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.

second chance

An embattled Harlem charter school that serves kids with disabilities will be allowed to keep its middle school — for now

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Opportunity Charter School

A Harlem charter school will be allowed to keep its middle school next school year, despite the fact that top city education officials have repeatedly ruled that it is too low performing to stay open.

That decision offers at least temporary relief for Opportunity Charter School, which has been embroiled in a dispute with the education department since March. The disagreement centers on whether city officials properly took into account the school’s students — over half of whom have a disability — when it judged the school’s performance.

The city’s education department, which oversees the school as its charter authorizer, tried to close the middle school and offered only a short-term renewal for the high school when the school’s charter came up for review earlier this year. The school appealed that decision, and was denied late last month.

But the education department is backing down from its position — at least for now. That reversal appears to be based mostly on logistics: A Manhattan Supreme Court judge has temporarily blocked the closure through at least mid-July in response to a lawsuit filed by the school and some of its parents last month, complicating the process of finding students new schools outside the normal admissions cycle.

“Students always come first, and given where we are in the school year, we will allow the middle school grades to remain open in 2017-18,” education department spokesman Michael Aciman wrote in an email on Thursday. Still, he noted, the department will continue to push to close the middle school in the future.

Kevin Quinn, a lawyer representing Opportunity Charter, said the city’s decision was the only responsible one, given that the school has already held its admissions lottery and made offers to parents.

“This is a wise decision by the [education department],” Quinn wrote in an email, “and [we] appreciate their acknowledgment that placement of this population at this time would be significantly disruptive.”

language proficiency

Educators working on creating more bilingual students worry new state requirements aren’t high enough

A second grade class at Bryant Webster K-8 school in Denver (Joe Amon, The Denver Post).

Colorado educators who led the way in developing high school diploma endorsements recognizing bilingual students worry that new legislation establishing statewide standards for such “seals of biliteracy” sets the bar too low.

Two years ago, Denver Public Schools, Eagle County Schools and the Adams County School District 14 started offering the seal of biliteracy to their students. The three districts worked together to find a common way to assess whether students are fluent in English and another language, and recognize that on high school diplomas. Advocates say the seal is supposed to indicate to colleges and employers that students are truly bilingual.

A bill passed by state legislators this year that will go into effect in August sets a path for districts that want to follow that lead by outlining the minimum that students must do to prove they are fluent in English and in another language.

According to the new law, students must meet a 3.0 grade point average in their English classes and also earn a proficient score on the 11th grade state test, or on Advanced Placement or IB tests. For showing proficiency in the second language, students can either earn proficient scores on nationally recognized tests — or meet a 3.0 grade point average after four years of language classes.

Although educators say the law sends a message of support for bilingual education, that last criteria is one part of what has some concerned.

“It allows for proficiency in a world language to be established solely by completing four years of high school language classes,” said Jorge Garcia, executive director of the Colorado Association for Bilingual Education. “Language classes in one school district may have a different degree of rigor than they do in another.”

The second language criteria should be comparable to the English criteria, several educators said. In the requirements set by Denver, Eagle County and Adams 14, students must at a minimum demonstrate language proficiency through a test score, or in some cases with a portfolio review and interview if a test is not available.

The three districts also catered their requirements based on what each community said was important. In Adams 14 and in Eagle schools, students must perform community service using their language skills. Students also have to do an interview in both languages with a community panel.

“Our school district team developed the community service criteria because we wanted our kids to have authentic practice in their languages,” said Jessica Martinez, director of multilingual education for Eagle County Schools. “We also wanted students to be a bridge to another community than their own. For example, one group of students created academic tutoring services for their peers who don’t yet speak a lot of English. Another student started tutoring her mom and her parents’ friends so they could get their GED.”

The state law doesn’t require students to do community service. But it does allow school districts to go above the state’s requirements when setting up their biliteracy programs.

“Thoughtful school districts can absolutely address these concerns,” Garcia said.

Several school districts in the state are looking to start their own programs. In March, the school board for the Roaring Fork School District in Glenwood Springs voted to start offering the seal. Summit School District also began offering the seal this year.

Leslie Davison, the dual language coordinator for Summit, said that although her program will change in the next year as she forms more clear requirements around some new tests, she will continue to have higher requirements than the state has set.

This year her students had prove proficiency in their second language by taking a test in that language. They also had to demonstrate English proficiency through the ACT. In addition, students did oral presentations to the community in both languages.

“Their expectations aren’t as high as mine are,” Davison said. “We’ll probably stay with our higher-level proficiencies. I do have some work to do in terms of how that’s going to look for next year, but I certainly don’t want to just use seat time.”

Meanwhile, the districts that started the seal are increasing their commitment to biliteracy so as many students as possible can be eligible to earn seals in the future.

The Adams 14 school district in Commerce City is using Literacy Squared, a framework written by local researchers for teaching students to read English by strengthening literacy in the native language. The program is being rolled up year by year and will serve students in 34 classrooms from preschool through fourth grade in the fall.

In Eagle County, Martinez said parents have shown such a strong demand for biliteracy that most elementary schools are now dual language schools providing instruction to all students in English for half of the school day and in Spanish for the other half.

Both districts are also increasing the offerings of language classes in middle and high school. The options are important for students who are native English speakers so they too can become bilingual and access the seal. For students whose primary language is not English, the classes can help ensure they don’t lose their primary language as they learn English.

Of Eagle’s 25 students who graduated with a seal of biliteracy this year, 17 were native Spanish speakers and eight were native English speakers.

“We want all kids to see their bilingualism is an asset,” Martinez said. “It’s huge for them.”