On December 9th, 2020, the school board listened intently to a presentation from Nicole Waggoner and other members of the Merit Academy community as they proposed opening a charter school in Woodland Park. The official application for this idea was submitted back in September and has been causing some commotion and mixed opinions in the community.
Charter schools started becoming popular in the early 2000s and have steadily grown acclaim in the public eye. It’s common for a charter school to not be included in a town’s school district, but in this case, Merit Academy would act as a 5th school in the Woodland Park district, while having their very own school board. This allows the charter school to create their own environment and be creative with their teaching approaches. Each state’s rules and regulations about charter schools are different and being a fairly new system, they’re not necessarily proven to be a better alternative than public schools. Is building a charter school in Woodland Park in our best interest?
The Merit Academy group is made up of very qualified, experienced individuals who believe that building a charter school is absolutely in the town’s best interest. It could attract more families to move here, diversifying the community, as well as give current residents more education options. The approximate 930 students who reside in Woodland Park, but aren’t enrolled in WPSD, will have another choice closer to home. In turn, this will increase the time and money that Woodland Park residents spend in town, strengthening the community.
John Dill, the first speaker at the board meeting on December 9th said, “There is clearly a market for classical education in the Front Range region.” Classical education has been around since ancient times and emphasizes the importance of truth, goodness, and beauty. This type of education usually breaks learning into three phases- grammar (K-6), logic or dialectic (7-9), and rhetoric (10-12). By doing so, children gain a solid foundation of the skills necessary to move forward in deeper thinking. The elements or fields of study in classical education include mathematics, sciences, arts of language, fine arts, music, modern languages, Latin, and history. In addition to incorporating classical education, Kimberly Porter speaks on the Core Knowledge curriculum that would be part of Merit education. “The curriculum is coherent as it reads through the subject areas. Cumulative as it builds on itself the grades and content specific as it identities basic, required knowledge in each domain area.” Using these standards plus high dosage tutoring to guide their curriculum, Merit Academy claims that their students will do better on standardized tests while being more rational and innovative. Nicole Waggoner took to the microphone to explain their plans to encourage healthy character development which includes an emphasis on valor, goodness, perseverance, responsibility, and friendship. She said, “We are particularly excited about the inclusion of the house system in the Merit Academy structure. Children will be divided into a house organized around one of the five core virtues. This system will tie children of all ages together, strengthening our school.” Judging from their presentation, it seems as though Merit Academy has full support from families whose students are currently having to drive down the pass or who would like a different curriculum for their child.
Merit Academy will be age inclusive, ranging from Kindergarten to 12th grade. As of now, there isn’t a set location for the school to open in the fall of 2021, but the number one prospect is the bottom level of the Faith Lutheran Church. This will only be temporary, as a permanent building would start construction the year after opening. The school would contain at least 28 classrooms, a gymnasium, cafeteria, and library. According to page 104 of the Merit Academy application, “there will be no impact on WPSD taxpayers to build this facility.” In addition, no tuition will be required to attend Merit Academy.
Speaking of financials, some of the concerns from Woodland Park residents stem from worries about Merit Academy reducing funding to WPSD. Brian Gustafson, the director of business services for the school district, helped clarify the reality of this fear. He explained that schools are funded on a “per-pupil rate”. Currently, the PPR is $7,701; meaning that for every 1 student, the school gets paid $7,701. If Merit Academy gets approved, each established school won’t lose funding unless their students were to transfer to MA. If only a handful of students transfer to MA and the rest of the student body is made up of new residents or those who were previously going down the pass, the four WPSD schools would still receive approximately the same amount of money. There’s no way to foreshadow exactly how it will play out, but the PPR system is in place to distribute money as evenly and fairly as possible.
For more information about Merit Academy, visit wpsd co on YouTube and watch their “December School Board Meeting” which includes perspectives from both the Merit Academy committee and school board. The decision to approve or deny Merit Academy must be made within three months of the day an application was submitted. By December 30th, the community will finally have an answer.