OHKAY OWINGEH — Melissa Salazar carried a hand-painted sign Thursday outside La Tierra Montessori School of the Arts and Sciences: “Silence ≠ safety.”
She had gathered around pickup time with a group of about 20 parents and students protesting the small charter school’s response to numerous problems cited by the state Public Education Commission, an elected board responsible for overseeing state-chartered schools. The problems — including alleged safety violations — have put La Tierra on a path that could end with its shutdown.
Thirty-nine parents — a number that represents about two-thirds of the student body, Salazar said — have signed a petition to recall La Tierra governing council President Isaac Casados, who has filed a complaint against the Public Education Commission in an effort to delay a hearing to determine whether the school’s charter will be revoked. He also has threatened legal action against parents collecting signatures on the petition.
“We should be complying and making our school better instead of attacking everyone who’s trying to make it live up to its charter,” said Mateo Peixinho, a La Tierra father who joined Thursday’s protest. He’s been involved with the school since it opened more than a decade ago, he added.
Salazar became involved more recently, when her 10-year-old son enrolled in fourth grade at the beginning of the school year.
At first, it seemed like a godsend to Salazar, who is starting to lose count of how many schools her son has attended.
He leapfrogged between public schools in the Española Valley for four years, she said. Diagnosed with autism and a learning disability, the boy didn’t prosper in the traditional public school setting, with its regular worksheets, set curricula and single-grade classrooms. He grew depressed trying to cope.
That changed when the boy enrolled at La Tierra. For the first time, he was excited to go to school and more confident in himself, Salazar said. “We found the missing piece, which is to change the way the school does their work, not change our kid.”
By November, however, Salazar noticed strange occurrences on campus. The school seemed understaffed, and her requests for parent volunteer opportunities were met with blank stares.
From Salazar’s perspective as a Ph.D.-level educational consultant, La Tierra seemed woefully understaffed, and staff shuffling seemed to happen without notice to parents.
“The more things happened, the more I realized that people were either being pushed out or there was a lot of dismay and discord between the administrators and the teachers. That was leaving parents in the dark,” she said.
Her son’s Individualized Education Program, a federally required plan for special-education students, wasn’t updated for his new school environment until a meeting in early January, she added, and she still hasn’t received the signed copy.
The situation was more dire than Salazar initially realized.
For months, La Tierra Montessori School, which serves about 90 students in kindergarten through eighth grade at a facility on Ohkay Owingeh tribal land north of Española, has been subject to intervention by the Public Education Commission. Documents allege La Tierra violated its charter by failing to provide a safe school environment, adequate accommodations for students with disabilities and an education faithful to the Montessori educational philosophy.
Although school officials dispute these allegations, the Public Education Commission pushed La Tierra to the highest rung of its administrative intervention ladder in a Feb. 17 vote to issue a notice of a revocation review hearing, said Commissioner Steven Carrillo of Santa Fe.
The hearing will determine whether the commission revokes the school’s charter — meaning it would no longer be permitted to operate.
“There comes a point where it has to be about the kids, about whether or not this is an environment that is conducive to their maximum learning,” Carrillo said.
Officials dispute findings
The Public Education Commission has been examining problems at La Tierra since August. In November, the commission issued a notice of concern, the first intervention step for charter schools in trouble.
It followed up in December with a notice of breach of the school’s charter.
The notice states the school failed to maintain safe staffing levels and facilities; institute an authentic Montessori program with trained staff; and meet requirements for special-education students.
It also cites administrative issues regarding charter negotiations and lack of state testing compliance.
According to documents presented to the commission earlier this month, the school performed poorly on a facility safety audit and a playground safety audit.
La Tierra also received a letter Feb. 8 from the state Public Education Department’s Special Education Division citing a lack of compliance and lack of corrective action.
Casados disputes many of the findings in the notice of breach and insists the school is meeting special-education requirements.
The school lost two staff members in the last few months — a better turnover rate than two or three years ago, he said.
One teacher resigned Feb. 22, Casados said, and another was placed on leave in December over allegations of inappropriate contact with a minor.
While the teacher placed on leave was quickly replaced, Head Learner Patricia Herrera said La Tierra still lacks a permanent first and second grade teacher.
It now operates with five teachers, one educational assistant, one custodian and one administrator, who also serves as La Tierra’s special-education coordinator, Herrera said, adding she often steps in as counselor and nurse because the school does not have staff members for those jobs.
Only one staff member — the kindergarten teacher — is trained to provide the Montessori method of education.
School administrators are working to ensure La Tierra’s buildings and play structures are safe, Casados said, noting the school recently cleared a mold test. Though, the playground is now shut down.
Montessori is just one piece of the school’s guiding philosophy, he said — it’s meant to also focus on the arts and sciences, and the Montessori aspect can be shifted to meet the school’s needs.
“The Montessori component is one-third of the success of that program. … It’s not a practice that most individuals actually adhere to or provide other than private schools or in very wealthy communities throughout the country,” said Casados, who, like much of the school’s staff, is not formally trained in Montessori education.
Herrera, like Casados, said the school is meeting standards for special-education services, despite the state letter citing lack of compliance.
As the school’s only special-education provider, she said she has regular conversations with parents and teachers about students’ IEPs and often pulls students out of class for special-education services. The school also contracts with providers who offer students speech therapy, occupational therapy and social work services.
‘You all need to get along’
The Public Education Commission in December urged school officials, teachers and families to work together to correct the problems.
“The adults in this community, the teachers who are there every day, the principal who’s there every day, you all need to get along,” said then-Commission Chairwoman Rebekka Burt. “You need to put the stuff that’s happened aside and start moving forward. These kids are suffering because adults cannot get along.”
The school, in partnership with several state education agencies, created a corrective action plan that called for ensuring safety, providing Montessori training for staff and requiring special education compliance.
Casados said the plan should have been sufficient to return the school to good standing before the commission.
At a governing council meeting Wednesday, however, Casados outlined an alternate proposal to delay or halt the revocation process by alleging the Public Education Commission failed to adhere to New Mexico’s Open Meetings Act when providing La Tierra a notice of the charter review hearing. He said a Feb. 17 agenda item — which said “discussion and possible action on corrective action plan for La Tierra Montessori School” — should not have allowed the commission to move forward with a notice of revocation proceedings.
Casados said he intended to submit a formal notice of the alleged violation to the attorney general and the Public Education Commission.
“Essentially, our revocation process will be considered invalid because it did not occur under the normal general premise of [the Open Meetings Act],” Casados said.
Public Education Commission Chairman Alan Lee Brauer Jr. confirmed the commission received the complaint Friday but said he did not believe a violation occurred and the complaint will not preclude the commission from further action on La Tierra.
“I’m confident that we can still proceed with taking actions that we feel are in the best interest of children,” Brauer said.
Carrillo agreed, calling the attempt to delay revocation proceedings “even more than a Hail Mary.”
“This is moving forward,” he said.
Casados said he also plans to file ethics complaints against Carrillo, stating “other schools in similar situations have not been unfairly treated the way that we have been. I don’t think it’s the commission as a whole; I think it rests with one specific commissioner.” He named Carrillo.
Carrillo said is he aware Casados is displeased with him but has not yet received the ethics complaint.
Conditions at the school, meanwhile, haven’t seemed to improve, Carrillo said. “In this case, it was a substantial amount of time to correct the challenges, to correct the problems. And in a nutshell, they didn’t.”
What’s next for the school?
A revocation review hearing will likely be held within about 70 days, Carrillo said. The findings will be presented to the Public Education Commission, which will then determine whether to begin charter revocation proceedings or issue a revised notice of breach, allowing the school more time to improve.
The school can only be barred from operation if its charter is revoked, Carrillo said, adding the school would then have an opportunity to appeal the decision in court.
From Casados’ perspective, “everything is on the table” — including a potential appeal — to keep La Tierra open.
“We are looking at every opportunity that is available to us to ensure that this school continues to provide a safe and secure learning environment for these children,” he said.
Carrillo said he expects the school to continue operating at least through the end of this school year.
Shutting down a school is difficult, he said — for the commission, as well as for school administration, families and students.
Still, La Tierra parents are panicking. Salazar isn’t sure what her family will do if the school is shuttered. She doesn’t see another option that would support her son the same way La Tierra has.
“This is the first time I’ve seen my son thrive in 10 years of pre-K and day care and everything; this is the first time I’ve seen him come into his own,” Salazar said.
“I would have to drive an hour to find a Montessori experience similar [to La Tierra] and probably pay for a private Montessori education. I don’t have the resources for that,” she added.
To keep the school open, Salazar said she believes the school’s governing council needs to change.
The parent signatures collected on the petition to recall Casados are far more than required to recall the council president, she noted.
During the Wednesday meeting, Casados said parents organizing the petition effort could face legal action.
He alleged they were spreading “untrue” information and collecting signatures on school grounds. He also alleged parents were deceiving non-English-speaking parents into signing the petition — a claim Salazar insisted is false because many of the signatures were collected by parents fluent in Spanish.
The threats haven’t stopped parents from organizing and protesting.
“We want our school back,” said one sign at Thursday’s protest.
“Resign Casados,” said another.
Peixinho called the actions and threats by Casados and the board “ridiculous.”
“If you question their authority, then they go on the attack,” he said.
Despite her frustrations with La Tierra, Salazar intends to stay optimistic until the revocation review hearing. She still hopes the school can change with consistent pressure from parents.
“It was a bright spot in our community, and it still could be,” she said.