attempt at compromise

Denver school board approves new DSST building on shared campus, pledges support for Northfield High

PHOTO: Ann Schimke
Northfield High School opened in fall 2015 with about 200 freshmen.

The Denver school board unanimously voted Thursday to place a charter school on the same campus as year-old Northfield High School over the objections of some Northfield parents and students, but not without making specific promises to support the school.

Charter high school DSST: Conservatory Green will be located in a separate building from Northfield on the Paul Sandoval Campus in northeast Denver starting in the fall of 2018. The school will open in the fall of 2017 in a temporary space on the nearby Samsonite campus while a new, 500-student building is built for it on the Paul Sandoval Campus.

“The driving goal, at least the lens I’m looking through, is how can we place good bets on things that have good track records of working so that more parents and more students have the opportunity to participate in them?” board member Barbara O’Brien said.

By placing a link in the high-performing DSST charter chain on the same campus as Northfield High, “we’re almost guaranteeing” that more students will have a high-quality option, she said.

Northfield High is the district’s first new comprehensive high school in more than three decades. The school’s vision is to serve a diverse student population, offering every student the opportunity to participate in the rigorous International Baccalaureate program.

In making the move, the board made a number of pledges to vocal Northfield parents, many of them from Denver’s Stapleton neighborhood. A separate resolution, also passed unanimously, says Denver Public Schools will do several things to address parents’ concerns, including:

— Review enrollment at Northfield High in the spring of each year through 2019 and expand the school as necessary to meet the enrollment commitments.

— Add a new parking lot with at least 100 parking spaces by fall 2017, barring any unforeseen circumstances such as construction permit delays.

— Work with Northfield High to create a library that meets the International Baccalaureate authorization standards no later than fall 2018.

— Fund and build a full-service cafeteria to serve all students on the Paul Sandoval Campus — and renovate the temporary cafeteria into additional classroom or office space — by fall 2018.

— Continue to explore options for adding athletic features on the Paul Sandoval Campus commensurate with campus enrollment and funding availability.

— Provide the staff time and funding required for Northfield High’s application to be certified as an International Baccalaureate school.

— Guarantee every student in the boundary a seat at Northfield High, making available at least 35 percent of seats to families in surrounding neighborhoods.

— Provide marketing and recruitment support to Northfield High leadership.

— Provide appropriate shared campus support based upon campus enrollment to promote a positive working relationship with all schools on the Paul Sandoval Campus.

Board members said it’s rare for the board to make such specific promises to a school but they hoped it assured the community that DPS is committed to making Northfield a success.

The new, $22.4 million building for DSST will be funded with money from the $572 million bond issue approved last month by Denver voters. Parents and students from Northfield High took issue with that use of funds, saying they believed the 500 extra seats promised in the bond proposal would go toward expanding Northfield High, which serves just freshmen and sophomores this year and will expand to serve juniors and seniors over the next two years.

The district’s website contributed to the confusion. Until recently, a DPS webpage showing the projects proposed for “Northfield High School at Paul Sandoval Campus” under the 2016 bond said “addition of 500 seats at the Paul Sandoval Campus.”

The words “Northfield High School” have been removed from the page so it now simply says “Paul Sandoval Campus.” Denver Public Schools spokesman Will Jones said he requested the change after a parent pointed out that the original wording was misleading.

But some parents were still upset. If we can’t trust DPS to provide us with accurate information about the bond, parent Dipti Nevrekar asked, “how can we trust you with our children?”

Superintendent Tom Boasberg apologized for the wording on the website.

Northfield High sophomore Jack Seward also addressed the board. He said some students are concerned that putting a DSST on the campus will “hinder” Northfield High’s growth and asked the board to “carefully consider” the implications of doing so.

But board members repeated the district’s pledge to build more seats for Northfield when necessary. DPS officials said they anticipate asking voters to approve another bond issue in 2020, which would build out the last 500 seats at the high school. The district expects Northfield serve 1,200 to 1,500 students over time — and possibly up to 2,000 students by 2030.

Correction: A previous version of this story misspelled Dipti Nevrekar’s name.

What's your education story?

How this teacher went from so nervous her “voice was cracking” to a policy advocate

PHOTO: Provided
Jean Russell

Jean Russell is on sabbatical from her work as a literacy coach at Haverhill Elementary School in Fort Wayne after being named the 2016 Indiana Teacher of the Year. Her work as 2016 Indiana Teacher of the Year ignited her interest in education policy, and she is in the first cohort of TeachPlus statewide policy fellows. Nineteen other teachers from urban, suburban and rural areas are also members of the class. Below is Russell’s story condensed and lightly edited for clarity. For more stories from parents, students and educators, see our “What’s Your Education Story?” occasional series.

When I started this January as the 2016 Indiana Teacher of the Year, my overarching goal for my year of service is to focus on recruitment and retention of great teachers. One of the things that came up was the opportunity to serve on the ISTEP alternative assessment panel. (The committee was charged with choosing a replacement for the state’s exam.)

I definitely felt like that was something that is affecting recruitment and retention of great teachers in Indiana, and yet I was reticent about whether or not I was equipped to really be a part of that and to be a helpful voice at the table because policy is not something in my 26 years of teaching that I’ve had anything to do with before this.

The first couple of times that I went to those meetings, I like I just was out of my league, and I didn’t really feel like there was much I could contribute. And I think it was the third meeting, there came a point where a couple of people were saying things where I just felt like having the inside-the-classroom, in-the-trenches voice would really help the conversation.

I was so nervous. I remember, I was shaking, and my voice was cracking. The meetings were in the House of Representatives, so I had to push the button and lean into the microphone, and I’m like, “Hi, I’m Jean Russell.”

But I said what I knew, “I’ve been giving this test for 25 years and these are my experiences, and this is what I think.” I think the biggest surprise in that moment — I won’t ever forget that moment — was that they listened. And I knew that because they were asking good follow-up questions and making references back to what I had said. It sort of became a part of that conversation for that meeting. I never became very outspoken, but I think at that point, I realized that there is most assuredly a time when teacher voice at the table is important to decision making.

I feel like the four walls of my classroom just blew down, and suddenly I realized how many stakeholders there are in my little classroom, in my little hallway, in my little school.

(In the past, policy) just did not make my radar. I think I just felt like, nobody was really interested in what I thought. The work of the classroom is so intense and there’s such a sense of urgency every day to move everybody forward that this broader idea of education, I think I just thought it was something that happened to you and you just work within those parameters. For the first time in 26 years, I’m realizing that that’s not necessarily the case.

First Person

It’s time to retire the myth that any counselor can do the job alone — even at a tiny school

A few of the author's students who graduated last year.

I waited five years to get my dream job as a counselor in a New York City public school. After all of that waiting, I was full of ideas about how I would be able to use my experience to help students navigate what can be an overwhelming few years.

I wanted to make our school counseling more individualized and full of innovative support mechanisms. I wanted our guidance department to be a place that anyone could leave with a grand plan.

A few months into that first year, in fall 2015, it was clear that my vision would be, to put it bluntly, impossible to achieve.

When I received my position at a Harlem high school in District 5, I was assigned to not only take on the responsibilities of a school counselor, but also to act as the college advisor, assign (and then frequently re-shuffle) class schedules for every student, and several other tasks. My school had just under 200 students — enrollment low enough that it was assumed this could all be managed.

This proved to be a very inaccurate assumption. I was working with a group of students with low attendance rates, and many were English language learners or students with disabilities. Many students were overage and under-credited, others were in foster care or homeless, some had returned from incarceration, and a couple were teen parents or pregnant.

The American School Counselor Association recommends a maximum school counselor-to-student ratio of one to 250. I know from experience that extremely high student need makes that ratio meaningless. Almost all of these students needed help in order to be ready to learn. Their needs tripled the feel of our enrollment.

This frequent mismatch between need and numbers puts school counselors like me in the position to do a great disservice to so many students. As the only counselor available, a seemingly small mishap with a task as crucial as graduation certification or credit monitoring could have spelled disaster for a student. I know some seniors missed certain financial aid opportunities and application deadlines, and some ninth, 10th, and 11th graders could have used more academic intervention to help them transition to the next grade level successfully.

My success at keeping our promotion and college admissions rates on the upswing was largely due to my outreach and partnership with community-based organizations that helped support several of our students. Had it not been for their assistance, I wouldn’t have achieved anything near what I did.

I’m still a counselor at my small school, and some aspects of the job have gotten easier with time. I love my job, which I think of as the most rewarding yet intense position in the building. But I still believe that there is almost no case in which only one counselor should be available for students.

Principals and school leaders directly involved with the budget must make sure to effectively analyze the needs of their student population, and advocate for an appropriately sized counseling staff. Small schools face real funding constraints. But ones serving students like mine need more than they’ve gotten.

Students’ social and emotional development and their academic success go hand in hand. Let’s not make the mistake of conflating enrollment numbers with need.

Danisha Baughan is a high school counselor and college advisor. She received her masters in school counseling in May 2010 and has held elementary, middle, and high school counseling positions since then.