Staff members and families in Woodland Park School District are protesting after the district announced on Feb. 28 it would move sixth graders from its middle school and expand three elementary schools to preschool through sixth grade by the 2023-2024 school year.
The move would create more space in Woodland Park Middle School for Merit Academy, the district’s only charter school, as it shares a building with WPMS, said a press release shared by Lindsey Prahl, WPSD’s communications and marketing director.
But the change was met with immediate outrage from WPMS staff members and dozens of other community members, who say it wasn’t discussed with employees and parents. There was actually a question about the change in a November 2022 survey of hundreds of staff and community members, where a majority of both said they preferred sixth graders stay in the middle school.
Twenty-five staff members unexpectedly called out from WPMS on March 1, Prahl says in an email, in a “sick-out” protest of the decision. About 100 people gathered outside the middle school on the morning of March 2 to stand with staff and against moving the sixth graders, says Matt Gawlowski, a high school parent who is administrator of the website supportwpschools.com, where he shares information about controversial decisions and calls other community members to action.
WPSD parents who oppose the move said it will put more district resources into the charter Merit Academy that are needed for traditional public schools. Dozens of parents and other concerned community members have been speaking out for months against several recent decisions by Interim Superintendent Ken Witt, who was brought on in December, and the current Board of Education — changes they believe are weakening public schools and the district as a whole.
Moving sixth graders is part of that pattern, Gawlowski says. He noted that in January, the district was in support of adding another charter school, Third Future Schools, before its leaders ultimately decided not to submit a charter application.
“There’s a total apparent lack of interest in the public schools,” Gawlowski says. “It’s not just taking away resources — it’s not giving them any attention, not giving them any focus or discussions, even, on how to improve.
“It’s about abandoning our traditional public schools,” he says.
The district has previously praised Merit Academy, the charter school, for bringing new enrollment to the district.
“2022-2023 enrollment and revenue growth is due almost entirely to the new charter school, Merit Academy,” it said in a January statement about Third Future’s plan to apply for a charter. “While enrollment is flat to declining in the other Woodland Park schools, enrollment in the charter school is growing strongly.”
In the press release about moving sixth graders, the district asserts the change will benefit those students by providing “a better opportunity to establish a solid foundation” in literacy and math at the elementary level, allowing them to “focus on their academic and personal growth without feeling as much social pressure” and give them opportunities as older students to be leaders.
“Middle school can be a time of heightened peer pressure as students begin to navigate the complexities of social relationships and group dynamics,” the release says.
It also chided staff members who participated in the sick-out, saying it “disrupted our students’ learning environment.”
“It is unconscionable that some would target Woodland Park families to elevate adult angst at the expense of our students’ classroom learning,” the release says. “Our focus in these changes will always be on the best educational outcomes for our students, including both the WPMS students and the Merit Academy students who share the building and whose educational environment is also being targeted by these disruptive actions.”
Gawlowski and other parents are concerned about the effect such decisions — and the way they’re made — will have on staff morale and turnover.
“I think by the end of this school year, there’s going to be very few left,” he says. “That is going to be the biggest impact, by far, for my child — the loss of longtime educators, well-loved teachers and just the disruption that bringing in a bunch of new staff is going to bring. The frustrating thing is, I don’t think there’s anything we can do to stop that.”