Fresh hope for West High turnaround

There was a celebration in honor of Dia de los Muertos at West High School on Thursday, but the minds of many at the school were more fixed on the future than the past.

Denver Public Schools officials gave their most detailed public presentation to date on what is in store for the turnaround starting next year at West, long one of the most underperforming traditional high schools in the district.

The presentation followed a colorful performance of music and dance in the West auditorium by the group Dancing Across Cultures.

“This is a celebration of a community transformation at West High School,” said newly reelected school board member Arturo Jimenez, who represents the northwest district including West.

Learn more

“It’s a celebration of the parents and the grandparents who said, ‘We want to change West High School. We want to change it for the better. We want to have the best for our children. We want to make West High School the premier high school in all of Denver Public Schools.”

As the entertainment in the auditorium concluded, one of the key figures charged with making that change happen was finding it hard to conceal her enthusiasm.

“This is becoming a little more clear every day,” said Teresa Klava, who will be principal at West Leadership Academy.

Her father once taught at West, and she is excited to be a part of its future.

“We need to make sure we’re doing the intentional work to make it happen, and happen right,” she said.

West High campus home to three schools in 2012

Starting in the 2012-13 school year, the West campus will be home to three high schools. The existing West, in the first year of a phase-out, will have grades 10 through 12, dropping the lowest grade each of the next two years, with just a 12th grade for its final year in 2014-15.

Bob Villarreal, principal of the new West Generation Academy. (Photo courtesy DPS)

But launching at West in August 2012 will be two new schools – West Leadership Academy, which is a College Board School, and West Generation Academy. Bob Villarreal will be the West Generation Academy principal.

“Generation School wants to bring rigor to West High,” Villarreal said. “Not that it hasn’t been there, but we want to bring another definition of rigor. Rigor that challenges our students. Rigor that forces our students to stand on their toes to reach understanding, to reach knowledge.”

Klava and Villarreal both come to their new posts from principal positions at other DPS schools – Klava at Valverde Elementary in west Denver, Villarreal at Garden Place Elementary in north Denver. They are on leave this year to plan their schools at West.

Teresa Klava, principal of the new West Leadership Academy. (Photo courtesy DPS)

West Generation will start its first year with a 6th, 8th, and 9th grade, while West Leadership will start with 6th and 9th grades. Both schools will be at full strength by the 2015-16 school year. West Generation will have about 150 students per grade, while West Leadership expects roughly 125 per grade.

The two schools’ students will play on the same sports teams – still known as the West Cowboys. Their administrations will work out of adjoining, or shared, office spaces. Also, both will feature eight-hour school days and 200-day school years.

Villarreal estimated that a sixth-grader entering a school with those longer schedules will receive about 30 percent more classroom time, by the end of 12th grade, than is afforded by the traditional 184-day school year.

Two new programs, each with a different focus

While the schools will be working in a cooperative and collaborative spirit on the same campus, their programs will feature differing emphases.

Key components for West Leadership Academy will include:

  • A college readiness advisory course three-to-five times a week and regular exposure to local post-secondary options for 6th and 9th graders. “Foundational” classes such as literacy and math will be small, about 18 to 25 students.
  • Emphasis on professional development for teachers, including intensive summer training in College Board curriculum; national learning opportunities with other AP teachers; and in-school coaching throughout the school year.
  • Strong focus on preparation for ACT and SAT college entrance exams. College preparation will also include at least two college visits per grade level, per year, starting in the sixth grade.

Key components for West Generation Academy:

  • Classrooms that signify a major shift from the traditional alignment of desks in rows. Instead, there will be large-group instructional areas that are interactive and project-based, making up what Villarreal described as “multi-environments” within one classroom.
  • Intensive month-long, project-based courses geared toward 21st-century careers in disciplines such as sports management, urban planning, medical and bio-science.
  • Seventy-five minutes of both English/humanities and math every morning in classes of 18-to-22 students; 30-minute student “group advisories” each day for groups of 9 to 12 students in topics such as social/emotional development; and college prep work.

The choice of West’s new schools was a product of a year-long process led by the West Denver Equitable Education Collaborative (WDEEC), a group including parents, alumni, community members, DPS staff and business leaders.

Jimenez: ‘The district and the community can work together’

The community, according to Jimenez, said, “What we wanted was students who … were collaborative, who were critical thinkers, who were creative, who could really, really thrive in the 21st century workplace.”

Jimenez stressed that the plan was aided by the DPS administration meeting the community halfway and providing the resources to make it happen.

Arturo Jimenez

“This should assure to everyone that the district and the communities can work together, that it doesn’t have to be that one group or another pushes in an agenda from the outside,” said Jimenez.

While there is enthusiasm about the new schools, Domonic Martinez, principal of the traditional West High School, emphasized that, at the “old” West, the next three-and-a-half years are not going to be just about coasting to the finish line.

“With the phase-out, there’s been a lot of ‘Oh my god, you guys are just going to ride it out,’ but we’re highering expectations, for our kids and our staff and my administrative staff as well, along with teaming with the community and the alumni,” said Martinez.

He said West is working on developing a partnership with Community College of Denver to establish traditional West as an early-college model, enhancing its students’ chances of earning associate’s degrees.

“The goal is a college class in 10th grade. The goal is a college class at the second semester of ninth grade; if we can finish this deal and solidify this partnership … It’s going to happen. We’re not waiting. We’re not just the people left over,” he insisted.

DPS is hosting expos to brief parents in the west Denver community about enrollment options for the 2012-13 school year on Dec. 3 and Dec. 10. Details about a DPS open house at West are expected to be announced soon.

One of more than two dozen people attending Thursday’s presentation at West was Veronica Barela, a co-chair of the WDEEC committee.

“Now that we’ve got this far, our role changes a bit,” she said. “Everything is in place. Now we just need to make sure that it works.”

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.”