Opening day for FNE Denver turnaround

Summer ended a week early Wednesday for about 4,150 Denver Public Schools students attending 11 new and turnaround schools in the city’s Far Northeast, the focus of a controversial reform plan narrowly approved by district board members last year.

Denver Mayor Michael Hancock, left, and DPS Superintendent Tom Boasberg with a young student at today's opening day ceremony in the city's Far Northeast.
Denver Mayor Michael Hancock, left, and DPS Superintendent Tom Boasberg with Noel Middle School seventh-grader Isaac Taylor at the FNE opening day ceremony.

The new era for schools in the Green Valley Ranch and Montbello neighborhoods represents perhaps the most dramatic step to date in the administration of Superintendent Tom Boasberg toward revitalizing some of the district’s lowest-performing schools.

So contentious was the debate over the turnaround plan that it helped spark a failed attempt earlier this year to recall DPS board president Nate Easley, who represents the area and who supported the plan.

Easley, on hand for the schools’ opening day along with Denver Mayor Michael Hancock, voiced no regrets.

“I am so excited about the possibilities,” Easley said. “I wish we could almost fast-forward to this time next year so we could see the great results that, even in the short term, this is going to make.”

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The schools’ early opening – enabling them to extend their school year by six days – was marked by an early morning press conference featuring Boasberg and Hancock at the Noel campus, which will be home to three schools this year.

“We are beginning a new frontier for this part of town,” said Hancock, who lives in Green Valley Ranch and who also supported the reform. “ There are simply those that believe the status quo is working for our kids and I’ll tell you that many parents and many of us who are standing here today knew better. We knew…we needed to make bold, solid decisions to make a difference and, for once, stand for the students.”

Boasberg, in his remarks, recalled a passionate community meeting on the Noel campus where some protestors waved signs reading “Say No” to the reform plan.

“But we knew we couldn’t say no to change,” he said. “We knew that we couldn’t continue to accept a status quo that simply wasn’t serving our kids, and our families, as well as we needed to serve our kids and our families.”

Most DPS schools will open Aug. 18. In addition to six extra days of school, students in the 11 schools will receive at least 60 extra minutes of instruction time each day, district officials said.

‘Working around the clock’ to prepare for opening

Allen Smith is executive director of the Denver Summit Schools Network, the DPS branding of the turnaround effort. He describes a flurry of activity on the part of administrators and teachers that has been building all year, coming to a head in the past two weeks.

 Noel Middle School students are welcomed by staff on their first day.
Rachel B. Noel Middle School students are welcomed by staff on their first day.

“They’ve been working around the clock to make sure the doors are not only open but that each kid can come into the school knowing they’re appreciated, knowing this is going to be a change in the culture and expectations and feeling good about the space they’re coming into,” he said.

Smith said all 11 schools are fully staffed with teachers and that, with the classroom aides, tutors and young adults provided by the City Year “near-peer” program to assist children in and outside the classroom, “There are going to be more adults than ever before in these classrooms.”

The centerpiece of the turnaround plan is the dramatic reconfiguration of chronically low-performing Montbello High School. The school’s traditional program is being phased out – it will not have a freshman class this year, with 10th, 11th and 12th grades dropping off in succeeding years.

New at the Montbello campus this year is the Denver Center for International Studies and the Collegiate Prep Academy.  A third new school, High Tech Early College, was originally to be placed at Montbello but instead will be located nearby at the former Samsonite building.

Enrollment in the traditional Montbello program is budgeted for 993 students but DPS data shows a current enrollment of  1,171 – although that number counts students who may have moved, or for other reasons, will not return, according to DPS communications staff. Typically at  Montbello, enrollment continues to grow through Labor Day.

While Smith admits that a Montbello enrollment boom could be “problematic,” he added, “It’s a good problem to have. Whereas many thought that kids are going to leave, they’re going to go someplace else, (instead) they’re coming back and the families are coming back.”

Blueprint is five-year partner in turnaround

The scope of the turnaround initiative is such that DPS has contracted with an outside partner to oversee its implementation. That partner is the Blueprint Schools Network, a Massachusetts-based educational non-profit with which DPS has signed a five-year agreement.

The contract for the first nine months of that partnership, through June 30 of this year, called for DPS to pay Blueprint $376,078 for its services, plus travel expenses up to $97,000. Terms of a new contract for the current year are still being finalized, said district spokesman Mike Vaughn.

Blueprint’s other major client is the Houston Independent School District, where Blueprint is working in 20 schools. According to its website, Blueprint emphasizes five core areas for school improvement: excellence in leadership, increased instructional time, a no-excuse culture of high expectations, frequent assessments and daily tutoring in the critical growth years of fourth, sixth and ninth grades.

Boasberg cited several key items that he sees DPS getting for the money it  is paying Blueprint.

“One is looking at best practices in other Blueprint schools and elsewhere, around the country,” which can be applied in Denver, he said.

“Two is around very strong analysis of data; three is around implementation of new practices such as the one-on-two math tutoring program, math; fourth is in helping recruit nationally for tutors, teachers and school leaders. And fifth, generally, is being a strong critical partner to help challenge us on ways we do things.”

School board member Andrea Merida said she has asked to see the DPS/Blueprint contract numerous times during board meetings. Merida and board member Jeannie Kaplan voted against the turnaround plan in November; board member Arturo Jimenez joined them in all votes but one, approving only the piece involving Ford Elementary. On Tuesday, Merida said she still had not seen a Blueprint contract.

“The information we’ve been getting is extremely sketchy,” Merida said. Told that the first year of the contract was for $376,000, she said, “It’s bewildering to me because I have no basis, I have no way to anchor that to anything.”

Then she added, “That would sound actually kind of low … Somebody’s low-balling this figure, so the board does not have to approve it. We have to approve anything over one million dollars. They’re purposely low-balling this, so that we don’t have to approve it. And you can quote me on that.”

Vaughn, the DPS spokesman, denied the claim and said the Blueprint agreement was ” put together with solely the best interests of our students and their academic needs in mind.”

“The funds that are being used to pay for the extra tutoring and other academic services are private funds that we have raised through grants from district partners who are willing to invest in the academic success of our kids,” he said.  “Furthermore, we are confident that a majority of our board members are also willing to invest in the academic success of our kids … at no additional cost to our taxpayers.”

Lingering concerns, dissent about turnaround

As for today’s school openings, Merida said, “I want to celebrate the students and teachers who have been patient with us, as well as those who have been vocal about concerns, as we’ve been trying to patch together some semblance of a turnaround plan for Northeast Denver. I’m going to be with them every step of the way, and my door is always open.”

DPS Board President Nate Easley, left, Boasberg and Hancock greet students returning to school a week early on the FNE opening day.

Kaplan, who also voted against the turnaround, said, “I hope that they’re successful, at this point. But I don’t think we can lose sight of the fact that, even if they are, we are putting an unbelievable amount of money and resources into these 2,300 kids going to these (non-traditional) schools.”

Reviving a question she has voiced often in recent board meetings, Kaplan added, “How replicable is this? Do we have to blow up things and create chaos before we can figure out a solution? It’s a challenge to the district. How do we do this systematically to give every kid an equal opportunity?”

Jimenez, who is campaigning for a second term on the board representing Northwest Denver, said he’s become more hopeful about the turnaround.

“Although I was concerned about the initial lack of details and planning, I am very hopeful and supportive of the plan,” he said, “particularly I am impressed with the new leadership chosen for the Northeast schools. Everyone, including the superintendent, knows that this plan has to work for our students to succeed.”

The reservations voiced by Merida and Kaplan as well as Jimenez initially are not matched by very many in the community, at least according to Charles Robertson, who has been active in his support of Montbello schools for seven years.

“I have been at 90 percent of the registrations, and I can tell you, I have not heard any negative from any parent or from any student,” he said.

Robertson cited robust attendance from parent volunteers who, two weeks ago, showed up on a Sunday to help clean the Montbello High School office as a promising sign.

“I would definitely welcome individuals to come out and talk to parents as they’re coming into the building or after the first couple of weeks,” he said. “I think they’re going to happy and impressed with what they’re going to see.”

Verdicts coming on Success Express, overall plan

One piece of the turnaround on which a verdict may be rendered most promptly is the new “Success Express,” the 14-bus shuttle system DPS is deploying in the Far Northeast. A fleet of buses will circulate between schools in the FNE network, offering students up to three chances to catch the bus that gets them to their school of choice on time.

Allen Smith, executive director of the Denver Summit Schools Network, speaks at the FNE opening ceremony.
Allen Smith, executive director of the Denver Summit Schools Network, speaks at the FNE opening ceremony.

The system will run longer hours than the traditional DPS transportation service, from 6:30 to 9:30 a.m. and 2:30 to 6:30 p.m., enabling longer and more flexible school days and schedules. Also, each bus will have two adults – a driver and a DPS aide, whose job will be to make sure students are getting on and off safely at the right stop.

The system was given a practice run this past Friday, with about 200 students and their parents turning out to give the shuttle a try.  This morning was its first true test, and Nicole Portee, executive director of transportation for DPS, was mostly satisfied by the results.

“It actually went pretty well,” she said. “The only thing we did run into was our buses being overloaded. We ended up getting a lot more kids than we anticipated, kids who were living just a few feet away from the school but wanted to try the Success Express.”

Portee said adjustments will be made to the schedule based on riding patterns revealed over the next few days – including this afternoon’s home-bound cycles.

The verdict will be much longer in coming for the overall turnaround effort.

Smith, the DPS administrator charged with overseeing it, said, “I’m still disappointed in those people who are looking for this to fail, and they have tried to derail it. But I’ve been able to deflect that, and concentrate on the work.

He predicted, “One, we’re going to attract new parents who have been silent, and two, some of those people who have been negative about this process are going to see that it can work. And, there are some folks who will be stuck on the sidelines, for the duration.”

Far Northeast Denver schools opening early

    Ford campus:
  • Denver Center for International Studies* (Grades ECE-2) – Projected enrollment 440 students
  • Ford Elementary (Grades 3-5) – Projected enrollment 317 students
    Montbello campus:
  • Collegiate Prep Academy* (Grade 9) – Projected enrollment 104 students
  • Denver Center for International Studies* (Grades 6 & 9) – Projected enrollment 254 students
  • Montbello High School (Grades 10-12) – Projected enrollment 1,211 students
    Noel campus:
  • Rachel B. Noel Middle School (Grades 7-8) – Projected enrollment 485 students
  • KIPP Montbello College Prep** (Grade 5) – Projected enrollment 100 students
  • Noel Community Arts School* (Grades 6 & 9) – Projected enrollment 212 students
  • Green Valley Elementary* (Grades ECE-5) – Projected enrollment 637 students
  • High Tech Early College* (Grade 9) – Projected enrollment 100 students
  • McGlone Elementary* (Grades ECE-5) – Projected enrollment 592 students

* Innovation School, ** Charter school

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.”