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Ignacio breaks down key issues with Ascent charter school application

Educators take aim at proposed dress code, perceived lack of cultural sensitivity
School board members, administrators and district leaders take issue with Ascent Classical Academy’s proposed dress code, a perceived lack of cultural sensitivity and even a misspelling of “Ignacio” in its application for a charter school. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald file)

IGNACIO – Ascent Classical Academy’s application to open a charter school in the Ignacio School District was met with a chilly reception Wednesday by those in attendance at a school board meeting.

School board members, administrators and district leaders took issue with ACA’s dress code, a perceived lack of cultural sensitivity and even a misspelling of “Ignacio” in its application.

Ascent’s application was reviewed section-by-section by a volunteer committee and the school board, and then all in attendance were encouraged to express their own opinions on Ascent’s potential future in the community. Notably absent from the meeting were representatives from Ascent Classical Academy.

The Accountability Committee, formed by Ignacio educators and parents, were given the task of reviewing the 181-page document and address concerns they may have about the proposed charter school. Parent and substitute teacher Gina Schulz represented the committee and its findings, using a slide document to break down each section point-by-point.

Committee members said ACA’s application failed to address the specific needs of Ignacio School District’s population.

“Ascent’s demographics are very different from Ignacio,” Schulz said. “This isn’t the Front Range (school district).”

She then pointed out the mentions of a “steering committee” and “collaborating with youth services” under the student improvement plan, which are specific to Durango School District’s operations, and not Ignacio.

“This application was clearly written for the Durango School District and was not changed for Ignacio,” Schulz said.

She took note of how specific Ascent’s plan is in terms of what kinds of teachers it plans to hire.

“ACA wants the most qualified teachers for their school, and that’s great,” she said, “but what if Ignacio can’t hire the kinds of teachers they’re requiring? What then?”

Schultz praised the thoroughness of the “curriculum mapping” section of the application.

“ACA’s curriculum is really well-thought out,” she said. “It’s very detailed.”

One of the committee’s questions about the curriculum, however, had to do with stringent plans that were not specific to Ignacio’s unique population.

“There is nothing here about cultural diversity programming,” Schulz said. “No mention of our local Hispanic and Indigenous cultures or our history.”

She pointed out those running ACA are located in the Denver area and are nowhere near Southwest Colorado.

“ACA’s governance is happening on the Front Range,” she said. “There is a lack of local representation here.”

Schulz said the charter school’s views of discipline do not align with the belief system of the Ignacio population.

“There is no sense of working through the issue with the student,” she said. “Their idea of discipline won’t work with tribal youth.”

The last concern brought up by Schulz and the committee was the “special needs services” portion of the application.

“We have no idea what Ascent’s relationship is with San Juan BOCES (Boards of Cooperative Educational Services). Do they have one?” she said.

Ignacio School District Superintendent Chris deKay presented a slide show breaking down what issues he and the school district have with the application, including ACA’s use of district funds and their base pay for teachers.

“Ignacio can’t raise the base to $37,000,” deKay said. “We can’t afford that.”

He raised questions about ACA’s educational program.

“This says ‘students will follow and uphold moral values.’ Whose moral values? How will student progress be monitored? How will students be assessed?” he said.

A note on deKay’s slide show mentioned ACA’s curriculum being “assimilationist” in nature.

DeKay went over the “parent/community involvement” section of the application.

“There has been a clear lack of ACA reaching out to the Ignacio community,” he said. “Ignacio is about partnership. ACA reapplied with Durango after applying with us. I think that says a lot. Are they really interested in our community, or is it just because we have a building they can use?”

Dress code was another point of contention for deKay and the school board: ACA’s school uniform policy incited one of the biggest reactions from those in attendance.

“Assent’s dress code policy states that boys have to have their hair cut above their collars,” deKay said. “That will obviously not work with our boys. That minimizes the type of kids we have in Ignacio.”

ACA’s application also prohibits tattoos and piercings and asks that visitors also abide by the student uniform policy.

DeKay then discussed the transportation and food service section of the application, and its demand for buses and drivers.

“We don’t even have enough buses and drivers for our own schools,” deKay said, “and the cost of the buses they’ll need is not in their budget.”

DeKay also noted that Ignacio is misspelled as “Ignatio” in the “facilities” section of the application.

Other district leaders have voiced concern about ACA doing little outreach in Ignacio and showing no cultural interest or sensitivity to the Ignacio population or the Southern Ute Indian Tribe on its website or application, deKay said. Others have suggested ACA only wants to charter in Ignacio because it identified a building that it can use for a school. And some took offense that ACA filed a second application with the Durango School District while also courting Ignacio School District, he said.

Two comments from district leaders also mentioned Ascent has “little acknowledgment of local stakeholders,” and “the school’s intentions being a disservice to the Ignacio community.”

DeKay opened the floor to comments or questions from educators and parents in attendance. Shauna Branch, the assistant principal of Ignacio Elementary School, stepped up to the podium.

“Ascent’s curriculum is the exact kind of curriculum I had when I was a kid, and I learned about all the things I missed out on when I began to work with the Hispanic and Indigenous communities here,” Branch said. “People in this community have grown together. We understand and respect different cultures. Everyone should learn the histories and the views of all cultures.”

LuCinda Lounge, financial director for Ignacio School District, broke down the problems ACA will face.

“Just so everyone knows, Ascent can’t become a part of BOCES,” she said. “Only school districts can. If a student in ACA needs further intervention, there are no people outside the school district who can help them.”

Last to the podium for the evening before the meeting’s adjournment was Dana Talamante-Montoya, an Ignacio School District parent.

“As a person of color, I have several concerns surrounding this curriculum,” Talamante-Montoya said. “The fact that it focuses on colonization. Western education. It’s important that we teach kids our values, our culture. Not ACA’s. They don’t fit in with our community.”

molsen@durangoherald.com

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