In a split vote, Denver school board approves delayed opening of new DSST charter school

High school graduates in caps and gowns sit on a staircase.
DSST won conditional approval to open a new high school in far northeast Denver in 2022. (Evan Semón for Chalkbeat)

A divided Denver school board gave conditional approval Thursday for the district’s largest charter school network to open a new high school. But the decision fell short of what DSST wanted, prompting the charter network CEO to call it a “no” disguised as a “yes.”

The 5-2 vote came after repeated delays and included a long list of conditions that DSST must meet before it can open a new school starting with grades nine and 10 in fall 2022. 

The high school will serve as an extension of the high-performing DSST Middle School at Noel Campus in far northeast Denver. The 2022 opening date means 161 eighth-graders at Noel won’t immediately continue to an accompanying high school, as happens at most other DSST schools. DSST is not happy with the school board’s vote. A spokesperson said the network plans to appeal the decision to the State Board of Education.

“Justice delayed is exactly the same thing as justice denied in this case,” said DSST Noel middle school Principal Brandi Chin.

Back when the Noel middle school opened in 2018, educators and parents expected DSST would open a Noel high school three years later. Thursday’s vote and fraught discussion illustrates a significant political shift over the last year. 

The vote touches on many issues this school board has wrestled with, including how to improve education for Black students, how to reconfigure schools in a part of the city that underwent drastic changes in the name of improvement, and whether to expand independent charter schools. The last issue is particularly political, given that several board members campaigned on opposing charter school expansion.

“I believe that we have done the best that we can in the resolution to find a ‘third-way solution’ that creates a pathway forward,” said board member Angela Cobián.

The divergent reasons that two board members opposed the resolution show the disagreement on this topic. Board member Barbara O’Brien voted no because she said it was unfair to delay the opening of the new high school until 2022. She offered an amendment that would have allowed the school to open in 2021, but the six other board members rejected it.

“One of the few things within our power is to act in a way that lets those eighth graders know what their path forward could look like and to give them a sense of stability,” O’Brien said.

Board member Scott Baldermann voted no because he said DSST did not uphold its agreement with the district — specifically, that existing DSST schools must meet the district’s academic expectations before the network opens new schools at the same grade level. 

Baldermann and other board members previously expressed concern with the academic performance of DSST Cole High School in near northeast Denver.

DSST is a homegrown charter network that started in 2004 with a single school. It now has 14 in Denver and one in neighboring Aurora. The Noel high school will be its 16th school.

DSST schools serve a diverse population of students. The schools emphasize academic rigor and acceptance to college, and follow a dress code. Most DSST schools also post high test scores. The Noel middle school, where most students are Black and Hispanic and come from low-income families, earned stellar test scores in 2019.

Parents and educators said the middle school students deserve the chance to continue their education at a Noel high school. 

“Why are you making 161 families collateral damage in some political game?” said Erika Garcia, whose daughter is an eighth grader at Noel middle school.

The resolution gives priority to the Noel eighth graders to enroll at other DSST high schools in far northeast Denver. But it doesn’t guarantee them seats. 

DSST Chief of Staff Ashley Piche told the board that DSST “strongly” opposed the resolution, particularly the proposed solution for the eighth graders and the 2022 open date. 

The resolution also requires DSST to meet several conditions before it can open the Noel high school. They include that certain staff at DSST Cole High School undergo diversity and equity training, that the school submit an academic improvement plan, and that district staff determine that DSST is doing a better job serving English language learners.

The resolution applies those same conditions to two DSST middle schools — Cole and Henry — about which the school board has similar academic concerns.

Piche said that while DSST is committed to providing diversity training and improving instruction for students learning English as a second language, the network disagrees with the “vague” requirement to submit improvement plans for the three schools.

DSST also disagrees with the conclusion that its Cole high school isn’t meeting academic expectations. Normally, the district would rely on school ratings to determine whether that’s true. But the district did not issue ratings this year. School ratings are largely based on the results of state standardized tests, which were canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

DSST presented data last month to show that academic achievement is improving at Cole high school. District staff agreed. But some board members came to the opposite conclusion. 

Even so, most of them voted yes on the resolution. Board member Brad Laurvick said the conditions included in the resolution made him feel comfortable supporting it. Board member Tay Anderson referenced a statement he made last year on the campaign trail that DSST Noel should be allowed to expand, and said he was going to “keep my word.”

Board Vice President Jennifer Bacon, who represents far northeast Denver, said she understood the resolution, which she helped craft, would disappoint DSST Noel families. 

But Bacon also spoke about the bigger picture. She lamented the culture of competition among Denver schools and said the district needs a plan to reconfigure schools in far northeast Denver, where the closure of Montbello High School a decade ago created a landscape in which 11 secondary schools serve about 5,780 students there.

Community members have been calling for the district to reopen a comprehensive high school in Montbello, and the board voted Thursday on a resolution to do so. 

“I do not believe that your excellence is solely tied to which school you go to,” Bacon said. “It deeply concerns me that our communities...have been positioned to think this way.”

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