Montbello’s call for dramatic change

Some parents and community leaders at Montbello High School on Friday called on Denver Public Schools to consider dramatic reform at the school, allowing it to tap into federal school turnaround dollars.

“Our kids are not getting the education they need and deserve,” said Charles Robertson, president of Montbello’s school leadership team. “We hope that by beginning a public dialogue, we as a community will be able to work collaboratively with the district.”

DPS is currently weighing federal turnaround strategies – and the hundreds of thousands of dollars expected to accompany them – for six of its lowest-performing schools. Montbello is not among them.

Two of the six schools, Lake Middle School and Greenlee K-8, held community meetings this week to urge DPS consider only the lightest of the four federal turnaround plans.

“We are a low-performing school but as you can see, we are making progress,” said Greenlee social studies teacher Doug Scarth, using charts to show the school is lagging district averages in many areas but is making some gains.

In contrast, Montbello’s Robertson and others at Friday’s press conference recommended dramatic change, including the creation of multiple small high schools on the campus.

But they repeatedly said the recommendations, formed at a two-day meeting late last month of 30 parent, school and community leaders, are intended to begin a public dialogue.

“These recommendations can serve as a starting point for a conversation in the community about reform,” said Denver City Councilman Michael Hancock, who represents the area.

Proposing a “restart” in 2011

They said the goal would be to “restart” Montbello in fall 2011. Community meetings begin next week.

Restart is one of the four strategies that federal authoritites are urging states to consider and rewarding those that do with million-dollar grants. It essentially calls for closing or phasing out a school and re-opening with one or more new schools.

The other strategies are called “turnaround,” where a new principal hand-picks a new staff and “transformation,” where the staff may remain but the academic program is modified.

The fourth strategy is closure, not considered a likely option for the 1,700-student Montbello.

Chris Martinez, co-chair of Montbello 2020, a strategic plan for the far northeastern community, said the dialogue about the school’s future needs to begin “today.”

“We are at a crossroads,” he said. “And that crossroads is that we need to do something to provide good quality education to all of our children so our children can attend their neighborhood high school.”

Hancock pointed out that Montbello is facing increasing competition from other schools. The former Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School is now an Early College serving grades 6 – 12 and will graduate its first class this spring.

“I am pleased to announce all of them are accepted into college,” he said, adding of MLK’s reform, “That was a community-driven effort that started with the same energy and the same vision behind this effort.”

He also cited the new ECE-12 campus in nearby Green Valley Ranch, which will include a Denver School of Science and Technology, the charter that is DPS’ highest-performing high school.

“Our backs are against the wall,” Hancock said. “We need to make sure … our young people are prepared to compete.”

Instability at the top

Montbello is rated “on watch” on the district’s rating system, the School Performance Framework. That’s the third of four possible rungs on the ratings ladder. The six schools being considered by DPS for turnaround are rated “on probation,” the bottom rung.

And Montbello performs the same as or better than three other comprehensive Denver high schools – North, West and Thomas Jefferson – on the SPF, which gauges academic achievement, growth and factors such as graduation rates, attendance rates and parental engagement.

State test results from spring 2009 show 32 percent of Montbello 9th and 10th-graders were at grade level in reading and 5 percent achieved that level in math.

“We are into the fourth year of a five-year revitalization plan and the scores are still the same, pretty much,” Robertson said. “I think we’ve inched up some notches but not as much as we would like.”

Part of the reason, he believes, is instability in the principal’s office. On Monday, DPS officials placed the school’s new principal, Peter Mosby, on paid administrative leave, saying they were conducting “a thorough review of leadership.”

District spokesman Mike Vaughn declined to elaborate. Friday, the Denver Post reported Mosby was frequently absent.

Mosby was the fifth principal at Montbello since 2005, when Hansell Gunn abruptly left the school after a staff member alleged sexual harassment. The same interim principal, Richard Smith, who filled in after Gunn left is now filling in for Mosby.

State Sen. Mike Johnston, a Democrat who represents the area, said Friday’s call for reform is “completely unrelated” to the disciplinary action taken against Mosby, who attended last month’s two-day session.

“But they are tied together,” Johnston said, because “what you need is a structure that sets a school leader up for success.”

He said Mosby, for example, started his first year at Montbello having to accept 19 teachers who had been directly placed at the school – meaning DPS directed they go there and Mosby had to take them.

Johnston, a former principal and education advisor to President Obama, said Friday’s recommendations include setting up schools with the autonomy to hire their own staffs and control their own budgets.

“Part of what we’re after is, what would it take to build Montbello High School into a structure that would attract the best teachers that are already there that we could keep,” he said, “and the best school leaders that we could find who’d say, this is a school I can improve and this is a role I could really be effective in.”

“Opposite of Manual”

DPS has split a large high school into smaller schools before, in what is widely acknowledged as a failed experiment at the old Manual High School.

Chiquita Cole was a student at Manual when the single school split into three, with each occupying a floor in the building.

The result for students, Cole said, was lost opportunities – students weren’t allowed to go onto another school’s floor, take another school’s classes or participate in another school’s activities.

It didn’t help the academic focus at the school either, she said, as teachers worked mostly to “keep the chaos to a minimum.”

“It might work better somewhere else,” she said. “It just didn’t work there.”

Cole, now a senior at the University of Northern Colorado, said she failed every class her first semester at UNC. She learned how to study, got used to the rigor and now has a 3.4 GPA.

Friday morning, Cole took the GRE graduate school entrance exam because she wants to earn a master’s degree in speech and language pathology and come back to Denver to work with children.

DPS school board members later closed Manual for a year before re-opening it as a single small high school in August 2007.

“This is not Manual,” Johnston said. “This is the opposite of Manual …

“This is the time for a community who sees the opportunity to do something better to stand up and say, we want to proactively design this ourselves,” he said. “We want to make this what we hope Montbello can be, the way we hope it can look.”

Nancy Mitchell can be reached at or 303-478-4573.