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

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"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.

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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