A new principal and school director, who last week drew harsh public criticism for making sweeping changes at a popular 23-year-old alternative charter school, hasn’t stepped foot in the school since the heated board meeting on Aug. 29, leaving her employment status in question.
The 11-member Community Preparatory School board met for three hours in a closed-door executive session Wednesday night to discuss the matter, then in public voted unanimously to table taking action on Lori Bitar’s employment contract, “until such time the questions developed during the executive session can be answered,” board President Joe Southcott said.
The board gave no timeline as to a decision to about 20 people who waited out the lengthy private meeting. Closed meetings for public school boards are allowed under Colorado law for certain matters, including personnel issues.
Parents, students and teachers said they were encouraged board members were taking their concerns to heart.
“It sounded like she was trying to be more mainstream, and this is not what this school is about,” said Pamela Rogers, the grandmother of a student at Landmark Community School, an offshoot program for students recovering from addictions.
After two teachers quit last month, leaving one teacher, and Bitar presented a report concluding Landmark as a sober high school is too expensive of a model and is not on track to become independent, as is the plan, the board agreed last week to give Landmark six weeks to turn around.
But the primary complaint 32 people from an audience of about 150 voiced at the Aug. 29 board meeting was that Bitar had changed the character of Community Prep so much that many students and teachers have left, and they feared for the future of the school.
“This school is slowly being emptied out,” 17-year-old Jerrad Simon, a senior, said Wednesday.
“There used to be seven to 10 kids in classes, now there’s three to five.”
The board hired Bitar to take over in July for retiring director Marty Schneider.
Bitar worked in Florida, has been an educational consultant and is the author of “SOS, Saving Our Students,” a book and podcast about developing an education leadership strategy.
She co-founded a charter middle school in Tamarac, Fla., in 2004 with former pro football player Terry Kirby, and eight years later, the school closed, with financial problems cited.
Former Community Prep employee Jayde Lanning was on the school’s selection committee that recommended Bitar as the top candidate.
Bitar was favored among three finalists because of her background and experience, said Lanning, who said Bitar recently terminated her, citing a “reduction in force.”
“On paper, she looks good,” Lanning said. “She seemed like the best fit; she’d been with students like ours before.”
At Community Prep, Bitar set out to improve academic achievement, attendance and school safety, she previously told The Gazette.
Administrators from the school’s charter authorizer, Colorado Springs D-11, had voiced concerns about performance and attendance, she said.
Most Community Prep students have not done well in traditional schools and are dealing with personal or family problems, such as parents in prison or parents who have died, child abuse or neglect issues, a history of alcohol or drug abuse, criminal backgrounds, mental illness or learning difficulties.
As a nontraditional school, the environment at Community Prep has looked different from the typical high school. Teachers were like friends and would pick kids up and bring them to school, for example.
Students who were parents could bring their babies with them to school. Alumni could come back and visit any time. Work was self-paced, and schedules flexible to accommodate students who work.
All of those features are gone.
“The alumni fought hard to get those things at the school,” said Karen Oviatt, whose daughter graduated from Community Prep and whose grandson now attends. “The kids were respected and treated like adults. Now, they’re being treated like children and told what to do and when.”
The changes were so widespread and jarring that many teachers quit and others were fired or laid off.
Social studies teacher Eric Trujillo, named Colorado’s 2015 “Outstanding Teacher” from the Colorado League of Charter Schools, resigned a few weeks ago.
He and other former employees told the board last week that they were upset about Bitar’s behavior, which included talking about staff to other staff behind their backs, shaming students in front of others and “smirking” about serious issues.
Bitar walked out of last week’s meeting before audience members began addressing the board but returned after numerous requests to have her be there to hear their concerns.
At the end of last week’s meeting, board members called for collaboration between Bitar and the school community and directed her to oversee moving Landmark from a church space to the Community Prep building and finding new staff for the recovery high school.
It is unknown why Bitar has not since returned to Community Prep.
When asked for comments Thursday, Bitar replied by email that she would consider it but did not respond further.
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“On paper, she looks good. She seemed like the best fit; she’d been with students like ours before.” Jayde Lanning, former school employee and selection committee member