Ricardo Flores Magon Academy: New leadership brings changes for once-troubled charter school

Categories: Education, News
The 100th day of school.
A lot has changed at the Ricardo Flores Magon Academy, a local charter school whose stellar test scores belied the tense environment that characterized the school when we wrote about it in November 2011. In March 2012, the founder of the school -- and the man who teachers and parents said was the source of many of its problems -- resigned his post. Now, two years later, the 320-student school is under new leadership. And with the help of several staff members who've returned to teach there, it's working hard to improve its academics and school culture.

"It's become more positive," says Marcelino Casias, the school's dean of students and culture. Casias began working at RFMA as a grant writer in 2010. He was hired by then-principal Marcos Martinez, who founded the school in 2007. Martinez envisioned a school that held low-income, Spanish-speaking students to high academic standards. He instituted tennis and chess programs -- which he called "thinking sports" -- and did not ring the dismissal bell until 5 p.m. at night. He named the school after Ricardo Flores Magon, a Mexican anarchist who used the pen as his weapon.
Ricardo Flores Magon Academy students show off their chess trophy.
But by 2011, the school was in trouble. While its academic scores were very high -- 91 percent of students proficient in reading and 98 percent proficient in math in 2010 -- complaints from staff, parents and statewide education officials were piling up. One former teacher sued Martinez after she was fired for catching the flu and missing work. Others claim they were let go, or left on their own, for similar reasons. Parents and staff complained about Martinez's militant, my-way-or-the-highway brand of leadership. The school was embroiled in a lawsuit with its former landlord, and the Colorado Department of Education had noted several shortcomings, including the high rate of staff burnout.

The school "wasn't very welcoming or very warm," former teacher Susana Cabrera told us in 2011. "The teacher had to be the power and the authority."

By the time she spoke with us for that first story, Cabrera had left RFMA and was working at another charter school. But she says her mind often drifted back to RFMA. She believed in the school's vision and mission, and she was sad that her clashes with Martinez (she says he fired her for not agreeing with him) had cut short her time to help fulfill them.

"I felt like I had unfinished business," she says.

When the school's new principal called in the spring of 2013 to ask if she'd be interested in re-joining the staff in the fall as an administrator, Cabrera jumped at the opportunity.

"It's always had a soft place in my heart," she says of RFMA.
Students at RFMA cheer the Broncos before the Super Bowl.
That new principal is Kaye Taavialma, who became the school's leader in January 2013. She was the fourth person to helm RFMA since Martinez's departure -- and she found that the school's progress has stalled on several fronts. For one, its test scores had declined, a development that Taavialma and others attributed to the turmoil in leadership. Several construction projects, including a renovation of the school's gym and cafeteria, had also come to a standstill. While Taavialma found that the teachers and staff were deeply committed to the students, she says they were isolated from each other.

"Within the staff, it was an 'I am an island' framework," Taavialma says.

Taavialma has made several changes in her short tenure.

Continue for more of our update about Ricardo Flores Magon Academy.

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I challenge you, Ms. Asmar to take a deeper look at RFMA and the things that have gone on at that school in the past three years.

You don't mention how the precious principal- Lynda Moinzad- was let go on inaccurate and unfounded accusations, how the building is unfit for a school-- both hazardous and unkempt, how the "tennis program" has been relegated to a piece of deteriorating blacktop in all sorts of weather (while the gym construction was delayed, overbudget and poorly managed). How about the "chess program" that was without a classroom, the lack of a quorum on the board of directors or the fact that the school's consultant received a salary of $321,585 at another charter school before being ousted?

If RFMA is a sign of the reality of American charter school education, we are in big trouble. The students at that school deserve better-- facilities that are clean and safe, teachers that are well trained and diverse, and leadership that is experienced, transparent and fiscally responsible.

Students today need a top notch education to be competitive in the world. When a school is touted for getting their first computer lab (welcome to the 1990s), it is clear that these students are at a distinct disadvantage. Has the administration not been notified that the test replacing the TCAP is a computer-based system!? Yikes.

I hope you write a follow up article about the realities at RFMA. The community deserves the truth.

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