Denver parents push for more space in neighborhood middle schools

As participating in school choice becomes less of an option for many Denver families, some parents are saying they’re not interested in Denver Public Schools’ less-traditional offerings for middle schoolers. 

In northwest Denver, the district is planning to redraw boundary lines for middle school students after closing a middle school program at Trevista at Horace Mann, which had been a pre-K-8 school, at the end of this year.

One of the options on the table includes automatically assigning some students to STRIVE Prep — Sunnyside, a charter school, instead of Skinner, the local district-run middle school, which district officials say is likely to become overcrowded.

DPS has also proposed creating a shared enrollment zone for middle schoolers in the area. That means students would be guaranteed a spot at one of the two schools but are not directly assigned to either. (See documents related to DPS’s plans for Northwest Denver here.) 

But at a community meeting at the Horace Mann building Monday night, parents raised concerns about any plan that would directly assign students to a charter school. Others said they do not like the uncertainty of not having an assigned school. Still others suggested creating a new middle school.

Meanwhile, in northeast Denver, where a similar enrollment zone already exists, the district is proposing to expand McAuliffe International Middle School or create a new school to share a building with McAuliffe. McAuliffe, a district-run innovation school, was listed as a first choice by more than three times as many families as any other school in the zone.

But some families say those plans won’t fully meet the demand for a high-quality traditional middle school program, especially among families in Park Hill, where McAuliffe is located. The parents say none of the other options in their area, which include K-8 and charter schools, have the same offerings as a traditional neighborhood school. (See DPS’s presentation to Park Hill residents about plans for McAuliffe here.)

In both areas, “parents clearly want to have access to schools they feel are high quality, that are close to where they live, and that have a design that appeals to them,” said Susana Cordova, the district’s chief schools officer. She said no final recommendations have been made for either region.

The debate in these neighborhoods bucks a trend in some other parts of Denver. In several areas with shared enrollment zones, including southwest and west Denver, charter middle schools were the top choice for families. But in these northeast and northwest neighborhoods, vocal parents have raised concerns about the lack of guaranteed spots in more traditional neighborhood schools and the possibility of students who are not interested in or suited to a specialized school program being assigned to a charter school.

“The charter model has a role to play,” said Michael Edwards, a parent of students at Edison Elementary in northwest Denver. “But what this proposes is making STRIVE the default. It becomes the neighborhood school.”

Northeast concerns

Principals from Skinner Middle School, right, and STRIVE Sunnyside, left, describe their schools at a community meeting in Northwest Denver.

After far more students listed McAuliffe as a first choice than were able to attend in 2015 SchoolChoice applications, DPS officials informed parents that the district plans to add spots to the school in the 2016-17 school year. But that still doesn’t create enough space for all of the interested students.

At a community meeting last week, some parents proposed creating a new building. Others asked if DSST: Conservatory Green, a middle school in the region, might be removed from its facility and replaced by a traditional middle school, or if Isabella Bird, which currently serves elementary schoolers, might expand.

Still others suggested that families in Park Hill, who live close to McAuliffe, should receive a preference to attend the school in their neighborhood.

McAuliffe’s current enrollment zone includes both Park Hill and Stapleton, a fast-growing area of the city. Many parents said they had moved to the leafy Park Hill neighborhood partly in order to send their children to a neighborhood school. But now, they said, they feel they don’t have that option, as many of the spaces in the school are filled by students from Stapleton.A previous middle school, Smiley, was closed. McAuliffe is an innovation school that was initially located in Stapleton.

At the meeting, there was not a clear consensus among community members about the best plan for the area. One person decried “neighborhood-ism” among Park Hill parents who were frustrated that Stapleton students had an equal shot at attending McAuliffe, which was originally located in Stapleton. Others advocated that parents who live within a block of the school should be given a preference in the lottery.

Veronica Figoli, the district’s director of Family and Community Engagement, said the district plans to travel to other schools in the area to understand the opinions of parents and community members unable to attend the meeting.

Northwest concerns

A community meeting in northwest Denver on Monday was more heated.

Brian Eschbacher, the district’s Director of Planning & Enrollment Services, outlined the demographic trends behind several plans for the region’s middle school students and concerns with each. For instance, he said, one proposal was more likely to separate students from a lower-income, higher-minority region of northwest Denver from students in the rest of the area.

Eschbacher said shared enrollment zones in other parts of the district had helped increase participation in school choice, especially among “harder-to-engage” families.  The district has promoted the enrollment zones as part of an effort to promote diversity.

The district used an enrollment zone approach this year for students who were zoned to the closing Trevista middle school. Of those students, 71 chose Skinner Middle School and 37 opted to attend STRIVE Sunnyside. The remaining 50 opted into Bryant-Webster, West Leadership, or DCIS.

A list of pros and cons about the various approaches compiled by a working group of parents and community members was distributed to audience members. The group, convened by the school board to examine the middle school zoning along with facility placement plans for a Montessori school in the area, questioned the legality of assigning students to a charter school.

Cordova, the district’s chief of schools, said that the district had checked with the state and confirmed that while it is illegal for charter schools to have zones in the first two years of their existence, after a third year, they can have zones. STRIVE Sunnyside opened in 2010.

But parents still raised concerns.

“We want a diverse, creative learning environment, not a military compound-type school,” said one mother.

Another asked STRIVE principal Betsy Peterson whether teachers at her school were required by law to be certified. Charter school teachers in the state may be highly qualified, which means they’ve passed certain exams and taken certain coursework, rather than fully licensed. The exception is special education teachers, who must be certified.

Others raised concerns about the amount of turmoil for students in the area.

“Let’s back up,” said parent Edwards. “They want to put an elementary school in a middle school building. They want to put a middle and high school in an elementary school building. They want to use a charter school, which is choice-based, for a neighborhood school. And they want to jack everybody around for the umpteenth time in a minority community.”

Board member Arturo Jimenez, who represents northwest Denver, said he supports the creation of a new middle school similar to Skinner in the Horace Mann building that currently houses Trevista.

That plan was not one of the options laid out by district officials on Monday. The working group is also debating whether to keep the Denver Montessori Junior/Senior High school and the Denver Online High School in the nearby Smedley Elementary building, where they will both reside next year, or whether to relocate the Montessori and online schools into the Horace Mann building while moving the Trevista elementary program to the nearby Smedley campus.

The DPS board will vote on plans for the area at a meeting in June.