Graded on a Curve

Neighbors of Jefferson Academy think the charter school could use a civics lesson.

The small neighborhood where David Rapier lives used to be a quiet place. The ranch homes in this agricultural area west of Old Wadsworth Boulevard are spread far apart; most houses sit on one-acre lots. Some people keep horses, others raise llamas. There are no streetlights or sidewalks, just semicircular driveways laid with gravel.

But the population boom in the northwest Denver suburbs, coupled with a growing desire for alternatives to regular public schools, has conspired to unload minivans full of kids smack in the middle of this tranquil neighborhood. "The noise goes on seven days a week," Rapier says. "It starts early in the morning and goes late into the evening."

Parents drive from as far away as Golden to bring their kids to Jefferson Academy Charter School, and for good reason: The school, with its back-to-basics curriculum, is renowned for its education achievements. Last year, 87 percent of its third-graders scored at the advanced proficiency level in reading on the Colorado Student Assessment Program test.

Field of screams: David Rapier has heard enough from Jefferson Academy.
Mark A. Manger
Field of screams: David Rapier has heard enough from Jefferson Academy.

As a result, enrollment has surged since 1994, when Jefferson Academy opened as an elementary school with 189 students; two years later, it successfully applied for another charter to add a middle school. This year is the first that a high school will be part of the campus, and 650 kids now attend kindergarten through eleventh grade; grade twelve will be added next year, bringing the total enrollment up to 730. The school has a waiting list of more than 2,600 names. Because Jefferson Academy can't satisfy the demand, its founders have helped establish two similar charter schools in the area -- Lincoln Academy and Woodrow Wilson Academy.

In fact, Jefferson Academy has become the jewel in the state's charter-school system -- and a favorite of Governor Bill Owens, who last week presented the school with its third School of Excellence Award, an honor he and the Colorado Department of Education bestow upon only a few schools each year. Owens pointed to schools like Jefferson Academy last spring when he unveiled his controversial new education-reform plan that calls for public schools that do poorly on the annual CSAP tests to be converted into charter schools. As one of the original proponents of charter schools as a state senator, he has also continued to work to increase funding for them since he was elected. In fact, of the state's eighty charter schools, 29 have opened since fall 1998, when Owens was elected.

But neighbors like Rapier say the school's success and its ties to the Owens administration -- Jefferson Academy board president Denise Mund works as a consultant for the state Department of Education -- have enabled it to break rules that anyone else would be punished for. They assert that the school got away with adding the new high school and an athletic field without permission from Jefferson County authorities. Now they are suing.

The trouble started this summer, when the 28,000-square-foot high school and an adjacent athletic field were being built behind the elementary school; without informing nearby homeowners, construction crews began working early in the morning, and during pre-season sports practices and scrimmages, the noise from the field was so loud that people had to shut their doors and windows just to hear the evening news.

The increased traffic from the new high school has also turned the area into a jumble of cars in the morning when students arrive, in the evenings when they leave and on weekends, during sporting events. One morning last week, Rapier and some of his neighbors stood at the three inroads to the school and counted 518 cars. They convinced the county to install no-parking, no-standing and no-stopping signs along their streets; parking-by-permit-only signs are on the way.

At Jefferson Academy's first high school varsity-football game on September 9, Rapier brought a sound-reading device over to his next-door neighbor's lawn, which is directly across the road that runs behind the football field, about fifty feet from the area where the visiting team stands during games. Rapier says he recorded noise in the 82- to 90-decibel range; the county says the sound level should only be 55 decibels at the school property boundary.

Rapier and Cheryl Holliday, who lives on 99th Avenue, which runs alongside the school, say the field wouldn't be such a problem if there was a proper buffer between it and their homes; instead, they say, too much is being crammed onto only fourteen acres, which doesn't allow enough space for sound to dissipate.

But rather than applying to Jefferson County for a site-plan review -- a standard process of safety inspections and assessments of neighborhood impacts that is required of any builder before permits can be issued -- the school went ahead and built the high school and athletic field, complete with a press box and scoreboard, without any county oversight.

Rapier is convinced that school officials purposefully skirted the process because they knew their plans would be closely examined by the county. Once residents discovered the absence of a site-plan review in May, they complained to the county planning and zoning department, which promptly issued a cease-and-desist notice that stated: "The Jefferson County zoning resolution requires site approval for public facilities." At the end of the notice was this warning: "Due notice to desist and abate the above violation is hereby given. This will be your only notice! Failure to comply with the zoning resolution within 30 days shall result in immediate legal action."

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