Colorado’s only sober high school given temporary reprieve, reopens next week

Author: Debbie Kelley, The Gazette - August 30, 2018 - Updated: September 13, 2018

Students pack a board meeting that will decide the fate of Colorado’s only sober high school. (Photo by Debbie Kelley, The Gazette)

Landmark Community School, the state’s only sober high school, has been saved, for six weeks at least, while a committee is set up to figure out solutions for a lack of staff, a financial deficit and how to meet a June 30, 2020, deadline for the Colorado Springs school to stand on its own feet.

Pleas from students, parents and grandparents led the board of Community Prep School, which established Landmark in January 2017 as an offshoot program, to cobble together a last-ditch effort.

The board voted late Wednesday after a four-hour meeting to postpone deciding whether to permanently shutter Landmark — which abruptly suspended operations last week due to two staff resignations.

The school will temporarily relocate from Immanuel Lutheran School, where it’s been housed, to the Community Prep building at Willamette and Wahsatch avenues. Community Prep will provide education and recovery support services from Sept. 4 through Oct. 26, the board decided.

“We don’t want it to fail. I wouldn’t be sitting here if I wanted it to fail,” said board member Wayne Hutchison, who was on the board in 2016 when Landmark became an incubator program of Community Prep.

“We’re not quitting on you guys,” said board Chairman Joe Southcott.

Closing Landmark would leave few options for teens overcoming drug or alcohol use who want a supportive environment in which to finish high school.

“Please do not close down this amazing space, this young school and its teachers are truly a blessing, and students have nowhere else to go,” Pamela Rogers, a grandmother of a student, said to the board.

Student Autumn Sparks said Landmark saved her life and got her to stop using heroin and pills.

“They cared for all of us,” she said to the board. “I don’t really have sober influences outside of this. I had such a hard time being in public schools. Here, I feel like I’m not alone. You can actually be yourself.”

The school is like family, said student Luis Castro, who started drinking alcohol at 11 years old, was committed to two years in juvenile lockup and is two years sober.

“We’re there for each other, we’re all connected,” he said. “The support and love and camaraderie this school provides, you’re not going to find that anywhere else.”

Landmark unexpectedly closed last week, after founder and director Leslie Patterson resigned along with another staff member, leaving one teacher.

She told the board she was bullied by new Community Prep Principal Lori Bitar, who took over July 1.

“The agreement we have with the board was to incubate a recovery program, and all of a sudden everybody’s saying we don’t have the funding, we don’t have the right documents,” Patterson said. “Nobody asked me where they are.”

A forensic accountant determined a deficit ranging from $135,000 to $335,000 throughout its operations, Bitar said.

The issue of what to do with Landmark is the latest developments in a string of sweeping changes at Community Prep, a 23-year-old alternative education charter school in Colorado Springs School District 11.

Nearly 150 people packed Wednesday’s meeting, with 32 student, parents and former staff speaking about their frustration with Bitar and her style of leadership.

“It’s if you don’t like this new way, hit the highway,” said Tom Lyons. “Wow, when did we forget about the kids and when did you forget about the employees. When did you stop caring about them?”

Former Community Prep employee Jayde Lanning said staff are either being laid off or fired or are quitting because of the changes, which she says have negatively altered the entire culture of Community Prep and Landmark.

“There used to be kindness and compassion,” said Lanning, who said she was recently let go after working for four years at Community Prep as a student advocate and life coach. “That’s now missing.”

Bitar said that’s untrue.

“A lot of folks did not feel it was a good alignment for them so they made the decision to resign,” she said.

Some speakers said the heart and soul of Community Prep is being ripped out.

Among the changes: enrollment at Community Prep is being capped at 300 students, requiring fewer staff positions. A student advocate program that provided tutoring, mentoring and other assistance, has been axed. Students who are parents can no longer bring their babies to school.

A firm instead of self-paced class schedule for students is being enforced, doors are locked during school and teachers have higher academic expectations to meet.

“It feels more like a hostile takeover than someone taking the reins and improving the school,” Lanning said.

Bitar said the new direction is intended to improve the well-being of students.

“Our greatest concern is for the educational welfare and safety of the students,” she said in an interview. “We want to make sure we have a solid program.”

But the new requirements don’t necessarily fit the student body.

“The stuff that’s going on here is not OK,” said Misty Beemon, whose daughter Aspen attends Community Prep.

In trying to make Community Prep more like traditional schools, an environment which didn’t work for students before is being created, shutting out many students. Many have backgrounds that include criminal activity, substance abuse, suicidal tendencies, abusive family situations, homelessness and the need to work to support others.

In a letter sent Saturday to Bitar to distribute among her staff, board members said they stand behind the changes, which they said were necessary because procedures did not “rise to the level of district, state or safety expectations.”

As a publicly funded charter school, Community Prep and its charge, Landmark, operate semi-autonomously from D-11, which authorizes the charter contract and has oversight authority.

Charter schools’ governing boards make decisions on finance, operations, curriculum, staff and school culture.

D-11 administrators have verbally expressed concerns about pupil attendance records and financial records, “as we do with all of our charter schools when they have issues we try to help with,” said Chief Financial Officer and Deputy Superintendent Glenn Gustafson.

He, too, supports the new protocol.

“I think Lori is doing a fantastic job of trying to clean things up,” Gustafson said. “She’s unfortunately being victimized by all these things she’s uncovering, and as their authorizing district, we are thrilled they’re cleaning up their problems.”

Bitar said she’s “trying to ensure students get everything they need with a quality education. You always want to put kids first, and their career and college readiness are the primary focuses we are working on.”

Debbie Kelley, The Gazette

Debbie Kelley, The Gazette