‘It just feels ‘one’ now:’ Inside Denver’s reunified West High School

A student sits on the steps of Denver’s West High School. A black-and-orange banner in the foreground says “West High School.”
Students walk into the reunified West High School on the third day of school this year. (Melanie Asmar / Chalkbeat)

Principal Mia Martinez Lopez stood at the entrance of the gym Wednesday, her back against one side of a bright orange double door. As students streamed by, Martinez Lopez greeted them.

“Good morning, good morning, good to see you,” she said. “Make sure your mask is pulled up, okay? Hi, hi, good morning. We’re going to sit with our grade, okay?”

Martinez Lopez was welcoming students to the first pep rally of the school year — and the first ever pep rally of the reunified West High School. Ten years after the historic school was split into two smaller ones in an attempt to boost academic scores, the school is once again a single comprehensive high school with about 850 students spread over three stories. A new reunified middle school, West Middle School, shares the same building.

At this time last year, middle and high school students were learning from home, often seeing their peers only as boxes on a video call. This year, students from the two small schools — West Early College and West Leadership Academy — are starting the year in person, together.

“It’s better now that we aren’t fighting about which side is better,” said sophomore Gianna Morello, who previously attended West Early College. “We can all work as a team.”

The West High reunification represents an undoing of more than a decade of education reform efforts in Denver Public Schools. Some of those reforms, like breaking up large high schools that served communities of color, proved deeply unpopular. 

At West, students advocated for reunification to quash what some saw as a rivalry between the two small schools and to resurrect a neighborhood hub with a proud history. West was founded in 1883, making it one of Denver’s oldest schools, and its current grand building dates back to 1924. Many students are the second or third generation in their family to attend.

West also has a history of activism. In 1969, Chicano students held marches against the racism and discrimination they experienced in the classroom in protests known as the West High “blowout.” Students from other high schools across the city joined in.

A similar high school reunification will happen next year in far northeast Denver, where Montbello High School was split into three smaller schools the year before West. 

West High junior Nico Gomez-Lucero described the reunification as the breaking of an invisible barrier that divided students for a reason he never understood. Gomez-Lucero previously attended West Early College. But he’s thrilled that when he graduates next year, his diploma will say West High School, just like his mother’s diploma.

“Breaking that wall opens us to more leaders and opens us to more people who have ideas and have thoughts,” Gomez-Lucero said. “That builds our community and that builds our family.”

He and other students said they were nervous for the first day of school this week. Even though they’re attending school in the same building as always, they don’t know half of their classmates. The two small schools previously had separate classes, separate bell schedules, separate dress codes, and separate traditions. Students played on sports teams and held pep rallies and dances together, but they said a de facto division still existed. 

Senior America Tinoco said that when she and her cousin joined cheerleading several years ago, they were the only girls from West Leadership Academy on the team.

“It was always on my mind, like, ‘Why are there two separate schools?’” Tinoco said.

Senior Erica Luzayadio, who went to West Early College, agreed.

“It felt like we were always cliqued up, even playing sports together,” Luzayadio said.

Both seniors are happy that West High is reunified, even if it makes the first week more awkward. In a sense, all 850 students at West are like freshmen in a new school.

“I like it,” Luzayadio said. The school, she said, “just feels ‘one’ now.”

Back in the gymnasium, teachers directed students to sit with their class: freshmen on one set of bleachers, sophomores on another, and so on. After the hype music died down, students watched informational videos, had a basketball free throw contest, and competed in a scavenger hunt. Then Assistant Principal Derek Pike took the microphone.

“You’ve heard all week about West High School making history this year,” he told the students. “We are the first school in all of Denver to unify as a campus and come together. 

“Make some noise for making history this year!” he said.

And the students in the gym roared.

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