The executive director, chief financial officer and founding principal have left their posts at Colorado Military Academy, which opened in August 2017 as the state’s first military-style school for young students, in what a new school official calls a “churning” of leadership.
“This is very normal in startup charter schools,” said Mark Hyatt, a familiar charter school leader in Colorado, who took over last week as a consultant for the school.
Top-brass turnover happens often at fledgling charter schools, he said, because members of the founding group, usually made up of parents, teachers and community members seeking a different style of education, bow out after a school gets up and running.
“We’re into the growth phase now,” Hyatt said, “and the growth team has just arrived. When it’s time to level off, they’ll probably need a new team.”
Still, parents said they were surprised by all the changes.
“There have been significant changes since the beginning of the school year, and we’re waiting to see where it’s going,” said Dave Sanders, who has a freshman at the school.
Terry Croy Lewis, executive director of the Colorado Charter School Institute, which oversees 41 charter schools statewide including Colorado Military Academy, agrees that such a development is not uncommon.
A transition from a founding leadership team to “a more mature, institutional leadership team that is focused on the school’s continued development in line with strategic priorities” usually occurs, she said.
“Schools that most effectively navigate these transitions acknowledge the bumps along the way and work collaboratively with the school community to address them,” Croy Lewis said, adding that she’s optimistic Colorado Military Academy’s transition “can lead to positive outcomes especially since the school has brought on administrators who have deep experience in both CSI and leading charter schools.”
Retired Lt. Col. Reggie Ash submitted his resignation as executive director to the board in the first half of October, two months after the second year of operations started.
Ash isn’t the first executive to leave. One of the founders, John Evans, was ousted as the school commandant and executive director in the spring of 2017, after being blamed for a mix-up in protocol in obtaining charter authorization.
School founders initially sought authorization to operate from Colorado Springs School District 11, in whose boundaries their building near Peterson Air Force Base lies.
D-11 denied the request to bring the proposed school under its wing, citing costs, and released the group to seek approval through the Colorado Charter School Institute, a state authorizing body.
Instead, organizers approached School District 49 for authorization, jeopardizing its fate. But the school did obtain approval from the state and was cleared to open.
Hyatt, who retired in 2002 as a vice commandant at the Air Force Academy, led The Classical Academy in Academy School District 20 through its growth spurt from 2002 to 2010, increasing enrollment from 1,000 students to 3,500, he said, and then revamped policies and procedures at the Colorado Charter School Institute to position it for growth.
“Reggie (Ash) got the school started and worked with the initial group that formed it and got it going,” Hyatt said. “He had deferred his second career to get the school open and has moved on to other challenges.”
Kin Griffith, who had been Colorado Military Academy’s director of finance and operations, left in late September, he said.
Hyatt has brought on the former chief financial officer at TCA, Doug Herring, to revise the budget, which is projected to post a deficit of $160,000 per month from January through June.
Hyatt said he is being paid a nominal amount, and Herring is working part time, which he expects to produce a cost savings of more than $200,000 from not paying salaries for an executive director and CFO, while a financial reorganization occurs.
“Our goal is to make sure we don’t run a deficit,” he said.
Before opening last school year, a $3.4 million renovation on the former Leidos Building, at 360 Command View Drive, outside the north gate of Peterson Air Force Base, was completed.
Founding principal, Air Force veteran Toni Schone, was replaced shortly after school started this academic year by Rob Stannard, a graduate of The Citadel, the Military College of South Carolina, who has worked as an engineer and was one of the founders of the Colorado Digital BOCES. Several teachers also have left.
The fall semester began with 570 students, which was defined as “significantly below expectations,” according to board meeting minutes.
Enrollment has since fallen to 540 students.
“It’s my job to grow it,” Hyatt said.
He anticipates slow, steady increases.
Ninth grade has been added this year, so the school now serves kindergarten through ninth-grade students. The plan is to continue to add one grade per year until it reaches 12th grade, Hyatt said.
Colorado Military Academy’s curriculum focuses on project-based learning and STEM (science, technology, engineering and math).
Middle school and high school students are encouraged to join the Civil Air Patrol Cadet Program, as the school’s military model.
Sanders said that while his kid loves the school, it has seemed disorganized, lacking in leadership and providing poor communication.
“I’m still on the fence,” he said. “I am willing to give them time.”
Sanders said he was encouraged that school officials responded to bullying concerns of parents and have kicked out some troublemakers.
“They addressed it right away,” he said.
Plans include using the two most successful military public schools in the nation, Hyatt said, the New Mexico Military Institute and the Utah Military Academy, as benchmarks.
“Those are our role models that we’ll tailor to fit Colorado,” he said. “What will make Colorado Military Academy successful is focusing on academic rigor and character.”
He mentions discipline, integrity, showing respect to others regardless of differences and “having the courage to make good decisions when popular culture might suggest you make a different decision.”
“The first year was embryonic. Now, it’s time to make it really robust and integrated across the curriculum.”