It seems a lifetime ago when The Federalist introduced you last fall to Merit Academy in Woodland Park, Colorado. It’s a no-politics public school designed and overseen by local parents, opened in just one year of intense planning and work. These past seven months have seen this public contract school grow and flourish, despite many challenges.
“When you think back to where we were a year ago, it is surreal,” says Gwynne Pekron, Merit’s director of development and chief action officer, beaming. “This was a dream for many, but a vision to us.”
Merit Academy is a classical, Core Knowledge school that opened on August 23, 2021, to 184 full-time students and more than 80 part-time homeschool students. The parents and community members who built Merit sought an education that would challenge children and build lasting friendships, without the controversial politics often found in public schools.
“Merit Academy is a shining example of our virtues of valor, goodness, and perseverance,” reflected local parent Heather Scholz. “It meets the demand of parents who have given up on the direction of modern schools.”
When we last checked in with Merit Academy, they were working hard in the classroom basement of Faith Lutheran Church, which generously opened its doors to Merit when the school’s board struggled to find a space big enough to accommodate parent demand. Where are they now?
After calling both Faith Lutheran and Mountain View Methodist churches home, Merit Academy is now in its “start-up Bear Den” at a re-purposed hardware store in a local strip mall. Outside recess space was kindly offered by neighboring Our Lady of the Woods Catholic Church. Classroom walls are portable, lined with sound blankets to alleviate noise.
From these walls hang children’s artwork and school projects, ranging from idioms to drawings of George Washington to designs of engineered future cities.
“For the first time, my son doesn’t ask for a ‘sick day,’” says Tarin McNeese, a sixth-grade parent. “This is not to say it’s easy—he works at it—but when challenged, his teachers guide him. I personally appreciate the school’s transparency with what is taught.”
The Merit Bears study science, English, history, reading, mathematics, Latin, language lab, and writing. In the halls, one hears lively songs of the upcoming spring performance, recitations of numbers study, and discussions of what it means to be valorous, one of the five Merit virtues.
The classes are driven by Merit’s vision: students prepared for success in a free society, promoting civic responsibility, and contributing their talents in a flourishing republic by pursuing beauty, truth, and good.
The desire for choice is stronger than ever, not only in this beautiful mountain community but across the nation as charter school enrollments climb. In November 2021, this school district had its first contested school board election in more than a decade, and Merit’s existence, school choice, and critical race theory were all on the ballot.
All four school-choice candidates swept the election, but their change agenda faces fierce resistance from the defeated minority. The new board majority is addressing the taxpayers’ concerns about district facilities operating at approximately 50 percent capacity. They are committed to stopping the 20-year trend of severely declining enrollment and family exodus.
The local school district was losing families who decided to live elsewhere or place their children in public and private schools outside Teller County, a picturesque rural location encompassing Pike’s Peak and adjacent to Colorado Springs. To bring families back, the new school board members support a parent’s right to know what is being taught. They support Merit Academy and school choice for parents. They plan to increase staff salaries and right a ship that has been listing for 20 years.
While holding her two-year-old, Nicole Waggoner, one of Merit’s founders, said, “Merit adds educational choice many people want. These families appreciate our virtues, our curriculum, and our school, so our enrollment numbers are through the roof. We’re drawing families up the pass [from Colorado Springs], which contributes to a thriving community.”
Seeing smiling faces in the “Bear Den,” one may wonder what challenges Merit Academy has overcome. “Starting a school is not easy,” reflected Pekron, “but it is worth it, especially when you hear your kids talking about the War of 1812, how a cat’s eyes adjust at night, or how they acted responsibly that day. It’s worth every breath.”
So, what are the biggest challenges now? Pekron paused, then said: “No matter how deep the vision and how detailed the plan, the biggest challenge is being at the mercy of others.” Glancing out the window, she continued, “As a contract school, grant foundations did not understand we were cut from the same cloth as a charter school, but different. Most said, ‘Come back when you are chartered.’”
Despite those financial disappointments, the most touching and inspiring funding came from grassroots contributions and encouraging words from supporters all over the country following the September 2021 Federalist article. To you, Merit Academy is deeply grateful.
One of Merit’s house mottos is “Fortune favors the brave.” This spring, Merit Academy has had greater financial support, with grants and donations totaling more than $400,000. Merit board member Mary Sekowski said, “It’s wonderful to receive these blessings of needed financial support that support start-up expenses.”
Seed funding isn’t the only thing start-up schools struggle with. “The facilities piece has been more difficult,” said Waggoner. “There are few available spaces for demanded growth.”
Woodland Park lies west of Colorado Springs at a stunning 8,500 feet elevation. As in most mountain communities, few existing buildings could house a school. Merit’s facility challenges landed it in an old hardware store, one of the only large-enough spaces open.
While many would view Merit’s experience as a struggle, the newly elected school board recognized a community need to charter Merit and sought a win-win solution for Merit’s space needs. The district’s declining enrollment leaves district taxpayers with a hefty burden to maintain partially empty buildings, costing more than $2.6 million annually.
“The more you spend on buildings, the less you spend on students,” noted Sekowski. “Taxpayers prefer their tax dollars support an increase in staff salary or a boost in student programming rather than pay for half-empty buildings.”
Due to declining enrollment, the district’s building space is at approximately 51 percent of functional capacity, according to a Denver consulting firm the district hired last fall. The capacity is forecasted to decrease to 32 percent at the middle school building and 35 percent at the high school in four years. The taxpayer cost of operation and maintenance for these two buildings alone exceeds $1.5 million per year.
Recognizing Merit’s need for space to grow as a new district charter school, the district explored the possibility of offering Merit space at the half-capacity district middle school, which would decrease district facility expenditures and honor high community support for Merit Academy.
“With Merit paying the building expenses, district funds will be redistributed to students and staff, not spent on underutilized building space,” Waggoner stated. “Besides saving taxpayers money, it honors previous community commitments to learning by using these spaces for their original intent — the education of children. This is especially timely with district consultants discussing school closures.”
This idea generated resistance from a minority in the community that closely resembles nationwide opposition to newly elected conservative school boards. This group has posted vitriol on social media, saying things like “F— Merit” on Facebook, protesting at local school board meetings, yelling at and heckling the newly elected directors, using public comment periods to call directors “racist” and accuse them of trying to establish religion, and identifying with national efforts to stifle charter schools and school choice. One of the new school board directors even had his truck keyed during a board meeting.
In March, students celebrated Dr. Seuss, wearing mustaches and reading Dr. Seuss books. As if written for Merit Academy and all parent-initiated schools out there, Dr. Seuss advised, “If you get a chance, take it. If it changes your life, let it. Nobody said it would be easy. They just promised it would be worth it.”
Yes, it is worth it. Despite its many challenges, Merit Academy thrives, with steadfast community support. The school opened in fall 2021 with nearly 200 students and a large waitlist. Its 2022-23 enrollment is forecasted to grow to more than 370 full- and part-time students, with additional students on its still-large waitlist.
“We are no longer just a hope or a dream,” Waggoner reflected. “Merit Academy is the school many families have hoped for.”
To learn more about Merit Academy or support it, please visit https://merit.academy.