Montbello’s call for dramatic change

stockmontbellopicSome parents and community leaders at Montbello High School on Friday called on Denver Public Schools to consider dramatic reform at the school, allowing it to tap into federal school turnaround dollars.

“Our kids are not getting the education they need and deserve,” said Charles Robertson, president of Montbello’s school leadership team. “We hope that by beginning a public dialogue, we as a community will be able to work collaboratively with the district.”

DPS is currently weighing federal turnaround strategies – and the hundreds of thousands of dollars expected to accompany them – for six of its lowest-performing schools. Montbello is not among them.

Two of the six schools, Lake Middle School and Greenlee K-8, held community meetings this week to urge DPS consider only the lightest of the four federal turnaround plans.

“We are a low-performing school but as you can see, we are making progress,” said Greenlee social studies teacher Doug Scarth, using charts to show the school is lagging district averages in many areas but is making some gains.

In contrast, Montbello’s Robertson and others at Friday’s press conference recommended dramatic change, including the creation of multiple small high schools on the campus.

But they repeatedly said the recommendations, formed at a two-day meeting late last month of 30 parent, school and community leaders, are intended to begin a public dialogue.

“These recommendations can serve as a starting point for a conversation in the community about reform,” said Denver City Councilman Michael Hancock, who represents the area.

Proposing a “restart” in 2011

They said the goal would be to “restart” Montbello in fall 2011. Community meetings begin next week.

Restart is one of the four strategies that federal authoritites are urging states to consider and rewarding those that do with million-dollar grants. It essentially calls for closing or phasing out a school and re-opening with one or more new schools.

The other strategies are called “turnaround,” where a new principal hand-picks a new staff and “transformation,” where the staff may remain but the academic program is modified.

The fourth strategy is closure, not considered a likely option for the 1,700-student Montbello.

Chris Martinez, co-chair of Montbello 2020, a strategic plan for the far northeastern community, said the dialogue about the school’s future needs to begin “today.”

“We are at a crossroads,” he said. “And that crossroads is that we need to do something to provide good quality education to all of our children so our children can attend their neighborhood high school.”

Hancock pointed out that Montbello is facing increasing competition from other schools. The former Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School is now an Early College serving grades 6 – 12 and will graduate its first class this spring.

“I am pleased to announce all of them are accepted into college,” he said, adding of MLK’s reform, “That was a community-driven effort that started with the same energy and the same vision behind this effort.”

He also cited the new ECE-12 campus in nearby Green Valley Ranch, which will include a Denver School of Science and Technology, the charter that is DPS’ highest-performing high school.

“Our backs are against the wall,” Hancock said. “We need to make sure … our young people are prepared to compete.”

Instability at the top

Montbello is rated “on watch” on the district’s rating system, the School Performance Framework. That’s the third of four possible rungs on the ratings ladder. The six schools being considered by DPS for turnaround are rated “on probation,” the bottom rung.

And Montbello performs the same as or better than three other comprehensive Denver high schools – North, West and Thomas Jefferson – on the SPF, which gauges academic achievement, growth and factors such as graduation rates, attendance rates and parental engagement.

State test results from spring 2009 show 32 percent of Montbello 9th and 10th-graders were at grade level in reading and 5 percent achieved that level in math.

“We are into the fourth year of a five-year revitalization plan and the scores are still the same, pretty much,” Robertson said. “I think we’ve inched up some notches but not as much as we would like.”

Part of the reason, he believes, is instability in the principal’s office. On Monday, DPS officials placed the school’s new principal, Peter Mosby, on paid administrative leave, saying they were conducting “a thorough review of leadership.”

District spokesman Mike Vaughn declined to elaborate. Friday, the Denver Post reported Mosby was frequently absent.

Mosby was the fifth principal at Montbello since 2005, when Hansell Gunn abruptly left the school after a staff member alleged sexual harassment. The same interim principal, Richard Smith, who filled in after Gunn left is now filling in for Mosby.

State Sen. Mike Johnston, a Democrat who represents the area, said Friday’s call for reform is “completely unrelated” to the disciplinary action taken against Mosby, who attended last month’s two-day session.

“But they are tied together,” Johnston said, because “what you need is a structure that sets a school leader up for success.”

He said Mosby, for example, started his first year at Montbello having to accept 19 teachers who had been directly placed at the school – meaning DPS directed they go there and Mosby had to take them.

Johnston, a former principal and education advisor to President Obama, said Friday’s recommendations include setting up schools with the autonomy to hire their own staffs and control their own budgets.

“Part of what we’re after is, what would it take to build Montbello High School into a structure that would attract the best teachers that are already there that we could keep,” he said, “and the best school leaders that we could find who’d say, this is a school I can improve and this is a role I could really be effective in.”

“Opposite of Manual”

DPS has split a large high school into smaller schools before, in what is widely acknowledged as a failed experiment at the old Manual High School.

Chiquita Cole was a student at Manual when the single school split into three, with each occupying a floor in the building.

The result for students, Cole said, was lost opportunities – students weren’t allowed to go onto another school’s floor, take another school’s classes or participate in another school’s activities.

It didn’t help the academic focus at the school either, she said, as teachers worked mostly to “keep the chaos to a minimum.”

“It might work better somewhere else,” she said. “It just didn’t work there.”

Cole, now a senior at the University of Northern Colorado, said she failed every class her first semester at UNC. She learned how to study, got used to the rigor and now has a 3.4 GPA.

Friday morning, Cole took the GRE graduate school entrance exam because she wants to earn a master’s degree in speech and language pathology and come back to Denver to work with children.

DPS school board members later closed Manual for a year before re-opening it as a single small high school in August 2007.

“This is not Manual,” Johnston said. “This is the opposite of Manual …

“This is the time for a community who sees the opportunity to do something better to stand up and say, we want to proactively design this ourselves,” he said. “We want to make this what we hope Montbello can be, the way we hope it can look.”

Nancy Mitchell can be reached at or 303-478-4573.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”


Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”


Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”


Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”


Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”


Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”