Denver’s West High is poised to reunify — at students’ request

Exterior of Denver’s West High School.
A push to reunify West High School, now home to two smaller schools, is being led by students. (Erica Meltzer / Chalkbeat)

Nearly 10 years after it was split by the school district into two smaller schools, Denver’s West High School is poised to undergo a reunification. The merger would represent the second effort underway in the city to restore a shuttered comprehensive high school.

Reunification would also be a blow to the philosophy that large high schools with low test scores should be closed and replaced with smaller schools — a strategy that disproportionately affected communities of color. Once fervently embraced by Denver Public Schools, that type of education reform has been rejected by the current school board majority.

The idea to reunify West originated with students. In January, a group of student leaders from the two schools that share the former West High building — West Early College and West Leadership Academy — spoke to the school board. 

Replacing West High with two smaller schools forces their schools to compete for students and has “destroyed any semblance of community,” the students said. One student described the tension between the two schools as a “turf war.” Another said that although the schools hold some joint events, such as prom, students don’t talk or dance together.

Having two schools also has academic downsides, the students said. Because the schools are smaller — about 650 students each — they don’t have the funding or staff to offer a robust set of courses. For instance, the students said one school may offer art classes, while the other offers Spanish classes, but neither school has both.

“My peers and I believe that coming together will make us stronger as a school and more proud to be from the West campus,” said student Layla Lucero.

District surveys show the idea is strongly supported by teachers, alumni, and community members. At a meeting Thursday, school board members and district leaders were supportive, too. Their discussion focused not on whether West should be reunified but how. 

Both West Early College and West Leadership Academy serve students in grades 6 through 12. A majority of students at both schools are Hispanic and come from low-income families.

In surveys, students and parents favored consolidating the two schools into a single 6-12 school. Teachers preferred forming one middle school and one high school.

The timeline has not been decided. The fastest option would have the new consolidated school or schools open next fall. The slowest option would delay the opening until fall 2022 to allow more time to plan. A third option would consolidate the schools in name next fall but spend the 2021-22 school year designing the programming and course offerings.

The school board could vote as early as Oct. 22 on how to move forward. The process for West is faster and simpler than one taking place in far northeast Denver to bring a comprehensive high school back to the Montbello neighborhood. 

There, the former Montbello High School was split into three small schools. Only two are still on the campus; the other has moved to another district building. It’s still not clear whether those three schools would close to make way for a comprehensive high school. Unlike at West, the principals of the schools haven’t publicly come out in support of the plan.

In addition, the district has determined that the Montbello campus needs extensive renovations or possibly a new building. District leaders are hoping Denver voters will pass a bond next month to pay for it. Reunifying West is not expected to take as much construction or funding.  

West High was Denver’s second-oldest high school, dating back to 1883. In 2011, the school board voted to phase it out. West’s graduation rate was hovering at about 50%. Nearly all students who graduated and attended college had to take remedial courses. School board members hoped the small schools would better serve students, in part by raising expectations and offering rigorous college-level and Advanced Placement courses. 

Since then, remediation rates have decreased and graduation rates have increased. In 2018-19, 64% of students at West Early College graduated within four years of starting high school, while 77% of students at West Leadership Academy did. 

The district’s intention, said Denver Superintendent Susana Cordova, is to keep what’s working at both schools while meeting the community’s desire for a reunified West. 

Board Vice President Jennifer Bacon said it will be important to keep in mind lessons learned. “I don’t think this is a backward move; this is a forward move,” she said.

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