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Charter school chief rules with iron fist, say teachers

Claudia Mitchell couldn't breathe. The usually bubbly schoolteacher had just visited her doctor, who tested her for swine flu. It was fall 2009, at the height of the H1N1 outbreak. Mitchell had a fever, a headache and a sore throat, and she felt so weak that four days earlier, she'd missed Thanksgiving dinner, unable to rouse herself from a heap on the couch. Her doctor soon called with the results of the test: She had H1N1.

"She said, 'How are you feeling?' and I just broke down, and I said, 'I can't stand it. I barely made it home. I can't breathe. I feel like I'm going to crawl out of my skin,'" Mitchell recalls. "She said, 'I hate to tell you this, but I need you to come back in, and I'm going to call the hospital and tell them you're on your way.'"

The swine flu, coupled with Mitchell's asthma, had caused her oxygen levels to drop. After several nebulizer treatments, Mitchell called her boss, Marcos Martinez, the head of Ricardo Flores Magón Academy charter school in Westminster, where she'd been teaching since August. It was Monday afternoon, and the two had been trading increasingly hostile e-mails all weekend after Mitchell wrote to say she had a doctor's appointment on Monday and would likely be too sick to work.

"We need you to come in on Monday," Martinez had written back. "I understand that things happen, but I told you when you were hired that we are a small school and we don't have people to cover, and because of that, oftentimes we will come in to work sick.

"I expect you to be there on Monday."

When she went to the hospital instead, Martinez responded by telling her not to come back for the rest of the year. "We totally understand that you didn't mean to get sick," he wrote. "Your students however can't wait."

That militant approach is typical, according to former teachers and parents at the school who say that Martinez, who named the academy after a Mexican anarchist who encouraged workers to rise up against the country's dictator in the Mexican Revolution, runs the place as if he were a dictator himself.

"When I would voice concerns, it was always taken by him as an attack," says former teacher Susana Cabrera. "It was like, 'You don't like it? You can leave.'"

More than a few teachers have done just that. Board minutes show that fifteen staff members — a good portion of whom were fired by Martinez for "not being a good fit" — left in the first four years of the school's existence.

Some of them say Martinez favored male staff members and those who were Hispanic. They say he also created an uncomfortable working environment.

Mitchell is suing Martinez and the school in U.S. District Court. She believes Martinez discriminated against her because she has a disability — asthma — that exacerbated her illness. Further, she believes Martinez treated her differently than other employees because although she herself is Latina, she's married to a white man.

Another former teacher filed a complaint with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, claiming she'd been discriminated against because she was a woman, especially during and after her pregnancy. She settled with the school.

RFMA's problems don't end there, however. The school, which moved to a new location this fall, has also been criticized by state education officials for its high teacher turnover rate and its use of Che Guevara as a role model for young children. It has been slapped on the wrist by the county health department for not having hot water or a food-service license at its old facility and is embroiled in a lawsuit with its previous landlord.

It's a lot of trouble for a five-year-old school, but perhaps not unexpected. The plan for Ricardo Flores Magón Academy was rejected by two school districts before finally being approved by an unusual charter-granting agency that was going through its own problems at the time — problems that led to a total overhaul of the agency last year.

Now the academy's charter is up for renewal. Its leaders have plans to apply to two different agencies to reauthorize it: the Colorado Charter School Institute, which holds the current charter that's set to expire June 30, and Adams County School District 50, which rejected it five years ago and in whose boundaries the school is located. Martinez also plans to expand: Ricardo Flores Magón Academy has applied for a charter in the Brighton 27J School District and won conditional approval in September for a school in Cheyenne, Wyoming.

While former teachers and parents say there are good things about the school, including its outstanding academic outcomes, they don't believe the academy should be allowed to continue with Martinez at the helm. "The teachers are excellent teachers," says former parent Sarah Griego. "The problem lies with Martinez."

******

Ricardo Flores Magón Academy opened in August 2007 in a retrofitted parole-office building in Westminster, with kindergarten, first and second grades and plans to add an additional grade every year. There are now about 300 students enrolled in kindergarten through sixth grade. A typical day there lasts from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. or later, much longer than at other elementary schools, but the goal is to improve student academic readiness.

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54 comments
LOVEWY
LOVEWY

As a concerned parent of my student at the new charter school established by Marcos Martinez in Cheyenne, WY. I decided to see what the talk was about with this Colorado School and the problems it had. I honestly didn't know it was this bad. I have read the articles and read all of these comments below. What I think about the whole thing is that Marcos probably made some mistakes with this Colorado school, probably did what all you are talking about and like everyone else in this world...he made mistakes. This backlash from staff, parents could truly have ruined Marcos but I actually admire him for what seems, learning from his mistakes and building a school with hard work and dedication. He didn't start it from the ground up, he started it from ten feet under because of what happened here in CO. It seems to me by observations and chatting with teachers at PODER that Marcos is an incredibly dedicated man who has a vision for these children. He puts in countless hours along with the rest of the staff at PODER. I believe that because of the mistakes that Marcos may have made in CO that he is coming to Wyoming with a different attitude. He still has high expectations and doesn't let teachers get behind or slack off but I believe he is being professional with all of his encounters as the CEO. My daughter has told me that Marcos has taken her in the hall to discuss things and he is understanding but knows what she is capable of more and expresses that to her without belittling her, I appreciate that he doesn't let her slack off, which she is very capable of doing. My daughter had a teacher last year that did not have enough authority and had an out of control classroom, which she was not aware of. I also was fed up with my daughter more concerned with what her and her peers were wearing for the day instead of her school work. I have always been able to sit in or observe my children's schools in the past and I am most impressed by this one. I see no signs of biases or aggression in this man, which he may or may not have displayed before. I am glad someone came to Cheyenne and is setting the bar for education here. The school district/Board here are too relaxed and need to take more initiative with our children and their education. It seems like they just go through the motions and don't hold teachers to any standard. I have full confidence that my daughter will be a very successful student at PODER academy.

Thank you Marcos, I support you and believe in you and this excellent school.

Matt
Matt

I personally know Marcos and he seems to be a nice person when you first meet him. In fact both of the children attended his school for three years. The first two years were great, both of my children accelerated. One of my children had a learning disability, but his teacher was amazing. During the 3rd year I noticed that Mr. Martinez had changed. He began acting as though he owned the school. I know that he is the founder, but he really believed that the school was his and he did have absolute power. He not only bullied his teachers and Students, he bulled some of the parents. There are a lot of parents that were new to this country and didn't know any better. He would tell the parents to send their kids to school or they were going to be expelled. The school would tell the parents to come and sign their children into school even if they were sick. By my children attended RFMA, the school was packed. It concerned me that they had small children cramped in small rooms. Mr. Martinez would not turn anyone down to attend the school despite there not being any more room. The more kids attended the school, the more money he received. The lunches the school gave out to the kids were not bad until the end of my children's 3rd year there. I stopped letting my kids eat that food because I was afraid that they were going to get sick. Once I saw that the conditions were getting worse my children in that school, I took my kids out. Mr. Martinez should not be leading any other schools. He lost that drive to try and help children, it all turned into a money making scheme. When I saw this article, I was not surprised and I am glad that he is finally gone.

Thebigpebeat11
Thebigpebeat11

Are you nuts I am 100% Italian that alone should tell you I am not Marcos and I am anti government assistance so that as well should tell you that I am not macros. I am also a republican. You are truly ignorant and dumb if you would have read my other post you would have scene that the definition of ignorant is talking about something that you know nothing about. I am not Marcos I don't even know the man but I do know that I am sick of the weak whining that goes on in this country. If you want to talk to me personally you refer to me as Nick from now on. I also hate Obama so that should tell you that I am not him as well. The only reason why I even commented is because I see a man trying to better his own community. I come from Italian immigrants and the only way we surpassed people that have been here for hundreds of years is because we helped our own out. Please former teacher don't be ignorant it just makes me scared that you are teaching kids and spreading your dumbness around. As a side note if you weren't so stupid you would have looked up the word pebeat and scene that it is a Italian word. You truly are pathetic and saddens me that you teach kids but I guess you are the reason our country is in the shape it is. Also how is any one gaining financially from a school and if they are there should be a government agency looking into my tax money being stolen but there is not there is just a bunch of crying your ridiculous and are just spraying venom because you couldn't cut it in the real world.

A FORMER TEACHER
A FORMER TEACHER

As a former teacher of this school I have to say that everything EVERYTHING in this article is true. The only reason this school is a success is because of the dedication of its teachers, most of whom who come from similar backgrounds as the children they teach. Marcos Martinez and his collaborator, Gabriela Guzman, have abused and exploited these children and their teachers for personal financial and egotistical gain. The school is a good idea and should continue, but only if there is ethical leadership. Marcos is not an ethical man, to the contrary he is a true narcissist, and his comments below as "Thebigpebeat11" are indicative of his sad mental pathology. Protect our kids and our teachers by ensuring that this man and his collaborators are never allowed back in the halls of this school.

Thebigpebeat11
Thebigpebeat11

I cant believe that in this day and age and kids being so out of control that we would worry about a teacher being to hard on kids. We live in a state where our public schools are a total mess and this man is truly trying to better our state and his own race of people. We need more people like this man he is not making excuses he is making answers. Especially in this day and age where everyone is making excuses for everything. This man should have got a raise not removed this is truly insane I hate to call this place home when a teacher with good motives is being chastised for being to hard on kids. Kids need discipline and especially at risk youth they need even more. Have we as a society really become this weak that teachers cant rule with an Iron fist teachers should rule like this. Schools and for that matter corporations and non profits by nature are dictatorships there is no such thing as a democracy in schools or nothing would get done. With out discipline and harsh teachers I would have never graduated from a prominent university. Please tell me that we as state have not become this stupid that teachers can not discipline. As a side note any of these whinny teachers could never cut it the private sector. I could never whine about my boss being to mean that is insane these teachers are grown people stop whining like a bunch of sissy jerks it makes our state look stupid and weak. I never could understand why are schools are in in the shape that they are in until I read this ridiculous article here is a man with a mission and results to back up his mission and he is totally being attacked for it. We are handcuffing are teachers and wondering why are kids are as dumb as they are. I guess this all part of the plan of dumbing down America get rid of all the good teachers and administrators and keep the ones who do nothing what a sad day for Colorado

Anonymous
Anonymous

Let's just be honest, all this stuff is true.

Guest
Guest

I think this is a great article. I've seen the test scores the students of this school are posting and thought that they were great; great until I learned that those scores were being manufactured. I think it's silly for the public to accept that one idiotic test can be used to say whether our kids are learning or not. You use tests to test monkeys in laboratories not kids. However, if the Head is cheating then the scores don't mean anything anyway. I really hope Westword contacts more former employees and even current ones. I know that, if given anonymity, the staff would gladly inform the public about the truth of this article.

calhounp
calhounp

We'd like to publish some of these comments in our print letters to the editor column -- ideally with the author's full name and town. If you're willing, e-mail me at patricia.calhoun@westword.com. thanks.

forstudentpower
forstudentpower

This school does not deserve to be named after someone who fought against tyrants. Maybe rename it Fidel Castro Academy?

Sierra
Sierra

It certainly looks to me like Mr. Martinez is using child performance as the guise to bully and terrorize teachers, parents, and children, an alarming number of whom seem to be women. Do you think that teachers must dedicate themselves to indentured servitude in order to meet your master plan for student achievment, Mr. Martinez? Many of the people who pride themselves on brutal honesty enjoy the brutality more than the honesty.

Concerned_parent
Concerned_parent

One group huh? I wonder how many more of the teachers that have been fired or intimidated by Marcos Martinez will have something to say after this article? I'm sure the parents have no idea what's going on in that school. That doesn't make them bad parents. They are guilty of putting their trust into a flawed system and a flawed school and why wouldn't they? A school is supposed to be trustworthy. Also, if these teachers are only looking for payouts, they are looking in the right place because they seem to be winning.

Looking4Truth
Looking4Truth

This story is yet another example of the media turning a molehill into a mountain. The allegations have been brought forward by a small group of disgruntled people looking for payouts and attention. Do you honestly believe that parents knowingly send the nearly 300 students to school on a daily basis to a prison like atmosphere where they are forced to wear dunce caps and eat slop? If that is the case there are some serious parenting issues that need to be addressed. I’m wondering if people will ever stop jumping to conclusions and really find out the facts before making judgments.

Caringpublic
Caringpublic

Its amazing to me that schools like this exist...it makes you wander how many other Marcos Martinez exist under CSI/CDE rule???!!! SCAREY! Is it fair that nothing has been done about a situation like this? CSI had it in their files that he was accused of child abuse, tampering with CSAP scores and with state funding "copying and pasting Special Ed. applications" for students to get funding because that is what is amounts to - funding. COLORADO WAKE UP ....is this how you want your taxes spent and then the CDE and CSI wander why they cannot get enough funding to support education....THERE IS A REASON schools like this exist and obviously the system has failed because if these items have been "DOCUMENTED by the 1 institute that is to be watching and regulating schools - IS NOT doing their job. And how in the hell does CDE not follow up with these institutes who are SUPPOSEd to be in charge of allowing and keeping schools to the law and well are not....HMMM!!!! This entire article is INFERIORATING! The next time their is a move for get more of my tax money for education my question is to CDE and CSI - WHY! You hire poor leadership - do not watch what they do daily to students and to their staff and you expect us to fund this - what happens if thats my kid in these schools - then what. When does this madness stop!!!! At what point. In my eyes to have people like Antonio Vigil and Marcos Martinez yelling at 4 year olds or grade school students is what is - CHILD ABUSE! And what has been done - NOTHING! And what is the next question....as in all child abuse cases WHY did the state allow this to happen!!!!! This school is asking teachers to change grades.....I wander what more has Marcos Martinez and Antonio Vigil done to their state tests - sort of makes you think doesnt it. And where is CSI....is Ethan Hemming going to do something with this other than worry about turning his own sad organization into lemonade so they get more funding REALLY! Hey Ethan what the hell else are you going to do for the organization - what is it going to take for your group to start doing your jobs and STOP people like this and yourselves from allowing this to happen to children and to teachers. WOW!!!! WOW!!! WOW!!!!

Guest
Guest

I believe the teachers 100%! I hope this guy gets what he deserves. I am sure they are happy to not work in an environment that does not support teachers and students. I hope new schools are not opened and at least the leadership is changed within this school. This is no way to treat professionals that actually care about the students...not the test scores (which are not valid because it says he coaches the students and checks all tests...hmmm). I hope the right people recognize what he has done and make the right decisions!!!

Guest
Guest

Wow, a person is a democrat who opposes charter schools because they feel a principal who discriminates against women, treats students like piggy banks instead of people and misappropriates funds is wrong? Nice try. These charter schools were created specifically to ensure students pass these idiotic tests. If they do well on the tests then it's not a measure of each student's educational level, it's a measure of how well the school was able to teach students how to take a specific test. Please take a moment to understand the dynamics and factors that allow schools like this to do "well." Also, as the article says, it's not the principal it's the teachers that are the reason the students are learning. They learn in spite of the principal, not because of him.

guest
guest

What an idiot! I hope that school doesn't get renewed!

Awareparent
Awareparent

It saddens me that you would attempt to question my capacity to teach given that you (Mark Martinez) is unable to consider the simplicity of a homophone like "seen" in lieu of the word "scene." Your desperate attempt to salvage your name through the medium of an internet message board truly saddens me. Ultimately, I hope you seek the psychological help you truly need, Mark, and can grow from your ridiculous attempt to create a fiefdom when all you ever truly deserved at most was a mediocre police badge with no hope of promotion. Yes, that simple badge and its inherent power would have surely satisfied your egotistical ambitions. When considering that, I almost hope that you would have been relegated to the sub-class category of a "Pig" than the unwarranted title of a Director of a school. At least as a Pig society could have relatively quarantined your sick mental pathology.

Guest
Guest

yeah. whatever. "MARK" Martinez

Assrdrgz
Assrdrgz

Hi Patricia,Sure, that's okay with me.

Guest
Guest

I think Fulgencio Batista Academy would be more fitting.

Rifka Anne
Rifka Anne

Thanks Sierra for pointing out the exploitation and oppressive dynamics here - U.S. schooling has long been founded on hegemony - what is happening here is violence - violence against children, families, and the teaching profession. Where is the Building Excellent Schools organization in this current context? Where do they stand? Perhaps it is time for communities to take back their children and realize that school officials and district personnel (as well as "authorizing agencies") are in this for their own egos and positions of authority - and not for the liberation and enlightenment of children....

Assrdrgz
Assrdrgz

This regurgitation looks more like a seized opportunity to try out the word "guise" and a family cliché than a thoroughly informed and intelligent opinion.

Assrdrgz
Assrdrgz

Why wouldn't you wonder instead how many content and inspired teachers continue to work for Martínez in an environment each deems to be healthy, purposeful, and beneficial to the children who attend?

Crazy
Crazy

Thanks for your view, Marcos...

Caringpublic
Caringpublic

Truth Seeker - identify yourself tell us who you really are Marcos Martinez, one of his constituents, Antonio Vigil, CSI...who!!!! The TRUTH Truth Seeker is already listed in this article - even my dog could understand that one....CSI had Marcos Martinez and Antonio Vigil's actions recorded - its NOT JUST the teachers or some story making a mountain out of a molehill as you state...REALLY! May I make a suggestion...TRUTH SEEKER ...read it the article that is ...if you can! Then post your comments. I would bet if your kid or family member had to endure what this article discusses these families have had to endure - the shoe would "fit" altogether differently.

guest
guest

Antonio vigil now works are West Denver Prep. Watch out parents!

Guest
Guest

Thank you for speaking out against this incredible, ignorant man! We need to contact Ethan Hemming and the Larimie County School District that just approved them conditionally!!! If this makes your blood boil...please call and speak up so no other teachers and children have to deal with this man.

fliteking
fliteking

Great plan, punish the kids because the super is an idiot.

I'd bet you are a democrat who opposes charter schools, no?

When are Liberals going to start putting kids first?

Thebigpebeat11
Thebigpebeat11

Just keep proving how dumb you are. If you would like to debate this in person so you can see who I am I would love to. Stop being a cry baby and realize other people besides Marcos think you wrong and think you are just a wussy cry baby. Please stop being ignorant and think that only Marcos thinks you wrong. I am totally independent here and I still think your totally wrong. Please don't be so stupid.

Disgusted
Disgusted

Marcos (Assrdrgz), shut up. You try desperately to sound intelligent, but honestly you're not. You're incredibly far from the par of intellectualism, and to match, you're inept in the use of a simple dictionary and/or thesaurus. Someone like you should have never had the chance to open a school. You're an incompetent hack who has exploited our most valuable resource, our children, for the explicit use of creating the illusion of power for yourself.

Sierra
Sierra

And you, sir, seem to be more intent on discrediting anyone who spoke against Mr. Martinez than providing any thoughtful comments.

Concur
Concur

There aren't any.

Concerned_parent
Concerned_parent

I do wonder and I'm almost certain that the number of content and inspired teachers working for Mr. Martinez is severely outweighed by the number of uninspired and extremely discontent teachers who stay there in spite of his horrible leadership and authoritarian ways. I'm certain of this fact based on the turnover rate that was pointed out in this article. I mean, the average tenure of each teacher is 2 months to a year. Basic math will tell you that most teachers don't last a year at the Ricardo Flores Magon Academy. I'm sure there are teachers who are content and have found a home at the school and I have no doubt that ALL the teachers are there for the specific purpose of educating poor, minority children but how many leave the school disenchanted with education and teaching in general?

Guest
Guest

And so who are you ASSrdrgz b/c that is what is seems to be - your comments are ASSinine - look that up and tell me if I spelled it right....

Assrdrgz
Assrdrgz

I know the gentleman professionally and he is beyond addressing and responding to such biased drivel. Look it up.

guest
guest

At West Denver Prep

Concur
Concur

I agree. Once again, the people who see Marcos exactly for what he is has shown just how sad Marcos Martinez's personality disorder truly is. Trying to argue your way out of not being Marcos by your username "Thebigpebeat11" as possibly being of Italian origin is truly PATHETIC. I agree with GUEST that only a person administrative leave would take this much time out of their pathetic life to respond to such comments. Please understand, Marcos, that eventually everyone has a judgement day. Unfortunately, yours came years too late.

Guest
Guest

Only a person on administration leave would take this much time out of their pathetic lives to respond to comments. Get over yourself and let justice speak for itself.

 
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