Denver proposes rebuilding a campus that was the site of a controversial school closure

Denver school officials are exploring building a new high school in the Montbello neighborhood, but it won’t be the comprehensive high school some community members want. Instead, it would be designed to house the five small schools that now share the campus.

“This is not relaunching the comprehensive high school,” said Dustin Kress, a senior operations program manager for Denver Public Schools. “This is planning for a new facility for the programs currently on the Montbello campus.”

Even so, the school board member who represents the area said she hopes the new building would be flexible enough to accommodate evolving community desires.

The programs currently on the campus include two district-run programs that each have a middle and high school, and one charter middle school that is publicly funded but independently run. Together, the schools served about 1,630 students last year.

The Montbello campus has been shared since 2011, after the Denver school board voted to close the academically struggling Montbello High School, which served a student body that was largely black and Latino. The district replaced Montbello High with small schools it thought could do better. The decision was controversial, and it remains so today.

While district officials point to rising graduation rates as proof the decision was a good one, the small schools have continued to struggle academically. Some parents and community members say the shared campus has created other academic and social inequities, as well.

Denver Public Schools Superintendent Susana Cordova said the new building would be a way to recognize the hard work of the educators at the small schools, while at the same time acknowledging that there is room for improvement.

“We have incredibly committed teachers and leaders working in the building right now,” she said. But, she added, “we’re nowhere close to realizing the promise we’ve made to the Montbello community about the quality of education on the Montbello campus.”

The building itself opened in 1980 and has an industrial look. The walls are cinderblock and there is little natural light. The heating and cooling is uneven, despite an expensive upgrade. And there aren’t enough electrical outlets to accommodate today’s technology.

That’s caused problems for STRIVE Prep Montbello, the charter middle school that occupies half of the bottom floor. The school recently started a project-based learning curriculum in its social studies and science classes that’s heavy on computer work. But when students’ laptops run out of power, there are not enough outlets to charge them back up.

“We want to give our kids the opportunity to go to any college they would want to, and a small thing like outlets makes it a little harder,” said Principal Lyndsay Lau.

Other problems are caused by the fact that the building was built to house a single school, not five. DCIS Montbello, the largest of the schools, has an international focus but no meeting space to host cultural events because the library, cafeteria, and auditorium are always in use.

“We are a diverse community in Montbello, but this building is limited to how we can recognize, celebrate, and take advantage of that,” said Principal Julio Contreras. “We always have to compete for whatever is available. We have to schedule a calendar a month or two months ahead of time just to communicate to our kids how important they are.”

Meanwhile, Noel Community Arts School, an arts-focused school with nearly 500 students, has no practice rooms and just a single dance studio. The curtain on the stage in the auditorium, which theater classes must share with the other schools, is 40 years old and falling apart. Principal Rhonda Juett said that sends a negative message to students and families.

“That reality for kids and for parents, that hits home,” she said. “We want to have a facility that is equitable and that allows you to compete with anybody anywhere.”

The district’s proposal, which was developed jointly with the principals, is to build a new shared campus on district-owned land surrounding the existing school, which could stay open during construction. The district plans to invite the community to help develop a “master facility plan” this fall, providing input on what the new shared campus should look like.

Cordova said she’s not naive about the call for a comprehensive high school.

“I hear the call, the desire for a comprehensive high school,” she said. “This gives us an opportunity to say, ‘How do we create a pathway forward that gets at the best of everything we can offer?’”

That pathway wouldn’t necessarily entail building a comprehensive high school alongside the small schools. Rather, she said she envisions coming up with a design that incorporates some of the benefits of a large high school into the new campus.

School board member Jennifer Bacon, who represents Montbello, supports rebuilding the campus. But she said she wants to ensure the design is flexible enough to accommodate a different configuration — including a return to a single comprehensive high school — if that’s what the community decides it wants down the road.

“This, to me, is a catalyst,” Bacon said. “Even though we’re talking about the building, the questions can’t be avoided — and I don’t intend to do that.”

Parent Brandon Pryor, who has been a vocal critic of the district, said in a Facebook video Wednesday that the process is a crucial opportunity for community members to make their voices heard. He is working with the district to develop a new high school with a focus on serving black students through science, technology, engineering, math, and art.

“This is our opportunity to reimagine what that campus looks like,” Pryor said. “And it’s an opportunity for community to steer the conversation.”

The district plans to issue a request for proposals from architects soon. The architects would be paid using money originally set aside for a summer remodel of the school’s aging cafeteria. The remodel, which was slated to cost about $2.5 million, is now on hold. The district is proposing using about $300,000 to $400,000 of that money for the architects.

The $2.5 million came from a bond measure approved by voters in 2016 for school maintenance and construction. The cafeteria remodel wasn’t on the original list of projects, but it was added in February when the district realized it had more bond money to spend.

The new shared campus would also be funded by bond money that district officials are preparing to ask Denver voters to approve in 2020, Kress said. The full cost of the project won’t be known until the architect comes up with a design, he said.

The school board must sign off on any bond requests, and it also chooses which projects are included, based on recommendations from a community committee. If the Montbello project isn’t included, or if voters reject the bond measure, Kress said the district is committed to funding the cafeteria remodel, even if it’s already spent the $2.5 million.