Denver Public Schools students, parents, teachers and administrators formed a lengthy parade before school board members Thursday night as efforts continued to sway opinion prior to decisive votes slated for next week.
Among the many proposals the board will decide Nov. 17 is a plan to find a home for a new KIPP charter elementary school, which could lead to a second school being located at an already-crowded middle school, which might mean hundreds of those students must be shifted elsewhere.
It’s one piece of a package that demonstrates the complex balancing act facing a district struggling to meet uneven enrollment demands as it works to close low-performing schools and open higher-performing options.
KIPP, which already operates a successful middle school and a relatively new high school in southwest Denver, was approved to open an elementary in fall of 2012. DPS is asking to delay the opening until fall 2013, to give KIPP time to focus on improvements at its high school but also to allow for better alignment of southwest Denver schools.
When KIPP elementary does open, DPS wants it to do so either at the Rishel campus, which is home to KIPP Collegiate Denver High School and adjacent to KIPP Sunshine Peak Academy middle school, which serves grades 5-8. But that would require the Math and Science Leadership Academy, a K-4 school, to move from Rishel to the Kepner Middle School campus, about two miles away.
Or, if MSLA chooses not to move, DPS would place the KIPP elementary at the Kepner campus instead. Kepner is across the street from the former Lutheran High School campus, which was purchased by DPS and is being renovated for two other schools, the high-performing West Denver Prep-Harvey Park and a new West Denver Prep high school.
But because Kepner is now at an enrollment of close to 1,200 students, placing either MSLA or KIPP elementary there would require shrinking Kepner’s numbers. That would mean moving several hundred future Kepner students to two new programs opening next year at West High School or the two West Denver Prep middle schools in the southwest or a new Denver School of Science and Technology 6-12 charter opening on the Colorado Heights University campus next fall.
Kepner teachers seek vote delay, more input
“The community must be involved in this problem-solving process,” said Janell Martinez, a teacher at Kepner. “Rather than having something happen to us, we would like to be part of this process.”
“We do need to right-size Kepner,” said Martinez. “I don’t think there’s anyone in the Kepner community who disagrees with this. But we are not being given a voice … What we’re asking is please allow us to have a voice and to be heard on what is happening to our families.”
She was echoed by a colleague, Kepner math teacher Michael Yackel. He said that talk about “right-sizing” Kepner down to about 750 students had only recently evolved into “rumors” of a co-located school also coming to Kepner. Yackel asked that any vote affecting Kepner be tabled next week to allow the school’s staff and community members to examine plans in detail.
“This is a vibrant community, and it’s a vibrant school with great things going on in it,” said Yackel. “Give us a chance to sort through these rumors, and for parents and teachers and students to consider their best interests and give you that feedback so you can make the best decision for west Denver.”
Jeannette Martinez spoke as both a Kepner staff member – she teaches eighth-grade algebra – and the mother of a sixth-grade student there.
“I have grown accustomed to not having a voice in what happens in the school I work in, but as a parent, I’m not accustomed to that, and quite frankly, I’m a little angry about it,” she told the board.
While she admitted that at its current enrollment, a reduction in the Kepner population is appropriate, a drop as large as she has heard discussed, she said, is not.
“I think cutting us some is a terrific idea,” said Martinez, “but I think cutting us with the numbers we have heard, is not okay. I think that cutting us in order to place another school in our building is criminal, and I oppose it strongly.”
During a break in Thursday night’s session, Alyssa Whitehead-Bust, chief of innovation and reform for DPS, said MSLA is key to determining how the southwest relocations work out.
“MSLA is really in the driver’s seat,” said Whitehead-Bust. “They have two options. They can consider staying where they are or consider the possible benefits of the Kepner-Lutheran campus.”
Going to Kepner, she said, offers MSLA “a more stable enrollment, because there’s a high need for elementary seats in that neighborhood, there’s the possibility to expand to include an ECE (early childhood education program) and then, the possibility of getting some facility upgrades that they deem desirable.”
Anger over co-location proposal at Merrill Middle
The board on Thursday night also heard continued input on a proposed plan to locate the new Creativity Challenge Community (C3) elementary school inside Merrill Middle School starting with the 2012-13 school year.
Plans for C3 have been developed by current Cory Elementary School Principal Julia Shepherd, together with a group of parents and staff from that school. C3 is planned as a district-run school with an emphasis on creativity and hands-on learning, with Shepherd as principal.
The board unanimously approved C3 in June through the DPS new schools process, but its co-location with Merrill requires a separate vote.
DPS believes 500 to 1,000 new elementary school seats are needed to address demographic growth in the southeast, to relieve crowding issues in the area. Merrill, meanwhile, has about 550 students in a campus designed for 1,100, according to the district.
C3 would open at Merrill in the fall of 2012 with about 100 students in first and second grades, with another 25 kindergarten students at the Stephen Knight Early Learning Center. Adding another grade each year, by the 2015-16 school year, C3 would serve about 400 students – 375 at Merrill with 25 more at the early learning center.
The proposal to place C3 at Merrill has drawn plenty of fire over recent months, and opposition was voiced once again Thursday night. Much of the criticism has included dissatisfaction at the degree to which community members have been kept informed and given opportunity for two-way dialogue with DPS staff about the co-location plans.
“I think C3 is a great idea,” said one parent, Happy Lear. “My daughter is extremely creative. However, I am very sorry that you have a wonderful idea that is being shoved through by a school district that is willing to walk all over its middle-school parents.”
Michelle Olree, who has children in both seventh and eighth grades at Merrill, said it’s a fiction that there is plenty of unused space at the school.
“There’s a little bit, but certainly not enough for another school,” said Olree. “I feel a little bad for these C3 parents because they don’t know what they’re getting into. They think there’s plenty of seats at Merrill, there’s plenty of room. There isn’t – unless you want to create classes with 40 kids.”
Also blasting what she said was an insufficient job of including community members in the C3-Merrill discussions early in the process, Olree said, “Why can’t you start that process today? Ask for forgiveness and start over.”
Not all of the C3-Merrill commentary was negative.
Sara McDonnell, the mother of four whose oldest child is at Cory Elementary, sees C3 as an exciting addition to the Cory-Merrill school community.
“I believe C3 will bring an amazing element of collaboration to the Cory-Merrill campus, and a great opportunity for an educational experience, that can start in kindergarten and go all the way through middle school,” said McDonnell.
“I also believe strongly in Julia Shepherd, and that she will do a great job as principal at C3, as she has done at Cory.”
DPS staff recommendations for new schools, other changes by region
- New schools: Monarch Montessori – Deny application; Sims Fayola International Academy, an all-boys school – Approve application with conditions
- Charter renewals: Northeast Academy – Performance declining, change grade configuration to 1-5 and 7-8 and review school performance again in fall 2012
- School placements: West Denver Prep campus #5 at Evie Dennis Campus and West Denver Prep campus #6 at Samsonite building
- Rationale for regional recommendations – DPS presentation, pages 22-48
- New schools: None
- Charter renewals: Venture Prep – Inconsistent results, one-year conditional renewal with the opportunity for a one-year extension if the school meets academic benchmarks and contract terms
- School placements: None
- Other: Delay consideration of adding grades 6-8 at Manual High; McAuliffe Middle School, opening with grade 6 in fall 2012, will share boundary with Bill Roberts K-8 School in 2012-13 with future boundary decided after community conversations
- Rationale for regional recommendations – DPS presentation, pages 49-67
- New schools: Four Winds Indigenous Charter – Deny application
- Charter renewals: Cesar Chavez, Colorado High School, Justice High School – All three recommended for one-year renewal with opportunity for one-year extension if they meet performance benchmarks and contract terms; Life Skills – Failed to meet conditions of probation, recommend non-renewal of contract; Escuela Tlatelolco, a contract school – Review in December
- School placements: None
- Rationale for regional recommendations – DPS presentation, pages 68-108
- New schools: None; two new programs at West High already approved
- Charter renewals: None
- School placements: None
- Other: New programs at West High – West Generation Academy and West Leadership Academy – will grow to serve grades 6-12. To align boundaries and relieve overcrowding at Kepner Middle, recommendation is to extend West High School boundary to middle school level. Some schools feeding into Kepner would go to West while some feeding into Lake Middle and then to West would instead go to Lake and then North High
- Rationale for regional recommendations – DPS presentation, pages 109-113
- New schools: None
- Charter renewals: KIPP Sunshine Peak and West Denver Prep-Harvey Park – Renew contracts for five years; KIPP Collegiate High School – Inconsistent instruction and significant leadership turnover, two-year conditional renewal with opportunity for one-year extension if school meets performance benchmarks and contract terms
- School placements: West Denver Prep-Harvey Park will relocate from Kunsmiller to Lutheran campus in fall 2012; West Denver Prep’s new high school will open with grade 9 on Lutheran campus in fall 2012; Denver School of Science and Technology campus #4 will open with grade 6 at Colorado Heights University in fall 2012
- Other: All West Denver Prep campuses in southwest Denver, along with Kunsmiller and DSST, will have a geographic preference for students living south of Sixth Avenue and west of Santa Fe Boulevard; DPS has asked KIPP Elementary to defer its opening in southwest Denver until fall 2013, when it would open at the Lutheran campus or at Rishel, if the Math and Science Leadership Academy decides to leave Rishel
- Rationale for regional recommendations – DPS presentation, pages 114-138
- New schools: None
- Charter renewals: Highline Academy – Renew contract for five years
- School placements: Co-locate Creative Challenge Community or C3 at Merrill Middle School; Rocky Mountain Prep, approved in June, is locating at Highline facility; both C3 and Rocky Mountain Prep would have geographic preference areas to address overcrowding at area elementary schools
- Rationale for regional recommendations – DPS presentation, pages 139-155