A crisis and an opportunity: Inside the fight to save one Denver middle school

Despite being located in one of the fastest growing parts of the city, a Denver middle school faces an enrollment crisis that threatens its future.

Denver Discovery School opened five years ago in the middle-class northeast neighborhood of Stapleton. Enthusiasm was high, and parents raised tens of thousands of dollars to support a rich academic program. But in the past two years, the school has churned through principals, leading to a cascade of problems, including high teacher turnover, sinking community confidence, and families transferring their children out.

“When things got tough, they didn’t stick it out,” said parent Mikhail Vafeades, whose eighth-grade daughter has been at Denver Discovery since sixth grade.

While the student body was mostly white when the school opened, it is now mostly students of color, a reality that is forcing a hard conversation about the role of race in school choice and school closure — as well as inspiring a new vision for what Denver Discovery could be, if teachers and parents can find a way to save it.

District officials are projecting the school will only have about 135 students next fall, which would make it nearly impossible to sustain financially. Denver schools are funded per pupil, and fewer students means less money to pay for teachers, activities, and supplies.

The district subsidizes schools with fewer than 215 students, and it could do the same for Denver Discovery. But there are other scenarios on the table, too, including closing the school.

That’s something the parents, teachers, and students who gathered this week for a series of meetings in the school library don’t want to see happen. School board member Jennifer Bacon, who represents northeast Denver, said it doesn’t have to come to that.

“There is a way to keep this school open,” Bacon said. But within each of the potential scenarios for the school’s future, she said, “there are different questions we need to answer.”

For example, if the school stays open next year with just 135 students, how will it afford the project-based learning and rich extracurriculars that were once its trademark? If it closes, where will those 135 students go, given that every other middle school in the region is full?

And if the school pursues a hybrid of those two options — closing the sixth grade next year, keeping open the seventh and eighth grades, and spending the year reinventing itself — will it be able to convince enough families to give the school another shot in the fall of 2020?

“This is an opportunity to have a middle school for black and brown children,” said teacher Dawnyle Ashemu, who was one of the few staff members to return this year. “The empowering part is this will be the first opportunity for the district not to tell us what to do.”

Enrollment up, then down

Opened in 2014 in response to a need for more middle schools in Stapleton, Denver Discovery was never meant to serve that neighborhood alone. From the beginning, it was part of a large “enrollment zone” that included Park Hill, which is home to more working-class families of color. Such zones are meant in part to diversify enrollment at the schools within them by drawing bigger boundaries that span racially and economically segregated neighborhoods.

Nevertheless, the first few classes of students were mostly white and from wealthier families. Minutes from early parent-teacher association meetings show families raised upwards of $100,000 a year to support the school’s deep roster of electives and class trips.

The vision for the school, whose motto is “Large enough to serve you, small enough to know you,” was largely the brainchild of its founding principal, Kristen Atwood. With help from parents, Atwood wrote an “innovation plan” that afforded Denver Discovery extra freedom with scheduling, hiring, and curriculum.

It was Atwood’s passionate pitch that convinced Jennifer Shermer to enroll her son at Denver Discovery for the fall of 2017. Her son was excited about the clubs and activities, and Shermer was impressed when Atwood visited their home over the summer to walk around the block with her son and get to know him.

But shortly before school started, Shermer got an email that Atwood was leaving. Her departure was precipitated by several factors, including that she overspent her budget by about $250,000 the year before, a figure confirmed by Erik Johnson, the district’s finance director. According to Johnson, Atwood had been counting on parents to raise more money than they did.

The district brought in an interim principal, but Shermer’s son began coming home with stories about fights in the hallways and disruptions in class. In the absence of stable leadership, teachers said the culture of the school shifted from one focused on academics to one focused on discipline. For the past two years, the school has referred more students to a behavior management program than most other middle schools in the district. The school’s rating within the district accountability system also declined, from green to yellow to orange.

Shermer said her concern about Denver Discovery grew as emails about teacher departures began filling her inbox. By the end of her son’s first semester there, seven of his nine teachers had left, she said, and a second interim principal had replaced the first.

Shermer applied to transfer her son to McAuliffe International School, a wildly popular and much bigger middle school in the region. He got in, and left Denver Discovery after winter break.

“He was being taught primarily by substitute teachers,” Shermer said. “For us, we just felt like he wasn’t getting the education we wanted him to get.”

Shermer wasn’t alone. When her son started at Denver Discovery, he was one of about 450 students, which was larger than the school was ever meant to be. By last fall, the population had dwindled to 265 students, requiring a cash infusion from the district to keep it afloat.

While staff turnover was a factor, some parents and teachers point to other reasons, as well.

The school previously had honors classes filled with mostly white students, and traditional classes where more students were black and Latino. Parents and teachers said one of the first things the new principal did was get rid of most honors classes to better integrate the school. That concerned some parents, who felt their children had been isolated in the honors classes from what one mother called “the worst behavior problems.”

“There’s a lot being talked about in coded terms,” Hasira Ashemu, a community activist whose children are students at the school, said in the library this week.

What most people aren’t saying, he said, is that race has played a role in Denver Discovery reaching this point. “To pretend it hasn’t,” Ashemu said, “would be disingenuous to our children.”

New possibilities

At this point, the fate of Denver Discovery is unknown. The new principal, the fourth in five years, has announced she won’t be back next year. Only 20 sixth-graders selected Denver Discovery as their first-choice school for the fall. Accounting for new students who will likely move in over the summer, the district is projecting a sixth-grade class of 30.

Meanwhile, about 30 percent of current sixth- and seventh-graders have requested transfers to other schools, meaning next year’s seventh- and eighth-grade classes will be small, as well.

And in a move that some parents and teachers say makes things worse, the district is planning to open a new middle school just five miles away for the same reason it opened Denver Discovery, to serve a growing population of students in the area.

While Denver Public Schools has policies about closing schools that are failing academically, it does not have a policy for what to do when a passing school is underenrolled.

“The position that Denver Discovery School is in right now is honestly something that is unique in DPS,” said Bacon, the school board member for the area.

It is ultimately the school board’s decision whether to close the school, but Bacon said she and her fellow board members want to hear from students, parents, and teachers first. She laid out a tentative timeline, giving the community until the end of April to come up with a plan for next year, and until November to present a proposal for sustaining the school long-term.

Bacon pledged to support whatever plan the community comes up with, as did board member Carrie Olson. Other board members who attended meetings in the library this week were less willing to give an emphatic yes before seeing the proposal.

“This is a problem-solving moment for us,” Bacon said.

Parents and teachers already have some ideas. They envision a school where black and Latino students, who make up 75 percent of the Denver Discovery population this year, are immersed in culturally relevant project-based learning, and where teachers work to understand the reasons behind student behavior rather than resort to doling out consequences.

“What I see are not only pretty run-of-the-mill middle school behaviors that are blown out of proportion or demonized, I see our kids being put under a microscope,” said Daniel Crowley, who teaches eighth-grade language arts at the school. “We have passionate kids invested in their learning that have been given inconsistent access to that learning.”

Teachers and parents are also exploring the idea of a “community school” that is open seven days a week, providing after-school activities to students, and classes and services to families.

They plan to meet in the library every Wednesday evening to solidify the plan.

“We have an opportunity to build a school like no other in Denver, Colorado,” Hasira Ashemu said.