Battle over Smedley building highlights tension between choice, neighborhood schools

Tensions are brewing over a Denver Public Schools proposal to expand a Montessori junior and senior high school program into a northwest Denver elementary school building that nearby residents argue should instead house an elementary school program for neighborhood students.

The Denver school board will vote Thursday on a plan to place Denver Montessori Junior/Senior High School into the Smedley Elementary School building, which is currently the home of the Denver Online High School and another elementary school temporarily awaiting its own new building. But a group of parents in Sunnyside, the neighborhood surrounding the Smedley building, is pushing the district to abandon that plan and bring an elementary school to the building instead.

The disagreement highlights the tightrope that Denver school officials must walk when its commitment to building a broad selection of school choice options clashes with residents’ desires for diverse, high-quality neighborhood schools, which the district says it also supports.

“I’m not opposed to the choice process per se, but I think we should have choice schools in the neighborhood that we can walk our kids to,” said Irene Glazer, whose children attend Brown Elementary. “It makes me so mad that I have to drive across the insanity and traffic that ensues at schools that were set up for walking or biking to…and to have Smedley here a few blocks away and not be able to use it.”

But parents whose students are enrolled in the Montessori program say the secondary school will fill a necessary gap in the district’s offerings and will serve a diverse group of students.“It would be nice for every neighborhood to have its school, but I honestly believe you have to have a bigger variety of options,” said Thomas Carr, the chair of the Montessori program’s collaborative school committee. “Every school only serves the select few that go there, whether they’re from that neighborhood or for a different program.”Denver Montessori Junior/Senior High currently enrolls 80 students in sixth, seventh, and eighth grades, and is set up in a cluster of rooms in Gilpin Elementary, home of a Montessori elementary program in northeast Denver. The move to Smedley would allow the school to expand to 120 seventh, eigth, and ninth grade students next year — drawn mainly from the four district-run Montessori elementary schools located throughout the city — and to continue to add grades after that.

“The idea of the Denver public Montessori school is that it would really be a secondary option to work well with the elementary Montessori programs,” said DPS superintendent Tom Boasberg at a school board work session last week. “We recognize the real concerns in the Sunnyside community about having strong and diverse elementaries in the community, and are working with them.”

But at the same work session, board member Arturo Jimenez, who represents the neighborhood around Smedley, objected to the plan that would have turned the building over to the Montessori school permanently. He said that local residents felt shut out of the process and were concerned the options under the current system were reinforcing a socioeconomic divide between neighborhoods in the area.

Since that meeting, the board has adjusted its proposal to include the creation of a working group that includes community members and Montessori representatives to determine the neighborhood’s needs. The proposal specifies that while the Montessori program will be placed in Smedley next school year, the board will reconsider the placement if an amenable alternate home is found by the working group.

Though both sides have said they are open to a working group, the disagreements about the building’s future run deep.

Members of the Sunnyside Education Committee argue that the district’s current choice process isn’t serving the neighborhood well. They point to data that shows that 64 percent of families in the area choose to send their children to schools outside the neighborhood, leaving their local option, Trevista, with an enrollment that draws largely from Quigg Newton, a large nearby housing project.

Trevista hosts an early childhood, elementary, and middle school program. The Sunnyside committee argues that parents from Quigg Newton and from Sunnyside dislike having preschoolers in the same building as middle schoolers, and would benefit from having a separate neighborhood elementary program in Smedley.

Some committee members also argued that it would be expensive to renovate Smedley to turn it into a high school facility appropriate for the Montessori program—and that the district has given them a moving target about how much those renovations would cost.

“They’ve made the decision and haven’t even given our neighborhood say,” said Felicia Medina, one of the parents. She said their group had advocating for an elementary program in the building for several years. “We’re not saying no to DMS in northwest Denver—just not in Smedley.“

Meanwhile, supporters of the Montessori program argue that the district should prioritize the needs of their already-existing school.

“I understand their argument, but I feel like the needs of the existing program with kids, to me, really outweigh this neighborhood group,” said Carr.

Katy Myers, the school’s principal, said that though the school will need some minor renovations, Smedley had the amenities the Montessori program needed in a school, including a kitchen and space for their farm.

“We’ll be good neighbors,” she said. “We want to be on board with the neighborhood. But I’ve got 80 kids who need a home next year.”

Board member Jimenez said on Tuesday that Sunnyside committee was still suggesting changes to the board’s proposal.