To better serve black students, Denver will help a community group develop its school

The Denver school board took a vote Thursday that could signal a new era of collaboration in a district with a history of tense community relations.

The board was originally scheduled to decide Thursday the fate of two new schools proposed by community groups, including a high school with a focus on serving black students through science, technology, engineering, math, and art.

Instead, the board delayed that vote until August to take another, first-of-its-kind step: In a unanimous decision, the board directed Denver Public Schools staff to work with the high school group to strengthen its application and engage “in mutual learning about how principles of black excellence can and should drive the design of high-quality district schools.”

Thursday’s vote comes three months after the school board passed a resolution aimed at boosting the success of Denver’s black and African-American students, and nearly three years after a damning report about how black teachers and students are treated.

District data show that black students — who make up 13 percent of the district’s 93,000 students — are more likely to be suspended and less likely to take rigorous classes.

District officials want to change that, and they see the proposed high school as one way. The school is the brainchild of a group called Warriors for High Quality Schools that was started by black parents and sports coaches in far northeast Denver calling attention to the disparities between the schools in their neighborhood and those in other parts of the city. (The Warriors are the mascot for the school sports teams in far northeast Denver.)

One parent, Brandon Pryor, has become a persistent advocate for black students and a district critic known to share leaked documents with his large social media following. He recently went public with the story of his 7-year-old son being handcuffed by a school security officer — an incident that led the school board to re-examine its use-of-force policy.

Pryor is also a regular at school board meetings, often excoriating the district for shortcomings. But on Thursday, his tone was positive.

“I think we have some of the same desired outcomes for our kids,” he said. “We may not always agree, but that friction refines us. I think we can all do better, myself included. Let’s do this for our kids. Let’s create a high-quality model that we all can be proud of.”

Denver Public Schools for years has enabled outside groups to apply to open new charter or district-run schools. District staff evaluate the applications for quality, and the school board votes on whether to approve them.

Many applications are for charter schools, which are publicly funded but independently run. The other applicant this year is a charter school called The French American School of Denver that aims to offer a French language immersion program.

But outside groups sometimes propose new district-run schools. For example, Joe Shoemaker Elementary in southeast Denver started that way.

Warriors for High Quality Schools envisions that its high school would be district-run and have innovation status, thus allowing it to waive certain state and district rules about, for example, the length of the school day. The school would be styled after historically black colleges and universities, known as HBCUs, that were established to serve black students.

While district staff has in the past advised outside groups on which parts of their applications should be strengthened, the partnership with the Warriors group goes beyond that. Thursday’s resolution says district staff will provide technical support, answer specific questions, help edit the application, and review it against the district’s approval criteria.

If the school board approves the application and grants the school space in a district building, the district will help hire a principal. It will also pay that principal for a year to develop the school’s program before it opens. And it will provide the school with up to $600,000 in startup funds and help it develop a five-year budget.

Superintendent Susana Cordova, who has been in the role since January, said the resolution is an attempt to be more collaborative and rebuild community trust.

“I came into this role naming that there is significant work we need to do as a district to rebuild trust — to rebuild trust with our teachers, to rebuild trust with our community,” she said. “I believe that collaboration is part of the way that we are able to do that.”