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Gazette Premium Content Staff, students plead for end to charter school turmoil

SUE McMILLIN Updated: September 23, 2009 at 12:00 am

Breanna Maestas, Anna Alatorre and Jessica Fahmie shivered in the cold wind Wednesday outside a Colorado Springs restaurant and hoped the adults meeting behind closed doors inside would be able to rescue their future.

The three are students of the online GOAL Academy, which was essentially shut down this week amid turmoil over who is in charge of the publicly funded charter school. The girls said they’re worried the power struggle will disrupt their education.

“This is setting us back because our teachers can’t get online to help us,” said Alatorre, who hopes to to graduate in two years from the school’s self-paced program. Maestas is trying to finish up 10th grade work so she can be a junior and concurrently enroll in community college, and Fahmie is one credit from graduation.

So they were pinning their hopes on the school’s board, which was locked out of its office Wednesday by leaders of the parent organization, the Cesar Chavez School Network. After convening on the sidewalk in front of the office on Airport Road, the board voted to reconvene at Maggie Mae’s Restaurant.

Numerous staff members, many of them unsure whether they still work for GOAL, attended the meeting and pleaded for a solution that would get them back in the virtual classroom that serves more than 500 students along the Front Range.

“This is about the future of these kids,” said Joe DeVita, an instructor.

The fight between leaders of the Cesar Chavez School Network and the Colorado Charter School Institute started shortly after they agreed this summer to reorganize the management of two Chavez charter schools: the GOAL Academy and Cesar Chavez Academy North in Colorado Springs.

The state wanted each school to have an independent board to comply with federal tax laws, and network officials agreed to it. But they’ve balked at how the boards were formed and said they believe the state is trying to sever the schools’ tie to the network.

On Monday, network officials swooped into the GOAL office and computer lab at the Pueblo Mall without explanation and kicked out students who were working there, Alatorre said. it was nearly two hours before the doors were opened again the students could retrieve their belongings, she said.

The network changed the locks on the doors there, as well as at GOAL offices in Colorado Springs and Denver, and disabled teachers’ computer access. Two administrators also were fired.

Then, on Tuesday, the head of the Chavez network told GOAL staff members they must sign a loyalty oath by 4:30 p.m. or the network would assume they had resigned.

Ken Crowell, one of the administrators who was fired, estimated that about half the teachers signed the oath simply so they could work with the students.

“My wish is that the teachers go back to work,” he said, as the GOAL board met privately.  “This board wants it to happen and the state wants it to happen. Everyone needs to remember that the taxpayers of Colorado own this school.”

At its meeting Wednesday, the GOAL board voted to hire an attorney and moved into executive session to discuss personnel and legal issues.

Some staff members told the board that student records were missing, and they feared network executives had shredded some documents at the school.

Late Wednesday, Colorado Education Commissioner Dwight Jones issued a statement saying “We will continue to work in close coordination with the Charter School Institute in gathering all the facts. Taxpayers, parents and the community at large expect a full accounting of Goal Academy’s business and enrollment.”

The CSI board called an emergency session for 3 p.m. Wednesday to discuss the GOAL Academy and issues surrounding its agreement with Cesar Chavez network. CSI officials could not be reached late Wednesday. 

Call the writer at 636-0251.

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