Ricardo Flores Magon Academy: New leadership brings changes for once-troubled charter school

A lot has changed at the Ricardo Flores Magon Academy, a local charter school whose stellar test scores belied the tense environment that characterized the school when we wrote about it in November 2011. In March 2012, the founder of the school -- and the man who teachers and parents said was the source of many of its problems -- resigned his post. Now, two years later, the 320-student school is under new leadership. And with the help of several staff members who've returned to teach there, it's working hard to improve its academics and school culture.

"It's become more positive," says Marcelino Casias, the school's dean of students and culture. Casias began working at RFMA as a grant writer in 2010. He was hired by then-principal Marcos Martinez, who founded the school in 2007. Martinez envisioned a school that held low-income, Spanish-speaking students to high academic standards. He instituted tennis and chess programs -- which he called "thinking sports" -- and did not ring the dismissal bell until 5 p.m. at night. He named the school after Ricardo Flores Magon, a Mexican anarchist who used the pen as his weapon.

But by 2011, the school was in trouble. While its academic scores were very high -- 91 percent of students proficient in reading and 98 percent proficient in math in 2010 -- complaints from staff, parents and statewide education officials were piling up. One former teacher sued Martinez after she was fired for catching the flu and missing work. Others claim they were let go, or left on their own, for similar reasons. Parents and staff complained about Martinez's militant, my-way-or-the-highway brand of leadership. The school was embroiled in a lawsuit with its former landlord, and the Colorado Department of Education had noted several shortcomings, including the high rate of staff burnout.

The school "wasn't very welcoming or very warm," former teacher Susana Cabrera told us in 2011. "The teacher had to be the power and the authority."

By the time she spoke with us for that first story, Cabrera had left RFMA and was working at another charter school. But she says her mind often drifted back to RFMA. She believed in the school's vision and mission, and she was sad that her clashes with Martinez (she says he fired her for not agreeing with him) had cut short her time to help fulfill them.

"I felt like I had unfinished business," she says.

When the school's new principal called in the spring of 2013 to ask if she'd be interested in re-joining the staff in the fall as an administrator, Cabrera jumped at the opportunity.

"It's always had a soft place in my heart," she says of RFMA.

That new principal is Kaye Taavialma, who became the school's leader in January 2013. She was the fourth person to helm RFMA since Martinez's departure -- and she found that the school's progress has stalled on several fronts. For one, its test scores had declined, a development that Taavialma and others attributed to the turmoil in leadership. Several construction projects, including a renovation of the school's gym and cafeteria, had also come to a standstill. While Taavialma found that the teachers and staff were deeply committed to the students, she says they were isolated from each other.

"Within the staff, it was an 'I am an island' framework," Taavialma says.

Taavialma has made several changes in her short tenure.

Continue for more of our update about Ricardo Flores Magon Academy. Some are physical and easy to see. Others are less obvious. For starters, she made sure the school was outfitted with a working fire suppression system, and she dipped into the budget to build a new computer lab where the students could practice taking standardized tests online. She worked to finish the gym and cafeteria project, and she hired staff members like Cabrera, who are committed to bringing back the spirit of "colectivo" that marked the school's early days. She also enlisted the Colorado League of Charter Schools to help RFMA design a curriculum and created days for teachers to dissect and learn from student test data.

"I feel a lot better with this administration," says Mary Luz Daniel, a teacher who left the school during Martinez's tenure and returned last year. "I don't feel it's us versus them."

Casias agrees: "We still work hard and put in tons of hours. But it's not forced."

The changes, he says, have also impacted the students. (The school serves kids in kindergarten through eighth grade.) While the staff still holds them to high standards, Casias says, "we don't tell them what they need to be. We converse with them." This year, there's even a student committee, which is raising money to host a school dance.

But one aspect of the school hasn't changed: A majority of the students are Latino and the teaching staff reflects that. It's something that Taavialma, who is white, thinks is missing in a lot of charter schools that serve minority students -- and it's a legacy that she's committed to preserving at RFMA. But Taavialma says she won't be at the school forever; the plan is to eventually find a replacement who represents the school's culture.

That philosophy is why teachers like Daniel were eager to come back.

"Students see me and they see their aunt, they see their sister," says Daniel, who now serves as the school's coordinator for English-language learners. "I always wanted to motivate kids that look like me: 'I went to college and I did it. And you can, too.'"

More from our Education archive: "Meet Ana Marie Rey, CU-Boulder prof awarded $625K genius grant."

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Melanie Asmar is a staff writer for Westword. She joined the paper in 2009 and has won awards for her stories about education, immigration and epic legal battles. Got a tip? She'd love to hear it.
Contact: Melanie Asmar