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‘Ascent seems to be religious school cloaking true nature’

Carol Cure

As reported by The Durango Herald, the Colorado Department of Education has directed the Durango School District 9-R board to review the charter application of Ascent Classical Academy within 30 days, rather than waiting for the board’s preferred application date of Aug. 1.

That review process is now underway and Durango school district residents may want to be attentive to that process and consider the following issues.

Do we really need another charter school in Durango? Durango already has charter schools serving grades K-12 in Juniper, Mountain Middle and Animas High. As good as some charters may be, they drain needed money from our existing schools. Spreading our tax resources further to fund a new charter will have consequences, reducing the funding available for our current schools in a state where we rank in the bottom quarter of states in educational funding. Supporters say students should have options, but there are many alternatives to our traditional public schools already available, including both charters and private religious schools.

Ascent’s performance record in its existing charters is questionable. In 2021, U.S. News reported that only 32% of Ascent’s Douglas County students scored at or above the proficiency level in math, and only 57% in reading. Ascent’s scores were inferior to Douglas County’s public schools in both subjects.

Ascent’s curriculum and the waivers it is requesting are troubling. It does not want to follow the same rules or teach the same curriculum as our other district schools. We need our students to develop common understandings of good citizenship in a diverse society and a full appreciation of our country’s history, scientific realizations and multicultural, multifaith citizenry. In addition to certain automatic waivers from state and local district policies, one of which exempts charters from teacher licensing requirements (meaning that Ascent’s teachers need not be qualified to teach in our public schools), Ascent’s application lists 14 pages of additional requested exemptions.

The curriculum used in Ascent’s network of schools was developed by Hillsdale College through its Barney Charter School Initiative. Hillsdale is a small Christian college in Michigan whose “inseparable purpose” is teaching “character, faith, and freedom” and “the moral tenets of Christianity as commonly understood in the Christian tradition.” While this purpose may sound beneficial, and would be expected in a private religious school, it is inappropriate for a public school financed by taxpayer dollars serving students of diverse cultures and religions.

According to Salon Magazine, Hillsdale has become a leading force in promoting an overtly Christian reading of American history and the U.S. Constitution. Its “1776” curriculum provides “patriotic education,” including “Hillsdale College-vetted books” for its growing network of affiliated classical charter schools. The Barney Initiative is replete with code words like “civic virtue,” “moral character” and “improving hearts.” If you look closely, Ascent seems to be a religious school cloaking its true nature in benevolent language to gain public funding. I fear that Ascent would not provide the kind of comprehensive education needed for our Durango students to succeed in tomorrow’s world.

I urge the board to review Ascent’s application carefully, looking at performance data, curriculum, enrollment policies and plans for serving students with special needs. Ascent’s requests for waivers of state requirements and/or district policies should also be fully scrutinized. Finally, the board should carefully examine whether Ascent’s plans are economically sound, including its proposed budget for at least the next five years.

If you have opinions about any of these issues, please make them known to the Durango 9-R school board. The board will hold a public forum on Ascent’s application on at 4 p.m. Tuesday at the Durango High School auditorium. You are encouraged to sign up (https://bit.ly/3MUoHdp) to speak and share your views.

Carol Cure is a retired lawyer and former teacher.