chartering authority must give permission to the applicant before the Colorado Charter School Institute can be authorized to accept school applications.

Whitney Hargraves of Durango said Ascent is asking Ignacio School District to be champions of school choice, whether it be by approving Ascent through the school district or releasing the classical academy to the Colorado Charter School Institute.

She said Durango residents are interested in Ascent’s approval in Ignacio because they are dissatisfied with Durango School District 9-R.

“Durango schools are pushing ideologies contrary to education of our students and the parents are fed up with it,” Hargraves said.

Cam Formby, also of Durango, said school choice is severely lacking in La Plata County.

“I’m really hoping we can bring Ascent here because of their classical model and what they teach and how they teach it,” she said.

She said Ascent gives students the ability to pursue different options after graduating, whether it be attending college or pursuing a vocational career.

“They are preparing these kids for the best possible outcome in their adult life,” Formby said.

Karen Pontius of Durango, speaking remotely through Zoom, warned of Ascent’s relationship with Hillsdale College.

“There’s a full-scale assault on public education, and Hillsdale is the one leading the charge,” she said.

She said approving Ascent would take funding away from schools in Ignacio School District. Pontius said she wouldn’t have a problem if Ascent opened a school and charged tuition, but when tax dollars are being used, that is an issue.

“I am really disturbed by this, ‘I want my kids to have my grandparent’s education,’ because there is so much they didn’t know back then,” Pontius said.

tbrown@durangoherald.com

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