Can two schools with different philosophies happily co-exist in Denver where the term “colocation” has sparked near riots?

Choose North Now protesters hit the sidewalk with signs and chants Thursday before the DPS board meeting when a controversial co-location plan was expected to be approved.
Choose North Now protesters hit the sidewalk with signs and chants before the DPS board meeting when a controversial co-location plan was expected to be approved.

Well, yes, according to a short report by district staff and shared with the school board this week. And that’s important as the district continues to explore shared campus options as a way to maximize efficiencies and promote school choice. There are now 15 campuses in DPS that house 42 schools attended by more than 12,000 students, or 14 percent of the district’s student population.

“Schools on a shared campus that have intentional events to get staff together have expressed greater collaboration between the two schools,” said Liz Mendez, director of operations and support services.

Key components of a happy marriage, according to interviews by staff with people at several shared campuses in the district, include:

  • Frequent communication between school leaders through regular team-building meetings;
  • Including all schools – especially if there are more than two  — in communications regarding the campus;
  • Providing each principal with equal say in building use, regardless of school size or tenure 
on campus.
  • Planning intentional events for all campus staff and students so collegial relationships can be forged.
  • Sharing behavioral support staff, such as school deans, to create a fair and balanced campus culture with consistent behavior expectations for all students regardless of school affiliation.
  • Dedicated areas for each school, such as wings, pods, hallways and  floors so that the school can build identity and culture.

Of the schools on shared campuses, most – or 34 – are at the secondary level.

Mendez told the board that the arrangements save the district money.

For instance, it would have cost the 350-student Creativity Challenge Community elementary school $11 million to buy land and build a school. It only cost $680,000 to renovate Merrill to accommodate the school.

sharedSimilarly, renovations at Gilpin Montessori Public School cost $107,000 compared to an $11 million price tag had Denver Montessori Junior/Senior High had to buy land and build a school, or the $1.5 million cost for a three-year lease in another facility.

But board member Arturo Jimenez pointed out that it would cost the district less if charter schools provided their own facilities.

Board member Jeannie Kaplan also raised concerns about how the district helps charter schools secure locations.

“We’re building new facilities for a lot of our charter entities,” she said. “It’s something I really struggle with. I appreciate trying to be equitable, but I think we’ve leaned over the other way and it’s more equitable for the charter schools.”

Superintendent Tom Boasberg said schools like Merrill would not have gotten the facelifts they needed and additional educational resources without the impetus of the shared campus and a robust student body to glean efficiencies.

There’s no doubt the school mergers are not always harmonious – especially at the time of proposal.

The community at North High School was not pleased with the idea and ultimate approval by the school board of a new STRIVE Prep High School joining them in the fall 2013. But Mendez said work is underway to ensure a smooth transition. She said the sports teams will be merged with coaches from both schools. A joint booster club is also in the works. The schools will also share a nurse. STRIVE will use the North gym only for special events. STRIVE’s physical education classes will occur in their own multi-purpose room, Mendez said.

The board will take up possible changes to its campus sharing policy at its regular  meeting Thursday. Board member Happy Haynes said she would like to see more information and data from campuses shared by different age groups.

Cole Arts & Sciences Academy Principal Julie Mergel said things have worked out well between her school and DSST at Cole. Cole serves elementary school students; and DSST is a middle school.

“We, from the beginning, have structured [the campus] around the language of one not two schools,” she said. “It’s one school with two programs.”

The two school leaders meet once a month at a minimum, but usually more.

The schools have worked hard to make a harmonious lunchtime since elementary school students are mixed with middle-schoolers. Eighth-graders eat on their own.

However, school leaders acknowledged they could have done more in the beginning to bring staff together.

“It would have been more powerful and created more ownership among the team,” DSST Cole Middle School Director Jeff Osborne.