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It was portrayed as an exciting plan with lofty goals: Two of Denver’s homegrown charter school networks would join forces to strengthen academics, support students’ mental health, and better prepare them for life beyond high school. English learners and students with disabilities would achieve exceptional results.

The merger of Rocky Mountain Prep and STRIVE Prep, announced last summer, also would help the organizations survive a host of challenges: declining enrollment, tighter budgets, and more scrutiny of their academic records by a skeptical school board.  

To shepherd the merger, the schools’ leaders chose a charter school executive named Tricia Noyola, who had overseen a major charter expansion in Austin, Texas.

But the past year has been tense and chaotic, with hundreds of employees from the two networks leaving, an about-face by network leaders on which name the new network will carry, and a chorus of concerns about Noyola’s leadership. Now, with just days until the merger becomes official, it remains to be seen if the two networks will be stronger together or an ill-fated match. 

The new network will take the Rocky Mountain Prep name and serve nearly 5,000 students in preschool through 12th grade across a dozen campuses. It will be the second largest charter network in the city and carry the hopes and dreams of thousands of Denver families, many of them low-income parents of color and immigrant families who fear their children won’t get the education they deserve in district-run schools. 

Meanwhile, STRIVE Prep, once a key player and thought leader in the charter sector, will cease to exist.

Supporters of Noyola, who has been CEO of both networks for the past eight months though they are still separate organizations, see a Latina leader who comes from the same background as many students, champions student achievement, and brings a strong hand to management decisions. 

Patrick Donovan, chair of the Rocky Mountain Prep board, said Noyola has tremendous expertise in running schools, particularly when it comes to academics and school culture. 

Detractors paint a different picture, describing a leader who rules through fear, drives away experienced educators, and fails to support new teachers. They also see a single-minded pursuit of higher test scores and a diminished focus on student mental health, support for students with disabilities, and programming that elevates student voices, such as middle school speech and debate classes and social justice-themed events for high schoolers.  

Tricia Noyola, CEO of STRIVE Prep and Rocky Mountain Prep (Courtesy of Strive Prep)

Under Noyola, who’s on track to earn $340,000 from the two networks this school year —  more than any superintendent in Colorado — teachers have been urged not to unionize and warned not to talk to the media about the merger. 

“There’s only one reason people want to unionize, and it’s because there’s mistrust and dissatisfaction, and you feel unappreciated,” said Jenny Bisha, whose job as STRIVE Prep’s director of continuous improvement is being cut at the end of June. Bisha has not been involved in any unionization efforts. 

Several educators said their recent experiences at Rocky Mountain Prep or STRIVE Prep schools were so toxic or upsetting, it soured them on charter schools or teaching for good. Two said they counseled families to leave Rocky Mountain Prep because the schools weren’t meeting their children’s needs.  

Chalkbeat spoke to more than three dozen people for this story, including current and former employees, network board members, parents, students, and education policy experts. Some asked that their names not be used for fear they could lose their jobs, have trouble getting references, or face retaliation. 

Noyola declined repeated requests for interviews, but provided written answers to questions. 

“I certainly set a high standard and expect everyone to meet it. To do any less would be a disservice to our students and families,“ she wrote. “I may be demanding, but I always strive to be fair.”

Board members from both networks suggested that Noyola’s critics are holding her to a higher standard than they did the former leaders of STRIVE and Rocky Mountain Prep, both of whom were white men.

“As a woman of color in this space, sometimes you’re subjected to more criticism than, I think, white men,” said Amber Valdez, vice chair of the STRIVE Prep board. “I think that Tricia came in with a clear vision and made no apologies. She’s not conflict averse, because she wants to get things done.”

STRIVE, Rocky Mountain make plans to merge

Leaders from STRIVE Prep and Rocky Mountain Prep publicly announced plans to join forces last August, saying the merger would create a cohesive preschool through 12th grade pathway — something they said families had sought for years. 

Rocky Mountain has four elementary schools and STRIVE, since the closing of two middle schools this month, has eight mostly secondary schools. 

Last summer, both organizations were in moments of transition. 

“No [charter] network that I know of came out of a pandemic feeling like they were in a strong position,” said STRIVE Prep founder and former CEO Chris Gibbons.

Schools were also facing the end of a huge influx of federal COVID stimulus dollars that had helped pay for extra staff and services over the last few years, he said. Budget cuts were inevitable. 

Valdez also said STRIVE families and stakeholders told leaders “that what STRIVE was missing was a clear vision, a clear goal.”

She and other board members say that’s what Noyola brought to the table.

Noyola had moved to Denver from Austin in spring 2021 to take the helm of Rocky Mountain Prep when founder and CEO James Cryan left. 

In spring 2022, Gibbons announced he was leaving STRIVE for a job with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. (The foundation is a supporter of Chalkbeat. See a full list of our funders and read our ethics policy.)

Noyola applied to replace Gibbons, proposing that STRIVE and Rocky Mountain Prep merge and that she lead the combined network, according to STRIVE Board member Ulysses Estrada, who chaired the network’s CEO succession task force. 

Gibbons said STRIVE leaders had previously considered the possibility of merging with another charter school or network. Rocky Mountain Prep had gone further, doubling the size of its network by taking over two struggling schools — a charter school in Denver and a district-run school in Aurora — by 2018. 

STRIVE Prep and Rocky Mountain Prep serve similar populations, mostly students of color, with many coming from low-income families. About half of Rocky Mountain Prep students and nearly three-quarters of STRIVE students are English learners. 

“Quite frankly, we were evaluating Tricia as any other CEO candidate,” said Estrada. “If we didn’t think Tricia had the right skills to lead STRIVE, we wouldn’t pursue [the merger].”

By July of 2022, the board decided that Noyola and the merger both were right for STRIVE. The two networks decided she would continue leading Rocky Mountain Prep for another year and become CEO of the united network when the merger was final on July 1, 2023. 

Denver is a tough market for charter school expansion

Experts say the number of charter school mergers around the country has ticked up in recent years, sometimes fueled by the departure of founders who launched networks in the early 2000s, declining enrollment, or financial pressures. 

STRIVE has closed three schools in the last three years, including the Lake and Kepner campuses earlier this month. Denver has seen a spate of other charter school closures and other networks have slowed their growth.

“Sadly, this wasn’t a merging. It was a takeover.”

A 2021 analysis by the Charter School Growth Fund concluded that if charter networks want to grow in the Denver market, mergers are the only reasonable path. The growth fund, which has provided funding to both STRIVE and Rocky Mountain Prep, helps fund charter school expansion around the nation. 

Gibbons said the step is an important long-term strategy to address shrinking enrollment, financial sustainability, and a political climate in Denver that’s become less friendly to charter schools.

As for the recent spate of staff departures and simmering discontent in some quarters, he said, “We always knew this would be a very disruptive strategy in the short term.” 

Merger prompts major cultural change at STRIVE Prep

When leaders from the two charter networks unveiled the merger plan last August, they said the new network would bear the STRIVE name. STRIVE leaders tapped the network’s lead attorney, Jessica Johnson, to serve as interim CEO until the union was official. 

But within three months, Johnson was gone — a major personnel change that current and former employees said happened abruptly with no explanation. 

Both Johnson and the network agreed to “communicate to everyone that Ms. Johnson’s departure from STRIVE Prep was voluntary,” according to a copy of Johnson’s severance agreement obtained by Chalkbeat through a public records request. The agreement promised Johnson would receive her interim CEO salary through June 30. 

Johnson declined to comment for this story.

On November 2, the STRIVE Prep board named Noyola the new CEO of STRIVE Prep, making her the leader of two different charter school networks simultaneously. She received a base annual salary of $220,000 from Rocky Mountain Prep and, when she took the top job at STRIVE, her monthly consulting fee was upped from $4,000 to $5,000. In April, that consulting fee was doubled to $10,000 a month, retroactive to Oct 1. 

That means Noyola’s pay, including a $24,000 bonus she received from Rocky Mountain Prep this year, totals $340,000. That’s more than the CEO of DSST, Denver’s largest charter school network, or the superintendents of Denver and Jeffco, Colorado’s two largest school districts, earned this year. 

Noyola wrote, “I was asked to do the job of two individuals when I became CEO of both networks, and my compensation remains lower than that of the combined compensation of both roles.” 

Next school year, Noyola will earn a base salary of $290,000, with the possibility of a bonus. 

In February, STRIVE board members announced a reversal on the new network’s name. Rocky Mountain Prep’s name, practices, and standards would replace those of STRIVE. They cited data from a consultant’s report that showed better academic and instructional results at Rocky Mountain Prep than STRIVE

In 2022, fewer than 10% of students at five STRIVE schools were proficient on state math tests. The same was true in literacy for one STRIVE school. About 30% of all Rocky Mountain Prep students were proficient on math and literacy tests, still below the state average.

Parent Tracy Hill said her fourth grader has had a good experience at Rocky Mountain Prep–Berkeley since preschool. Keeping the Rocky Mountain Prep name feels like a win.

But this spring, Hill was surprised to learn from a reporter that the closest STRIVE school — the Lake campus — would close and won’t be an option when her daughter goes to sixth grade.

“That is a shame, because that’s walking distance from our house,” she said. 

Meanwhile, the name change rocked some STRIVE students and families. 

“Everyone in my neighborhood has probably gone to a STRIVE Prep school,” said Jacobo Gracia-Meza, who graduated from STRIVE Prep–SMART Academy in June and is headed to Colorado State University in the fall. 

“The thought of our name being taken away, it’s also taking the hard work we put in,” he said.

His parents, meanwhile, are worried about the cost of buying new school uniforms for his younger brother. 

This summer, STRIVE Prep–SMART will become Rocky Mountain Prep–SMART. (Ann Schimke / Chalkbeat)

Educators see new emphasis on test prep amid merger plans

Zion Gezaw, an assistant principal at STRIVE Prep’s Westwood middle school for most of the 2022-23 school year, noticed a shift around the time Noyola was named CEO of STRIVE schools. 

First, it was little things. Teachers were told they had to use the same colors and borders on their bulletin boards. Then rules came down requiring strict adherence to the lessons and pacing in the curriculum. 

The adaptations that Gezaw and the school’s eighth grade English teacher had made to create more culturally responsive and engaging lessons, such as adding the young adult novel “The Poet X,” were no longer acceptable. 

Student grades and interest in those classes plummeted, Gezaw said. 

“They made sure we knew they didn’t like it,” she said. “They would just not do it. They would put their heads down; they would sleep.” 

Jeremy Story, a public relations contractor who emailed answers to Chalkbeat on behalf of the networks, said STRIVE schools continued to use their own curriculum, and there were no pacing guides last school year. He didn’t address questions about whether modifications were allowed to make lessons more culturally responsive. 

As a Black educator, Gezaw said she’d been attracted by STRIVE’s focus on diversity, equity, and inclusion, but grew disillusioned as the emphasis shifted to test scores and uniformity. She quit in April. 

Some former Rocky Mountain Prep employees say this approach is typical of the network’s philosophy, even with the youngest children, and they’re dismayed to see it spread. 

Ellarie Anderson said when she learned of the merger, she thought, “Wow, we really don’t need more schools becoming like Rocky Mountain Prep.”

Anderson spent two years at Rocky Mountain Prep, starting a year before Noyola’s arrival. Throughout that time, she said her students, kindergartners and third graders, were expected to sit up straight at their desks, with their hands folded and eyes following the teacher. She said when supervisors observed, they’d count the number of students who met those standards. Those children were considered “engaged.”

Rocky Mountain Prep officials denied that students are expected to sit this way, with Story writing, “Absolutely not.”  

Anderson also said she was expected to follow rigid lesson plans prescribed by the network. 

“You’d show up every day and read your script to the kids, and if the kids got it or didn’t, it didn’t matter. You just moved on the next day,” she said.

Story said Rocky Mountain Prep schools do use scripted curriculum, but that teachers can make adjustments based on the needs and best interests of students. 

Annie Nelson, a former fifth grade teacher at Rocky Mountain Prep who left a year ago, said as state tests approached during the 2021-22 school year, she was asked to put more focus on students who were on the cusp of reaching proficiency at the expense of students who were far behind.  

An English teacher at one of STRIVE’s high schools described a change this year that required math and English teachers to drop their regular lessons starting in February to focus on SAT prep until the tests in April.

“It’s been SAT all day every day for kids, which has not been great,” the teacher said in late March. More kids were missing classes and their behavior was getting worse, he said. 

But Adam Lenzmeier, the vice president of schools for STRIVE, sees test prep in a different light. “The best thing we can do for kids is to position them to go into those assessments with the confidence they deserve,” he said.

Asked about whether there is a growing emphasis on test prep and test scores, Noyola wrote that test scores are “only one way we measure success,” and that other measures include state ratings, student attendance, and whether students and teachers return each year. 

STRIVE Prep evolved to focus more on equity

The history of STRIVE Prep traces the evolution of Colorado’s charter sector. STRIVE launched in 2006 with a single school called West Denver Prep. The idea was to provide a rigorous alternative to district-run middle schools with low test scores. Gibbons promised the mostly Latino families in southwest Denver eight hours of school per day, no summers off, strict discipline, and a focus on getting their children to college.

With high test scores and a long wait list, West Denver Prep opened more schools. By the time the network changed its name to STRIVE Prep in 2012, it was growing from four schools to seven. That same year, Rocky Mountain Prep opened its first school in southeast Denver. 

By 2014, test scores at STRIVE’s eight schools began to fall. Gibbons pointed to high teacher turnover, curriculum changes, and too many innovations at once. Around that time, STRIVE began accepting a larger share of students with disabilities than in the past, part of the network’s “equity agenda.” 

Josue Bonilla, left, gets a high five from special education teacher Wendi Sussman at STRIVE Prep–Federal in 2016. (Helen H. Richardson / The Denver Post)

In many ways, it signaled a shift away from the network’s “no excuses” style origins and a commitment to serving all students. 

Bisha, STRIVE Prep’s director of continuous improvement who oversaw a grant related to special education, worries that Gibbons’ legacy is “being destroyed” through the relentless push for better test scores and the state’s top green rating.

“Is that the be-all end-all that gives kids equitable access after high school?” she said. “No, it’s not.”

Some current and former STRIVE employees worry the merger will rob the schools of STRIVE’s unique traits, including its focus on antiracism, its commitment to serving students with disabilities, and its robust college and career readiness programming. 

A current STRIVE employee who helps oversee college and career programs said impending staff cuts will make it impossible for the merged network to continue offering overnight college trips, extensive concurrent enrollment classes, work-based learning, and career and financial aid advising for alumni.

“College and career readiness is not a priority from this new central team,” the employee said. “Sadly, this wasn’t a merging. It was a takeover.”

Noyola acknowledged the cuts and said each high school “is now empowered” to lead its own college and career programming. 

Noyola disputed that the focus on students with disabilities and antiracism is diminishing, and said the network’s commitment to both “is greater than it has ever been.”

Through the changes, Noyola has maintained the support of both boards.

Estrada, the STRIVE board member who himself attended the network’s first middle school, said it’s misleading to say the network is moving away from its commitment to antiracism. 

“I think our priority as an organization and the most antiracist work we can do is giving each student a college prep education,” he said.

Who is Tricia Noyola?

Noyola grew up in the Rio Grande Valley in southern Texas and has often talked about being underestimated by her teachers growing up. She has described herself as opinionated and headstrong, and said she fell in love with education while working in an elementary school during college. 

On the weekly podcasts Noyola records with updates for STRIVE and Rocky Mountain Prep staff, she strikes a conversational tone, discussing movies she plans to see with her husband and children and network goals like getting students to read a million words.

Noyola started her career at a large Texas-based charter network called IDEA Public Schools, which promotes a no excuses, college-for-all philosophy. Prior to her arrival in Colorado two years ago, Noyola helped IDEA grow from four to 16 schools in the Austin area. 

Lenzmeier, who started as a STRIVE principal in 2020 and will manage four principals in the new network, said Noyola is uncompromising in what she believes is possible.

A former army officer, he believes that “Tricia Noyola shares a lot of similarities with the best commanders I worked with.”

But many STRIVE and Rocky Mountain Prep employees describe her as harsh and intimidating, with little tolerance for dissent. Under her leadership, staff have been fired with little or no notice, and others have been notified of impending job cuts on group Zoom calls that lasted just a few minutes, according to current and former employees. 

“At my campus, staff were very afraid of her,” said one former mental health provider at Rocky Mountain Prep. “I’m very afraid of her. I do not want to be on her list or her radar.”

Noyola’s most recent performance review from the 2021-22 school year at Rocky Mountain Prep credited her with achieving three of five key goals and praised her for showing “leadership, resolve, and courage to make the necessary changes to achieve student results.” The review urged Noyola to give more attention to how changes are communicated, show more “vulnerability and humility,” and work with the board to avoid the strained relations that sometimes occurred over the previous year.

Gibbons said he hasn’t followed every change that Noyola has made, but said, “Tricia is coming into this experience with a lot of urgency, appropriately so, around raising results for kids,” he said. “I have tremendous confidence in her.”

Cryan, the founder and former CEO of Rocky Mountain Prep, did not respond to multiple requests for comment. 

Hundreds of employees left their jobs before the merger

About half of STRIVE Prep staff and two-thirds of Rocky Mountain Prep staff — nearly 400 of 730 total employees — left their jobs between June 2022 and mid April 2023, according to numbers provided by the networks. Districts around the country are grappling with high turnover and teacher burnout, but teachers and staff interviewed by Chalkbeat say the level of turnover reflects a punitive network culture and hurts students.

Several educators told Chalkbeat the flood of departures meant that students missed out on legally required special education services, English language development instruction, or mental health support. Sometimes, students felt confused or hurt after a trusted teacher disappeared without notice.

Among the departures, which resulted from resignations, firings, and job cuts, were more than 160 teachers and 40 principals, assistant principals, deans, or principal fellows. STRIVE lost 32 high-level central staff — chiefs, directors, and managers — and Rocky Mountain Prep lost 24. The networks lost 18 mental health providers, including social workers, social emotional learning specialists, and a psychologist. 

Eleven STRIVE employees, most of whom are Black or Latino and half of whom were central administrators, have left since last June with severance agreements that awarded them between one and eight months of pay but also banned them from criticizing the network. Chalkbeat obtained the agreements through a public records request. No Rocky Mountain Prep employees received severance pay or signed separation agreements during that period. 

“We want teachers in our network who are behind our new mission, all of our values, and our new leadership.”

Noyola attributed some of the turnover to the so-called “Great Resignation,” a pandemic-era trend in which many employees, including teachers, left their jobs. More STRIVE administrators left because their network is undergoing bigger changes, she said. Some of the employees who left were in temporary positions, and their departures may have inflated the turnover rate, she added. 

Noyola acknowledged that the networks have suffered from a shortage of special education providers but said her team aims to rectify problems immediately when they are identified. She did not address the claim that English learners have missed language development sessions.

Valdez, vice chair of the STRIVE board, said, “We knew with the change of leadership … some people were going to leave and that we were okay with that because we want teachers in our network who are behind our new mission, all of our values, and our new leadership.” 

Donovan, the Rocky Mountain Prep board chair, said the board has monitored departures and that turnover is slowing.

Nelson, the former fifth grade teacher, said the network struggles with teacher retention in part because it recruits young, inexperienced teachers, provides them insufficient support, and holds them to an impossible standard. 

Noyola said the network “has a number of positions whose responsibilities include directly coaching and supporting teachers. I’m confident based on our outcomes that our system is effective.”

Even as Noyola cut some employees in response to purported budget pressures, she gave generous raises and bonuses to others — a move she said was warranted by the additional work those employees are doing and the value they provide to students.

School staff protest their working conditions

Throughout fall of 2021, teachers or other staff members at Rocky Mountain Prep–Berkeley seemed to be quitting almost every week, said Meghan Mallon, a former music teacher at the school. Teachers who stayed were constantly juggling extra kids or classes to cover for departed colleagues. For students who were supposed to get daily instruction to improve their English language skills, that meant sometimes missing three or four sessions a week because their teacher was assigned elsewhere, she said.  

In late January 2022, after one lead teacher was told she’d be removed from her position and reassigned elsewhere in the building, Mallon and a colleague organized a one-day sick-out in protest. About a dozen teachers participated, sending an email to Noyola and other Rocky Mountain Prep administrators with a list of the group’s concerns, including the teacher’s abrupt demotion, the missed sessions for students learning English, and the lack of coaching for teachers. 

Cesar Chavez Academy, a struggling single-site charter school, was taken over and became Rocky Mountain Prep–Berkeley in 2018. (Eric Gorski / Chalkbeat)

Mallon and the other main organizer were fired the day of the sick-out, and other participants were given a warning and told they couldn’t talk about it, according to a charge later filed by Mallon with National Board of Labor Relations

A lawyer for Rocky Mountain Prep responded to the labor board’s charge with a nine-page letter arguing the case should be dismissed because charter schools don’t fall under the labor board’s jurisdiction. The labor relations board ultimately agreed and dismissed the case.

Grievances describe ‘worst’ work environment

Shortly after Mallon and the other sick-out organizer were fired, Ana de Vries, the principal of the Berkeley campus, filed a grievance against Noyola

In response to a public records request, Rocky Mountain Prep provided a copy of the grievance that was heavily redacted to protect the privacy of minors. A less redacted copy of the complaint obtained by Chalkbeat contends Noyola used her power to “harass, intimidate, discriminate against, and coerce RMP staff.” It describes a meeting in which Noyola demanded that a teacher “admit her white privilege” as well as wrongdoing unrelated to the reason for the meeting.

De Vries, who is Latina, said in an interview she felt Noyola’s demands of the teacher were inappropriate. She filed the grievance after Noyola refused to meet with her to discuss the meeting. After she submitted the complaint, she said Noyola cut her out of all communications related to the Berkeley campus. 

It “created the worst environment I’ve ever worked in,” said de Vries, who resigned in February 2022 after two and a half years with the network and 12 years in the charter sector.

Rocky Mountain Prep officials said de Vries’ grievance prompted the board to adopt a policy outlining how conflicts should be addressed in select circumstances. (Chalkbeat is not describing the circumstances to protect the privacy of children.)

In a second grievance, a Berkeley teacher named Alyssa Papiernik described a culture of fear and constant hostility between Noyola and some employees.

Papiernik closed by writing, “I dread coming to work everyday ... I am hoping next year Tricia changes her attitude towards her staff.”

The Rocky Mountain Prep board found no substance to Papiernik’s claim. 

A third grievance came last November, shortly after Noyola was named CEO of STRIVE Prep and was conducting a series of town hall meetings to introduce herself to STRIVE staff. Mallory Tozier, a white assistant principal at STRIVE’s Smart Academy, described a tense exchange during the question-and-answer period in which she felt Noyola implied she had a white savior complex.  

A staff member of color whose account was included in the grievance echoed Tozier’s account and said Noyola’s reaction “seemed cruel and unnecessary” and “painfully silenced people like me.” 

Chalkbeat obtained Tozier’s grievance through a public records request. STRIVE Prep officials said an investigation found no wrongdoing by Noyola.

“I doubt there is a principal or CEO in [Denver Public Schools] who hasn’t had a complaint filed against them at some point,” Noyola wrote in response to questions. “Grievances reflect a single point of view, and we have a process that takes every grievance seriously.”

Rocky Mountain Prep enters a new era

When the new school year starts in August, STRIVE Prep will no longer exist, and Rocky Mountain Prep will have triple the schools it had last year. 

Some current and former staff from both networks have serious misgivings. They say Rocky Mountain Prep’s “rigor and love” slogan now rings hollow.

But for Noyola and other network leaders, it’s an exciting time. 

They say student achievement is increasing, and almost all families are planning to return next year. Enrollment projections provided by the network suggest K-12 student numbers will hold steady at about 4,700 even with this summer’s closure of two STRIVE schools.  

“The sheer optimism is remarkable,” Rocky Mountain Prep’s Chief of Staff Indrina Kanth said in an email.

In a recent message to staff, Noyola thanked those who remain and those who have joined her for the “awe-inspiring” results produced this school year. 

“I know this came at costs and sacrifices that each of us made to further the mission,” she wrote.

Ann Schimke is a senior reporter at Chalkbeat, covering early childhood issues and early literacy. Contact Ann at