Northeast Denver elementary school to lose ‘relentless’ leader

Northeast Denver parents and teachers are demanding answers from Denver Public Schools after officials decided to replace the principal of their elementary school next year.

Second-year principal Beth Yates notified Columbine Elementary School staff last week that DPS has decided to move her to another position within the district. A letter to parents, signed by Yates, followed.

“I want to sincerely thank the Columbine Elementary community for welcoming me and for giving me the opportunity to be a part of the lives of the amazing students at this school,” Yates wrote. “I appreciate the opportunity to have served your children, school, and community.”

The abrupt announcement has brought plenty of tears, anger and confusion to the struggling school that has had four principals in six years.

Columbine’s instructional superintendent Erin McMahon was scheduled to meet with teachers and parents Thursday afternoon. However, that meeting was canceled. McMahon offered to reschedule and meet with with individual teachers who had questions during the school’s lunch hours Friday, said several teachers and parent advocates.

But teachers, who were asked to prepare questions in advance for McMahon, balked at the idea. They said they deserved a full staff meeting with McMahon. The staff has requested McMahon visit the school Friday or Monday after school.

Parents and community leaders have long called for a more engaged process with school decisions. Critics of DPS say the district often imposes decisions on school communities against their will.

Neither Yates nor district officials were immediately available for comment. But a district spokeswoman said late Thursday the district is working to schedule a meeting with Columbine staff early next week.

Instead, Columbine staff met with Yates privately Thursday, some leaving the meeting with tears.

“They didn’t learn anything new,” said Meghan Carrier, a parent engagement organizer for Together Colorado, a nonprofit parent advocacy organization. Together Colorado has worked on education issues in northeast Denver, including at Columbine, for more than 10 years. Some parents who spoke to Chalkbeat Colorado were a part of the organization’s parent leadership program.

Columbine’s students are predominantly poor and minority students. Less than 20 percent are English language learners. The elementary school is among the district’s lowest performing. Since 2010, the school has slid annually in the district’s annual ratings of schools.

Teachers and parents pointed to a lack of consistent leadership.

“Every year we come back there’s a new principal,” parent Yolanda Mata said in Spanish. “There are new rules, different expectations for our students. There has been a lack of culture and consistency.”

Yates inherited a troubled school, teachers and parents said. But she persevered, said Jenna Cataleta, the school’s behavior interventionist.

Parents described a school previously out of control. Two first grade teachers left during the middle of the 2012-13 school year. A string of substitutes were assigned to the classes to fulfill the year. Fourth and fifth graders, parents said, showed no respect for teachers. A revered math teacher also walked out.

But that all changed this year, they said. A smaller student body, a crop of new teachers and a principal with a year under her belt meant a more structured environment tailored to learning, they said.

“She is really good with the community,” said Maria Alcocer, a kindergarten teacher. “She knows everybody’s names.”

Alcocer and other teachers vividly described Yates as a passionate leader who, in the year and a half since taking over Columbine, has made significant progress improving the school’s culture and student tests scores.

“She’s the first one in, the last one out,” Cataleta said.

Yates greets almost every student individually in the morning and waves goodbye to them every afternoon outside of the school, teachers said. The principal also worked toward speaking better Spanish to communicate with parents.

“She’s relentless,” Cataleta said. “I’ve seen so much positive growth in the students I work with. [Yates] was able to have a lot more control this year.”

Parent Stela Gomez, who has sent all four of her children to Columbine, said she was skeptical of Yates at first.

Gomez said her child was one of the first graders who lost his teacher. He entered second grade this year behind in math skills, but he’s already making progress to be caught up.

“I heard things about her,” she said. “But she turned out pretty good. I’m so upset with DPS right now. They don’t have it together here.”

The district’s decision to replace Yates even has some central administration employees scratching their heads.

Two district employees familiar with Columbine, speaking on the condition of anonymity to preserve their relationships with their employer, said internal testing showed positive growth in almost every grade and content area.

They said it makes sense to replace a school leader who isn’t getting the job done, but that isn’t the case with Yates.

“We’ve all risen,” Cataleta, the behavior interventionists said. “She’s not just our principal, she’s our role model.”

While parents and teachers are coming to terms with the fact Yates won’t be returning, they’re asking the district to make them part of the process to move Columbine forward.

“Parents want to have a voice in the decisions that impact their schools, their communities,” activist Carrier said. “Parents aren’t asking to choose the principal, but be a part of the process.”

Whether the change is for the better, parents feel slighted they weren’t consulted.

“We may not be able to make the decision [of who leads our school] on our own, but our children are a part of this school,” said parent Consuelo Del Valle. “We should be notified and be a part of the process every step of the way.”

Another parent, Yolanda Mata said DPS only asks parents for help when it’s convenient to them.

“DPS wants our help with reading to our children,” she said. “But the big decisions they make on their own.”

CorrectionThis article has been updated to reflect the correct title of Meghan Carrier, parent engagement organizer for Together Colorado.