French immersion K-8 and high school modeled after historically black colleges OK’d in Denver

The Denver school board on Thursday unanimously approved two homegrown, parent-proposed schools with unique models and significant community support.

One school will be district-run and the other is a charter school, meaning publicly funded but privately run. The approvals come at a time when the urban district, once one of the fastest growing in the country, has seen enrollment plateau. Predictions that it will soon begin to decline caused several board members to wonder how opening new schools would affect existing ones that already struggle to attract enough students to stay financially viable.

The Michelle Obama STEAM Academy will be a district-run high school modeled after historically black colleges and universities. Proposed by parents frustrated by the quality of schools in far northeast Denver, the school would seek to better serve the students in that region, many of whom are black, using an approach that incorporates science, technology, engineering, art, and math.

The French American School of Denver is a French language immersion charter school for students in kindergarten through eighth grade. The parents and teachers who proposed it noted that while the district offers public immersion programs in Spanish and Mandarin, the only French immersion program for the metro area’s approximately 20,000 speakers, who include many African immigrants, is an expensive private school.

“Learning French as a child should not be reserved for the elite,” said Chelsea Thomas, a mother of two who spoke in favor of the school at Thursday’s school board meeting.

The earliest the two schools could open would be next fall. The exact timing will depend on each school’s ability to find a building and enroll enough students.

Both schools want to open in far northeast Denver, one of the only regions expected to see an increase in home construction and school-aged children. Lower birth rates, plus rising rents that are pushing families out of the city, mean enrollment will fall almost everywhere else.

The school board plans to start a subcommittee to address declining enrollment and the increase in schools with fewer than 215 students, which the district considers unviable.

“What worries me is to have a conversation about approving schools and then three weeks later, having a conversation about small schools,” said board member Jennifer Bacon, who represents the far northeast. “At what point are those two conversations linked?”

Bacon voted in favor of both schools, but said she’d be monitoring the French school to make sure it isn’t pulling too many students from the schools around it. The charter’s founders said they envision the school will draw students from all over the city, as well as from private schools and the neighboring suburb of Aurora, which is home to many immigrant communities.

Board members were impressed by research showing that language immersion programs boost academic achievement and help close test score gaps between more and less privileged students. Supporters also cited the need to expose children to other cultures.

“In a global world where sadly we are seeing a resurgance right now of hate, extremism, and nationalistic jingoism, I believe that we have to combat ignorance with globally minded education,” said parent Marie Elalem.

Jean Claude Ndefu, a leader in the local Congolese community, said the school would serve as an important link to their language for African families who grew up speaking French.

“By being here, my people are struggling in a lot of stuff,” he said. “This is the opportunity we give our kids to learn this amazing language…I will fight for this school to be here in Denver.”

As a charter school, the French American School of Denver is free to open whenever it wants — although a new rule adopted by the school board imposes a three-year deadline to ensure new schools don’t sit “on the shelf” forever.

As a district-run school, the Michelle Obama STEAM Academy is in a different position. It must wait until a district building becomes available, either through new construction or because an existing program closes. The board has in the past closed schools with persistently low test scores, though last year it allowed such schools to submit improvement plans instead.

In a first-of-its-kind arrangement, district officials helped the parents and community members behind the STEAM Academy refine their proposal. It calls for the school to have an Afrocentric approach that pairs project-based learning with science, technology, engineering, art, and math.

The school would also focus on social justice, employing a student discipline system aimed at restoring harm rather than doling out punishment. District statistics show black students are more likely than their white peers to be suspended or handcuffed at school, and less likely to be enrolled in rigorous courses.

“It’s a lot, it’s a heavy lift, it’s lofty,” parent Brandon Pryor said earlier this week in response to a board member’s question about the school’s capacity to focus on STEAM, project-based learning, and Afrocentric curriculum all at the same time.

“But it’s what our kids deserve,” he said.

Read the full application for the Michelle Obama STEAM Academy here. (The school previously did not have a name and was submitted under the name Warriors for High Quality Schools, a group founded by Pryor and others.)

Read the full application for the French American School of Denver here.