Speaking out on new DPS schools

School board members were lobbied in a public comment session Monday night to look past the statistics-laden recommendations of Denver Public Schools staff and consider the more impassioned arguments on behalf of schools whose fates will be decided later this month.

One of the most controversial issues in recent months is the district’s proposed location of the new Creativity Challenge Community or C3 elementary school at the under-utilized Merrill Middle School in southeast Denver. Plans for C3 have been developed by current Cory Elementary School Principal Julia Shepherd and a group of parents and staff from that school, located near Merrill.

The board unanimously approved C3 in June through the district’s new schools application process, but its co-location at Merrill requires a separate vote now scheduled Nov. 17.

DPS sees a need for 500 to 1,000 new elementary school seats to address demographic growth and to relieve crowding issues in the southeast.

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Shepherd, who would leave Cory to run C3, says Cory’s first grade has grown from 60 to 90 students in the past five years. Meanwhile, Merrill has about 550 students in a campus designed for 1,100. The district estimates it would cost $750,000 to retrofit Merrill for C3.

C3 would open at Merrill in the fall of 2012 with grades K-2, adding a grade a year until it serves K-5 in 2015-16. It is proposed as a district-run open-enrollment school, and its proponents have said they have no intention of seeing it expand into the middle school levels. C3’s kindergarten would be located at the Stephen Knight Center for Early Education.

The C3 emphasis will be on promoting creative thinking, with large blocks of time allowing for “creativity-inquiry” activities geared toward problem-solving and developing creative products through collaboration with other students and community partners such as the Denver Art Museum, the Denver Center Theater Academy and the Young Americans Center for Financial Education.

Shepherd said she has so far collected about 50 intents-to-enroll from parents interested in sending their children to C3.

Shepherd said she and Merrill principal Amy Bringedahl are “really excited, if we’re together, to be able to create some amazing joint spaces, such as a media library, utilizing technology for something that really looks to the 21st Century.

“We’ve also talking to our community partners, who are excited to also work with Merrill students in a similar way. My intent, and the district’s intent, is not to take away anything,” Shepherd added. “There is space for us to share, and not negatively impact either school.”

In recent months, the board has heard from numerous community members who are concerned that a co-location will leave Merrill overcrowded, deprive Merrill’s students of access to some of its existing resources and that other potential locations have not received adequate consideration.

Monday night, however, most of those who signed up to speak were supportive of placing C3 at Merrill. One was Linda Campbell, a Denver artist who said she has known Shepherd for 20 years, and believes she is ideally suited to lead the C3 program, and supports its location at Merrill. Campbell is an artist in residence at Redline, a downtown Denver art incubator, which partners with a number of DPS schools and would do so with C3.

“President Obama says we need to innovate our way out of this recession,” Campbell told board members. “In order to do that, I think we need to teach kids to utilize their right brains, and I think C3 would be excellent in teaching them to do that.”

Bringedahl, principal at Merrill, also voiced support for C3 at Merrill. She told the board she was “shocked and taken aback” when she first heard her school was targeted as C3’s host. That has changed, she said, and she is confident there’s plenty of room for C3 to the benefit of both schools.

“The reality is, we have the space,” said Bringedahl. “Any co-location will not impede our progress, academic achievement or our growth.”

Emphasizing the potential of C3 at Merrill to help build a stronger feeder pattern for South High School, Bringedahl added, “It’s very difficult for me to truly find a negative, with regard to co-location. I truly believe, as the leadership at Merrill, that the positives outweigh any of the negatives that are out there” in adding C3.

Concerns about application for Native American charter

The Four Winds Indigenous School was proposed to open in fall 2013 as a charter high school in northwest Denver with about 200 students at full enrollment. It would be housed for the first two years at the Four Winds Church, before moving to another facility.

See the documents
  • To read new schools applications and to see DPS staff recommendations on new schools and charter renewals, go here, click on Nov. 3 focus on achievement session and click on “view the agenda” for links to all documents.
  • See the Four Winds charter application and the district recommendation.
  • Denver’s current school board is slated to vote Nov. 17 on the new schools and charter renewals. Members elected Nov. 1 will be sworn in Nov. 18.

Its proponents envisioned an indigenous-based curriculum, integrated with DPS and state academic standards, that focused on Native American students, college preparation, community engagement and leadership.

The application from Four Winds pointed out that 68 out of every 100 Native American students in the DPS system – who make up only .7 percent of the district’s student body – drop out without completing their education.

DPS staff has recommended that the Four Winds charter application be denied. Among the reasons cited is that the school’s education plan did not provide sufficient detail concerning its curriculum nor did it reference any supporting research. Other concerns included the school’s lack of detail about how it intends to serve English language learners and those with disabilities.

Helen Giron-Mushfiq, who teaches in the Chicano Studies program at Metropolitan State College of Denver, would be the Four Winds director if it were approved.

“We are extremely disappointed at the recommendation for denial,” she said. “If the school is not approved, then what are the plans for the DPS and the board of education to address the high dropout rates among Native Americans and Hispanics? After all, that’s what prompted us to enter this process in the first place.”

“Native Americans have disappeared. There is no plan to help them graduate. There is no cultural support that really speaks to them.”

After speaking to the board, Giron-Mushfiq said, “Native Americans have disappeared. There is no plan to help them graduate. There is no cultural support that really speaks to them.”

She was not sure whether she and others had persuaded the board to ignore the recommendation for denial of the school’s application, and said that if they had failed to do so, “They better have a plan for Native Americans. Let’s put it that way.”

According to DPS spokeswoman Kristy Armstrong, the district has an office of American Indian Education and several Focus schools offering programs for Native American students, including Brown International Academy, CEC Middle College, Cole Arts and Science Academy, College View, East High, John F. Kennedy High and Merrill Middle School.

DPS recommends – again – closure of Life Skills charter

Also before the board for a vote at its Nov. 17 meeting is a recommendation to close the Life Skills Center High School. If the board decides to do so, it won’t be the first time.

The charter school, which is run by a subsidiary of the for-profit White Hat Management, opened in 2003 but was recommended by DPS for closure in 2007. Board members cited chronic poor performance in areas such as student growth and the ability to move students toward graduation.

“In an ideal situation, every student would graduate from a traditional DPS school. It’s not a perfect world.”

The charter appealed the DPS board decision to the State Board of Education, which reversed it and ordered district leaders to establish measurable performance benchmarks in student growth, credit accumulation attendance and student retention rates.

In 2009, the board again granted a probationary two-year renewal, making it conditional on its performance. In its most recent review, the DPS staff found that Life Skills, as of 2010, showed a four-year completion rate of just 6.1 percent, a five-year rate of 12.1 percent, and a six-year rate of 16.1 percent.

The school quality analysis supporting the recommendation for non-renewal from district staff stated, “The … review found that students are not achieving adequate supports to be successful. This was further evidenced by the school’s failure to meet probationary contract conditions related to student growth, credit accumulation, and by low completion rates.”

Becky Nagel, now a science teacher at Lake Middle School, but a science teacher at Life Skills through last year, sought to put a human, rather than statistical, spin on the argument to save the school.

“All of the students who get a second, third and fourth chance, they need them,” she said, as she started to cry. “Okay, I’m very emotional about Life Skills … Life Skills gets to know their students, gets to know their story, works with their schedule and helps them graduate.

“If we have 16 students graduating in January and 16 in June, that’s 32 students that, without Life Skills, would not have graduated without the staff getting to know them and getting to know their needs.”

Nagel added, “In an ideal situation, every student would graduate from a traditional DPS school. It’s not a perfect world.”

Life Skills principal Santiago Lopez pointed out to the board that the 2009 probationary renewal called for the school to “meet or make reasonable progress” toward 12 separate measurable goals, and offered data to the board to bolster his claim that it has an 83 percent rate of success in doing so.

“No blame game here,” he said, after addressing the board. “We just want to be able to do our part in helping to increase the (district) graduation rate.”

A second all-boys school recommended in FNE Denver

Some going before the board Monday were on hand primarily to thank the district for supporting their plans. That would include Sims Fayola International Academy.

The charter school is recommended for approval as the second all-boys charter school aimed at minority students, targeted for the Far Northeast. The board has already approved one, the Miller-McCoy Academy, a 6-12 charter opening in FNE Denver in August 2013.

The Sims Fayola International Academy, also a charter for grades 6-12, is on track to open at the High Point Omni in August 2012, with 250 students – 120 sixth-graders and 130 ninth-graders. It would grow gradually until 2015-15 when it enrolled about 720 students.

Sims Fayola had originally been up for consideration by the board in June, but was asked to fine-tune its application and come back to the board this fall. Its application now has the district’s backing.

T.H. Mack, a Sims Fayola board member, said he was grateful to have the district’s positive endorsement for a school that he said will give young urban males the tools to overcome “the economic disparities that have plagued this community for a long time.”

“A good education is something that shouldn’t be just important to those who have the means … It’s not a luxury. It’s a right.”

He added, “A good education is something that shouldn’t be just important to those who have the means, such as my children and some of yours might have. It’s not a luxury. It’s a right, and it’s a commitment we should have to all our young people.”

Outside the DPS building afterward, Dedrick Sims, executive director for Sims-Fayola, sounded as if he was ready for opening day 2012.

“We’re really excited,” said Sims. “We’re ready to roll.”

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 [email protected]

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.”