As D-51 School Board’s conservative majority rushes to close East Middle School, it fast-tracks the opening of a religiously-affiliated charter school

District 51 School Board President Andrea Haitz

As the conservative District 51 School Board majority headed by Board President Andrea Haitz hurries to shut down East Middle School, it is fast-tracking the opening of yet another charter school, the Ascent Classical Academy, a project of Hillsdale College, a private Christian religious school located in south-central Michigan.

Ascent Classical Academy uses a curriculum advanced by Hillsdale’s Barney Charter School Initiative, “an outreach program of Hillsdale College devoted to the revitalization of public education through the launch and support of classical K-12 charter schools.”

Ascent Classical Academy plans to open in Grand Junction in August, 2023, at 545 31 Road, the building that formerly housed the Rocky Mountain Gun Club, just as the District puts the finishing touches on shutting down East Middle School, a high-performing traditional public school in the heart of downtown Grand Junction.

Ascent Classical Academy does not require its teachers to be licensed. 

Charter schools typically receive the same per-pupil government funding that traditional public schools receive, and so get accused of siphoning these funds away from traditional public schools. The National Education Association explains that “When students move to charter schools, ‘the funding follows the child.’ However, the cost of operating the child’s former school is virtually unchanged.” Thus, as children leave traditional public schools, those schools are forced to cut programs like sports, art and music. Or, as in the case of East Middle School, they get forced to shut down entirely.

The D-51 school board gave the go-ahead to Ascent in May of 2022, using a process that allows charter schools to work directly with the state, so it could bypass local control. School Board President Haitz introduced a resolution allowing Ascent to be fast-tracked, thus letting it bypass time-consuming local school board decisions.

Broomfield and Durango both rejected Ascent Classical Academies

Hillsdale is a decidedly right wing institution politically. In 2021, for example, it released a “1776 Curriculum” as a direct counter to the New York Times’ 1619 Project about the history of slavery in the U.S., and its corresponding K-12 curriculum. The Washington Post wrote in July, 2022, that “Hillsdale spreads the gospel of the right-wing through their K-12 curriculum and the Barney Charter School Initiative, which currently claims member schools in nine states across the country and ‘curriculum schools’ in 19 states. The college’s mission to maintain ‘by precept and example the immemorial teachings and practices of the Christian faith’

Affirmation of Hillsdale College’s “Christian roots,” from its website

morphs into a call for ‘moral virtue’ in their K-12 charter schools.”

Salon Magazine wrote that Hillsdale is a “tiny Christian college” that is leading the charge in “driving the right’s nationwide war against public schools” and carrying out a “full-scale conservative assault” on public education.

Ascent Classical Academy attempted to open charter schools in Broomfield and Durango, but both those local school boards denied the applications based in part on the grounds that they are actually “religious” schools seeking government funding. In a 2/11/19 editorial titled “Boards were right to reject Ascent charter school,” the Broomfield Enterprise wrote,

“Ascent’s provenance actually goes way beyond Golden — all the way to Hillsdale College, in Michigan, and the college’s Barney Charter School Initiative, which promotes the founding of classical charter schools like Ascent. Hillsdale’s stated mission is, in part, to maintain “the immemorial teachings and practices of the Christian faith.” (The name Ascent is an apparent allusion to Jesus’ ascension.) The college’s president, Larry Arnn, endorsed then-candidate Donald Trump in 2016. Vice President Mike Pence and the far-right Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas have given recent Hillsdale commencement addresses. Its alumni have jobs throughout the Trump administration. The school refuses public money and therefore avoids Title IX guidelines on sex discrimination and sexual assault protocols, the New York Times reported. “It has refused to engage in the otherwise required reporting on student race and ethnicity, let alone develop an affirmative action plan,” the Times reported. “Openly gay or lesbian students are a rarity, and The Princeton Review consistently ranks Hillsdale among the 20 least LGBTQ-friendly campuses.”

The former Rocky Mountain Gun Club building, where the Ascent Classical Academy plans to open, was for sale for $7 million

Durango’s School District Board formally rejected an Ascent Classical Academy on June 14, 2022, after finding it was not in the best interests of students, the community or the District. The Durango Board also noted the school’s connection to the religious Hillsdale College, writing in part,

“Hillsdale is an overtly religious institution, which describes itself as a “Christian, classical liberal arts college”; it proclaims on the first page of its website that, “[l]earning, character, faith, and freedom . . . are the inseparable purposes of Hillsdale College.”

Durango’s School Board noted numerous other problems with Ascent’s application as well:

“Among other things, Ascent presented a replication charter school that is not tailored to the unique needs or population of the District. It would be governed by a board based in Golden, Colorado, and would be operated by a manager contractually affiliated with Hillsdale College and its Barney Charter School Initiative. Ascent’s application also did not provide evidence that all students would have equal educational opportunity, regardless of disability, native language, income, color, or gender diversity. In addition, no facility plan was provided, and questions about the school’s financial plan were left unanswered. During the review period, Ascent was asked to explain why it requested waivers from dozens of District policies, and rather than provide the information, it withdrew the waiver requests, leaving numerous potential conflicts with the local community’s values. Furthermore, Ascent’s application and conduct indicated that it was not seeking a collaborative relationship with the District and intends for there to be no interaction beyond what would be required by law or a charter contract.”

The Durango School District’s full resolution denying Ascent’s application is here.

After the Durango School Board denied Ascent’s charter application, Ascent appealed it to the Colorado State Board of Education, which voted to uphold Durango’s decision in October, 2022.

Ascent also tried to pull its fast-track strategy to avoid local control on the Durango School Board, which did not fall for it.

District 51 School Board’s conservative majority fell for it in May, 2022.




  37 comments for “As D-51 School Board’s conservative majority rushes to close East Middle School, it fast-tracks the opening of a religiously-affiliated charter school

  1. What is happening here is a good old fashion “PURGE!”
    East Middle School is not in the most affluent of areas in Mesa County. Yet, in spite of Covid and all other distractions of life, this school has maintained a decent level of student achievement. Why close a school that does what it is suppose to do? Finances? Hmmm
    If finances is the reason to close East Middle, the why fast track a religiously based school. The Gun Club school to be has no public transportation routes, so all students will need to be driven there. Notice: Low income families will not be able to drive their students to the Gun Club/Handmaids’ school and the Gun Club building is not exactly disability friendly. If they do “teach” religion, that will get back to the public. So how much control will there be on that curriculum? Hmmm
    Now we have the resignations of HOW MANY PRINCIPALS? Does this look like a purge or not? It smells and feels sleazy, and then watching Haitz stutter and stammer at simple questioning by a “local” TV station.(And we know here investigative reporting is not a big “thing” at our TV stations)

    • There actually is public transit close by on Orchard, and the main Clifton station just a mile and a half away, but it is in an interesting location and nearby is where the city just annexed the property into the city instead of leaving it in Fruitvale, where it has been forever in order to build apartments and irreparable alter the views for many who have lived in the neighborhood for decades.

  2. After I heard on the news last night that the Grand Junction High School Academic Team won first place in the state competition in Denver, I started thinking that the exact schools that these school board members want to close are the schools that some of these kids may have had their elementary and middle school educations in and now they have won first in the entire state for their academic knowledge.

    Please tell me how this makes any kind of logical sense. As the child of a lifelong educator, I am appalled at Andrea’s manipulations of our school district and its dedicated students and engaged parents.

        • No they make it on providing “educational services” or selling “curriculum”.

          How much of Mesa County’s tax money will be paid to Derec Shuler and Ascent Classical Academies for “management services”? How much oversight will this new school have when chartering authority has been turned over by our board to an unelected front range institute?

  3. This shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone. From the first night Haitz, Lema, and Jones were sworn in, facing a cheering crowd of largely evangelical community leaders, at least five of whom are local evangelical pastors, several area Christian camp leaders, and their commingled social circles — the bulk of whom were homeschoolers and/or had their own kids in private evangelical schools — the writing was on the wall. The fact is that evangelicals want their tax dollars to pay for their own kids and everyone else’s kids to attend Christian schools. Period. They don’t believe in objective science and in fact many of them sincerely think the world is only 6K years old. There’s even a local “science” institute two blocks away from CMU that teaches that evolution is a hoax. These religious extremists don’t care that they’re deliberately decreasing Mesa County children’s and family services funding by denying access to the Healthy Kids Colorado Survey. They don’t want questions about race, gender, and sexuality to be asked of any student anywhere, not just their own kids – otherwise they’d simply opt out. Unfortunately for them and everyone else, funding for disability services, school lunches, bussing, and all manner of other supports will be eliminated as the HKCS is eliminated. These folks are doing the equivalent of “bleeding the beast” — look that up. And make no mistake, they’re going after the public library and universities in real time. Mesa County Dems, unaffiliateds, independents, and moderates need to band together fight like hell to get front range money and resources to fight back against the scourge of religious extremism. The extreme right is out organizing at outplaying us. If you don’t believe me, watch this “sermon” by the political activist behind the success of Boebert, Tina Peters, and Mike Lindell among others.

    • Imagine the audacity of people fighting for the schools they believe will be the best for children!

      I’d like to know the name of the place near CMU that is teaching the earth is only 6 thousand years old, if you care to share the name.

        • Please tell me you’re kidding. About the Earth being 6000 years old and that being taught to the kids. I have an opportunity to come back to Grand Junction for a job. But have decided to take Montrose instead. I don’t know if it’s a lot better but anything’s better than what’s going on in Grand Junction right now

          • As far as I know they aren’t teaching it in schools but definitely are in the churches. Although, my kid had a teacher promoting Trump as a good guy and said the election was definitely rigged… I contacted the principal and Brian Hill over a week ago and have still heard nothing back.

    • PS. It’s illegal to teach religion in public schools so if you’re afraid of these people doing that…all you have to do is report them to the state. It will be curtailed.

      • Unfortunately that’s not how this gets stopped. School districts have great latitude in Colorado to operate as they see fit, without any accountability to anyone. The experience with Delta County School District teachers giving failing grades to an A+ student who came out as atheist in 2016, and that school district’s hosting of bible classes, handing out bibles to students in middle school, forcing elementary school kids to attend religious nativity plays and having youth pastors to roam the halls of Delta High School was proof of that. After graduating and having her chances at college scholarships trashed by her school counselors, the student who was persecuted because of her atheism sued the school district. The District, who only had to shell out a $5k insurance deductible for the lawsuit, settled the case and behaved a little better for a couple of years after that, but is now falling back into their old ways. It has to be a systemic change made by altering the make-up of the people who sit on school board to create real change and get the District to comply with the law.

  4. I am a fan of Hillsdale College for several reasons, not the least of which are that they offer free courses to adults and they don’t accept any government funding which allows them to remain independent.

    I was not aware that they had developed a charter school framework. From what I know it is against the law for any particular religious belief to be taught in public schools so I think fear of that in Ascent Academy’s case is probably unfounded.

  5. The aptly-named Haitz couple acts like the money changers outside the Temple in Bible mythology. christian capitalism, whether in the form of selling hoax “medical treatments” or wrecking a school district and throwing students to the dogs of charter school doctrine. C’mon Jesus, throw ’em out!

  6. They advertise on their website that they don’t want their teachers to be licensed. Plus, they want as many teachers as possible to be armed. Hillsdale doesn’t take any government money so that they can avoid Title IX regulations. Both their elementary grades and middle school grades are ranked by USNews in the bottom third in the state of CO.

    • Reveal the process. Enough is enough. These Jokers on the district 51 School board need to be recalled. Hillsdale college supports the clan.

    • Yes!! We can’t afford to wait another three years until their terms are up. They have already done serious damage to this school district and community, and it’s only going to get worse. I fear what they are going to try to pull next.

      • Yes, recall. However, the election denier, Nut Wing of the GOP, with Chamber of Commerce cash, would likely win in a recall.

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