Denver charter applicant alleges school isn’t getting a fair shot because of ‘prior controversy’

PODER Academy founder Marcos Martinez submitted an application to take over low-performing Greenlee Elementary, which is slated to close next year.

Greenlee Elementary is one of four schools that could face closure. (Photo by Greenlee)
Greenlee Elementary is one of four schools that could face closure. (Photo by Greenlee)
Greenlee Elementary is one of four schools that could face closure. (Photo by Greenlee)

By Melanie AsmarChalkbeat

The leader of a Wyoming-based charter school is asking the Denver school board to reject a recommendation that his application to open a school in the city be denied, saying he suspects it’s based on “prior controversy” rather than the school’s merits.

PODER Academy founder Marcos Martinez submitted an application to take over low-performing Greenlee Elementary, which is slated to close next year. But Denver Public Schools staff found several shortcomings in PODER’s application.

Staff recommended board members deny it when they vote Thursday evening.

In an email to the board this week, Martinez wrote that he believes “the real reason that our school is not getting the chance that we deserve” has to do with his “previous experience.”

“We are extremely frustrated,” he told Chalkbeat.

Martinez was formerly head of a Westminster charter school, the Ricardo Flores Magon Academy. While students there did well on state tests, there were other problems. Martinez was sued by teachers for discrimination, involved in a lawsuit with the building landlord and criticized by state education officials for the school’s high teacher turnover rate.

Martinez resigned in 2012 after the board of directors asked him to go on paid leave while it investigated what a letter sent home to families described as “practices at the school.”

Later that same year, Martinez opened PODER Academy in Cheyenne, Wyoming. The school’s model is similar to that of Ricardo Flores Magon Academy in that it emphasizes rigorous instruction, has an extended school day and instructs students in tennis and chess.

PODER has earned the highest of Wyoming’s four performance levels, “exceeding expectations,” for the past three years. Eighty-six percent of its fifth graders scored proficient or advanced on last year’s state reading test, according to state statistics.

Given that, Martinez wrote to the Denver school board that it should be a “no brainer” choosing PODER as a replacement for Greenlee. He disparaged the other applicant, a plan put forward by the current Greenlee principal that DPS staff recommended the board approve.

Last year, just 19 percent of Greenlee fifth graders met expectations on Colorado’s English test.

District staff, Martinez wrote, “want to hand over Greenlee Elementary to the same people that have struggled with it for years, and have shown little progress in terms of academics.

“Are we missing something here?” he wrote.

DPS found PODER’s application lacking in several areas, including in explaining how the school’s model — which is described as a “high-intensity learning environment” with a “demanding” culture and strict discipline — would meet the specific needs of Greenlee students.

District staff also noted PODER “does not have letters of support from community partners or other stakeholders.” Martinez wrote in his email that PODER was told “to be extremely careful with reaching out to the community.” Other charter schools have voiced similar concerns.

At a recent meeting at which PODER presented its plan, DPS school board member Lisa Flores asked Martinez what he’d learned from his experience at Ricardo Flores Magon Academy.

“I was a young administrator, in my 20s, and sometimes success goes to your head very quickly,” Martinez told the board. He noted that he has since learned to work in a team and that all of PODER Academy’s teachers are coming back next year.

“I’ll own part of the controversy,” Martinez told Chalkbeat. “We’ve learned from that since, we’ve made the proper adjustments, we’ve gotten past that — and I feel that people are not giving (PODER) a fair shake. It’s not just hurting us. It’s hurting the children.”

Flores said she doesn’t believe PODER was treated unfairly. “I have a lot of confidence in the thoroughness and due diligence of district staff in evaluating these proposals,” she said.

DPS Superintendent Tom Boasberg echoed Flores. “We understand that some applicants may not like or even agree with the recommendation made by” district staff, he said. “But it’s very clear from years of evidence the extraordinarily high quality and high degree of integrity of that process.”

Charter school applicants that are denied by local school boards can appeal to the State Board of Education. Martinez said he and his team haven’t decided yet whether they’ll do so if the DPS board rejects the application.

Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.