Denver recommends closing a far northeast alternative high school

A stone sign with the logos of two high schools on it.
Montbello Career and Technical High School shares a campus with the Robert F. Smith STEAM Academy. (Melanie Asmar / Chalkbeat)

A small alternative high school in far northeast Denver could close if the school board follows a recommendation from district leaders.

Denver Public Schools leaders are recommending that Montbello Career and Technical High School shutter at the end of this school year, partly to make room for another school. Montbello Career and Technical, which serves students who are off track to graduate, shares a campus with an HBCU-style high school, Robert F. Smith STEAM Academy, which opened last year.

But sharing a campus will no longer be viable after this school year, according to the district’s written recommendation. Montbello Career and Technical has about 70 students this year. Robert F. Smith currently has about 150 ninth- and tenth-graders and plans to add 11th and 12th grades over the next two years. The building holds 275 students. If Robert F. Smith adds another class of students next year, the building would be over capacity.

Instead, district leaders are recommending closing Montbello Career and Technical and sending its students to two other alternative schools in far northeast Denver: Vista Academy and Legacy Options High School. Vista Academy is two miles away.

The new Montbello High School, a nearby comprehensive that reopened this fall, also plans to offer credit recovery and GED classes, the recommendation says.

Students stand in front of doors to a building housing Montbello Career and Technical High School and Robert F. Smith STEAM Academy. (Melanie Asmar / Chalkbeat)

The recommendation to close Montbello Career and Technical is separate from a high-profile discussion about how to consolidate Denver elementary schools. Enrollment is declining in elementary schools, and a district committee has come up with suggested criteria for when to close small schools. But the superintendent has not put it into practice yet.

Alternative schools, which Denver calls pathways schools, would likely be exempt from any closure criteria based on enrollment. Pathways schools are designed to be small to give more individualized attention to students who are at risk of dropping out.

Montbello Career and Technical was previously called P.U.S.H. Academy. Before the district closed the old Montbello High School, it served as the school’s credit recovery program.

The idea for Robert F. Smith STEAM Academy came from a group of Black parents and community leaders in far northeast Denver. In a first-of-its-kind step in 2019, the school board directed the district to work with the group to hone their application to open a new district-run school modeled on historically Black colleges and universities, or HBCUs. 

Najja Shakir Al-Islam hands out papers to students on the first day of school at Robert F. Smith STEAM Academy in August 2021. (Kevin J. Beaty / Denverite)

The school board approved the school, then called the Michelle Obama STEAM Academy, in August 2019. (The school was renamed after Robert F. Smith, a Denver graduate described by the district as “a Black American investor, inventor, engineer, philanthropist, and entrepreneur.”) 

But the school didn’t have a location. In November 2020, the board approved temporarily co-locating it with Montbello Career and Technical for two years. It opened in August 2021.

“The district shall continue to search for a long-term facility placement for the Robert F. Smith STEAM Academy,” the school board’s 2020 resolution said. “District staff shall be authorized to take any reasonable actions necessary to facilitate said placement.”

The school board was originally scheduled to hear the closure recommendation at its meeting Thursday. But the board voted to delay the recommendation until Oct. 6. The reason for the delay was so the member who represents northeast Denver, Michelle Quattlebaum, who wasn’t at Thursday’s meeting, could be present for the discussion.

A vote on the closure recommendation has not yet been scheduled.

Melanie Asmar is a senior reporter for Chalkbeat Colorado, covering Denver Public Schools. Contact Melanie at masmar@chalkbeat.org.

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