Updated: North High plan stirs controversy

Updated: Members of the Denver Board of Education got an earful on Thursday from irate North High School supporters, who say they love and admire West Denver Prep, they just don’t want to coexist with it. Supporters of the plan turned out in force as well.

The board heard more than three hours worth of speakers during an afternoon public comment session, and most of them were there to talk about possible plans to open a West Denver Prep High School somewhere in northwest Denver. Several of the options the district is considering involve co-locating the proposed new charter high school on the North High School campus. West Denver Prep Highlands Middle School already shares campus space with North, albeit in a detached building.

North supporters expressed concern that putting a separate charter school within their building would limit North’s potential for future growth, and said they are loath to do anything that might derail recent, modest  academic improvements at the school. They brought with them a petition signed by 600 people requesting the board not co-locate West Denver Prep High School at North.

Jenny Davies-Schley spoke of her desire to send her child to a traditional comprehensive public high school with a broad array of sports, academic and cultural activities. She said she fears that if North must share its facilities with a charter school, students living in the neighborhood who want to attend North may one day find there’s no room for them.

She also said she fears putting two schools in the same building would harm the North’s culture.

“What I heard loud and clear at the community meeting is there are a lot of West Denver Prep families committed to their school,” she said. “But I also heard they hold North in very low regard. That’s a problem. Putting a culture together in schools where there is no respect, we’ll have problems. We’ll have to revisit that next year and the year after.”

Supporters of West Denver Prep, on the other hand, brought with them 328 letters of intent from parents who say they would send their children to the charter high school if it were located in the neighborhood.

“Since it opened, hundreds and hundreds of students who go there have discovered they are academically capable,” said Marie Sierra, parent of a West Denver Prep middle school student. “I want an opportunity for my son to continue his education in his neighborhood.”

“They don’t need to get on buses and drive long distances,” said Joshua Smith, principal at West Denver Prep’s Harvey Park campus. Smith rejected options that would place the charter school at Remington or Del Pueblo, recently closed school buildings that are empty but are farther away from the northwest Denver neighborhoods where most WDP students live. “Placing the high school at Remington or Del Pueblo would be unjust.”

Original story starts here: West Denver Prep’s request to open a high school in Northwest Denver drew hundreds of neighborhood residents to a community meeting Wednesday night, packing the auditorium at Smedley Elementary to overflowing.

Northwest Denver residents jammed into the former Smedley Elementary auditorium Wednesday to hear and debate possible options for opening a West Denver Prep High School in the neighborhood.

On one side of the room were fans of the charter school, which currently has four middle school campuses, including two in Northwest Denver, all of which consistently rank among the most distinguished academically in the DPS system. They want to see that sort of option available to high school students as well.

On the other side were fans of North High School, the community’s beleaguered public high school that has endured years of failed reform efforts, but that supporters believe may at last be on the road to redemption. They want to see North’s new principal, the highly-regarded Nicole Veltze, given the time and resources needed to turn the school around the way they say she did Skinner Middle School.

Many said they fear charter schools – particularly those sharing a campus with a non-charter – absorb space and resources that the non-charters need to thrive.

And at the front of the room: DPS officials trying to manage a roomful of parents, students, staff and community members whose emotions were running high, and see to it that all felt that their concerns were being heard, and that all understood the options confronting the school board as it weighs the pros and cons of where to put a new school.

Some of the options involve putting West Denver Prep High School onto the same campus as North.

Lack of trust an obstacle

It was apparent that those three groups – Denver West Prep supporters, North High School supporters, and DPS officials – were unsure about one another’s motives.

Learn more
  • See the Strategic Regional Analysis, a report presented to the Denver school board that looks at demographic trends and analyzes school needs in each geographic area of the district.

“I hope we can have some trust as we go through the agenda,” Yana Smith, director of regional community engagement for DPS, told the packed house at the start of the meeting. “You can push back respectfully. That’s welcomed. It’s not our intention to stand here and talk AT you for the next two hours.” No yelling, no name-calling, respectful listening – those were the evening’s ground rules.

Some parents explained why they sent their children to West Denver Prep and would never send them to North. Others explained why they sent their children to North and why they felt every parent ought to consider doing so. North alumni extolled the education they got. Current North students extolled the education they are getting. Most agreed they hoped this dispute wouldn’t turn neighbor against neighbor, but feared it might.

Two-and-a-half hours later, after facilitators had roamed the room with microphones allowing many – but not all – of those who wanted the speak the chance to do so, Smith drew the meeting to a close. “I can’t say it didn’t go the way I had hoped,” she said. “Anytime there’s such a division between perspectives, emotions, options, priorities, having purposeful dialogue is challenging.”

School board to weigh options over the next month

Those who are interested will get another bite at the apple today when the Denver school board hosts a public comment session, starting at 3:30, as part of its regularly scheduled meeting. And another community meeting is planned for May 30 at Smedley.

On June 4, the school board will hear presentations from all those applying to open new schools in the fall of 2013– West Denver Prep is one of five new schools seeking to open in or near northwest Denver – and on June 7, district staff will present its recommendations to the board. There will be time for more public comment on June 14 and possibly on June 18. The board will vote on the applications on June 21.

Here’s the background, and the facts the school board will consider when deciding what to do.

Pros and cons to every scenario

Over the next four to five years, the district expects to see about 400 to 500 more students enrolling in North and its feeder schools. The existing elementary schools in the area are full. But there’s some space available at the middle and high school level.

Another consideration is the number of students who live in the area, but choose to go to school elsewhere. School officials calls this the “capture rate,” and North’s is quite low. There are 1,366 high-school-age students living in the North boundary area who attend school somewhere in DPS, but only 824 of them attend North or one of the small alternative high schools nearby.

That means that roughly 500 high school students who could be attending North have chosen to attend another DPS school, and officials estimate an additional 400-500 high school age students live in the area but don’t attend any DPS school. That’s a total of 900 to 1,000 students who live within North’s boundaries, but who choose not to enroll there.

Antonio Esquibel, executive director of West Denver Schools, reassures participants at a community meeting that DPS fully supports North High School and principal Nicole Veltze.

Enter West Denver Prep SMART High School, which projects it would eventually enroll 500 students. Another proposal, for Four Winds Indigenous, an expeditionary learning school with an indigenous-based curriculum, projects it could serve 200 high school students in the northwest area.

DPS officials estimate that the North campus – including the 1913-era building that West Denver Prep Highlands Middle School currently occupies – could accommodate a maximum of 2,070 students. North’s projected enrollment for fall is 1,254, and WDP’s Highland campus middle school projected enrollment is 314. That leaves space for 816 more students.

Thus, one proposal before the school board is to co-locate North, WDP Highlands Middle School and WDP high school all on the North campus. That’s an attractive option financially because it wouldn’t require much in the way of new construction, North’s central location is highly desirable, and the campus is already well-equipped to meet the needs of high school students. On the downside, that doesn’t leave much room for North to grow. The school presently has 940 students. Under this proposal, it would be able to accommodate up to 1,110, but more than that would be tight.

West Denver Prep middle school might relocate

Option 2 involves moving WDP middle school to Remington, an elementary school at 4735 Pecos that was closed in 2008, and letting WDP high school take over the 1913 building at North, plus just three or four classrooms in the main building, and having the two high schools share the gyms, cafeteria and library. That option provides space for North to grow, but it’s more expensive, and Remington is so far away from other schools that students would most likely have to be bused there.

Option 3 involves putting the WDP high school at Remington. That has the advantage of giving the high school its own independent facility, and the Remington building is in good condition. But Remington was built to serve as an elementary school, so remodeling it to serve high school students would be costly.

Option 4 would bring Smedley, which closed as an elementary school several years ago, back into play. Smedley, 4250 Shoshone St., which has a capacity for 447 students, could house WDP high school, or it could house WDP middle school. Either option would be  costly, however. Among several limiting factors: The school doesn’t have the space to create the parking required for a high school and  it has no playing fields.

Or WDP high school or WDP middle school could open at Del Pueblo, another school that closed in recent years. But Del Pueblo’s location – at 7th Avenue and Galapago Street – puts it out of northwest Denver, and with a capacity of just 311 students, additional construction would be required.

Also on the table is a proposal to move either the WDP high school or middle school into Skinner Middle School. Skinner has been held up by some advocates as a model of a neighborhood school turnaround. Data from the Colorado Department of Education show that in 2011, an average of 42 percent of Skinner’s students were proficient or advanced in reading, writing and math CSAP tests. That’s up from 32 percent in 2008. And the school’s median growth percentile 58.7 percent in 2011, up from 54.3 in 2008.

Skinner is a large building, and it would be especially well-suited for the middle school students, but adding a second middle school on the campus could constrain Skinner’s ability to grow.

So none of the options are without drawbacks. And community members on Wednesday had some suggestions of their own. Among them: Converting the now-empty St. Anthony’s Hospital into a high school. Or making whatever arrangements are selected only temporary, and building a new school. Or aligning North’s curriculum more closely with West Denver Prep’s, so the two schools could, in effect, become one.

Residents plead for more time

Or doing nothing, at least not yet. “We have the right to ask for more time,” one parent said. “June 21 is not time enough for anyone to present an answer that will succeed. And we’ll have to revisit this again and again if we don’t take the time now to make this work.”

Already, a new neighborhood organization calling itself Choose North Now has formed to lobby against any proposal to co-locate an additional school at North.

“For too long the district has subjected North to almost-yearly reforms, leaving the curriculum and staff in disarray,” said David Diaz, a former North teacher and coach, and neighborhood parent. “Now that proven leader Nicole Veltze is in place as principal, we need to give her the space and empowerment to build the high-quality school that our diverse neighborhood deserves.”

Choose North Now has launched a petition drive to encourage the school board not to mess with what supporters hope will be strong growth for the venerable high school.

“We could be aligning the curriculum at North and West Denver Prep. We could do that, and it’s free. And we could have the school we all want, and it’s North,” said Mike Kiley, a parent of two school-aged children and a leader of the group.

Top 10

From forest preschools to a secret apology, here are Chalkbeat Colorado’s must-read stories of 2018

PHOTO: Ann Schimke/Chalkbeat
Megan Patterson works with children to make a dam in a creek during a recent "forest school" class.

We spend a lot of time at Chalkbeat chasing the news to keep our readers informed about controversial policy changes, fast-moving debates, and late-breaking decisions.

But we also relish the opportunity to dig deep into issues affecting students and families, shine light on innovative ideas, and hear from dedicated educators making a difference. With that in mind, we’ve gathered 10 of our best stories from 2018.

These stories don’t necessarily chronicle the biggest education issues of 2018, from teacher walkouts to unprecedented state interventions. But they are stories we think are important and insightful, and that we enjoyed reporting and writing. We hope you enjoy reading them.

No walls: Forest preschools let kids run free, but can they change to reach diverse families?

One day this past summer, about a dozen children frolicked by a Jefferson County creek — making pretend tea in small metal buckets, and building dams with sticks and mud.

They were students at Worldmind Nature Immersion School, where children spend all their time outside. So-called forest preschools like Worldmind are beloved by many families but face significant regulatory and logistical barriers in expanding their footprint nationwide. Here in Colorado, a pilot program could lead a new kind of child care license designed for them.

And being licensed could help the schools confront another problem: a lack of diversity among their students. Read more.

Colorado was never ranked 46th for teacher pay. Does this change the debate?

It was an oft-cited statistic: that Colorado, despite its booming economy, ranked 46th in the nation for teacher pay. The eye-popping number found its way onto social media posts and signs at massive teacher rallies last spring. News outlets latched on to it, too.

But it was wrong. Colorado was actually ranked 30th in the nation.

Our story breaks down how the mistake happened (hint: a new data system, an unrevised report) — and how groups with different agendas seized on the snafu to score points. Read more.

This is the letter of apology that Adams 14 leaders never sent

The Adams 14 district in Commerce City is arguably the most troubled and low-performing in Colorado. Just last month, state officials directed Adams 14 to hire an external manager to oversee the district’s operations for at least the next four years.

Back in September, Adams 14 officials considered taking a rare step: saying sorry to the community. But an apology letter was never signed nor sent out.

Chalkbeat obtained a copy of the letter, which makes mention of “various and conflicting priorities, coupled with constant turnover and organizational disarray.” Read more.

Rising test scores and dwindling trust: Denver’s Tom Boasberg leaves a complicated legacy

Colorado’s largest school district experienced a big change this year when longtime leader Tom Boasberg announced he would step down after nearly 10 years in Denver Public Schools.

Because of his school improvement strategies — some of which were controversial and heightened tensions with the community — the district that the new superintendent, Susana Cordova, will inherit in January is vastly different than it was a decade ago.

One tangible difference: Schools that once served as anchors of the community but struggled academically have been closed or replaced. That disappearance was on display on one of Boasberg’s last days, when he held his cell phone close to his mouth and enunciated each word so his GPS would understand his direction: “Montbello High School.” Read more.

Parents in one Aurora high school are visiting classrooms and giving teachers feedback

Like many schools in Colorado, Aurora’s Rangeview High School has a test score gap between white and black students. But the assistant principal there came up with a unique way to try to address it: by inviting black parents to visit classrooms and observe how students are — or are not — engaging with the teacher’s lesson, and then provide suggestions for improvement.

“We give true and honest feedback,” said one parent involved, “if they looked or appeared comfortable, how they interacted with the environment, the temperature of the room.”

Although the assistant principal considers the African American Parent Committee an experiment, she said it’s generating uncomfortable but necessary conversations. Read more.

How education reform became a wedge issue among Colorado Democrats this election year

For years, more moderate Democrats, often working in unison with like-minded Republicans, championed education reform efforts ranging from school choice to holding educators accountable for student performance.

But partly because of backlash against President Donald Trump and his education secretary, those strategies no longer fly with many Democrats — especially left-leaning Democrats who see them as undercutting public education and devaluing the work of teachers.

That sentiment was palpable in Colorado’s Democratic gubernatorial primary, and could shape the next legislative session, which starts in January. “Education is the issue that really stands to divide the left in a very substantial way,” one observer said. Read more.

How a Colorado school district turned things around at 10,000 feet above sea level

School improvement efforts look a little different high in the Rocky Mountains. While many of the strategies used by the 1,000-student Lake County school district are familiar to urban settings, they’ve been retrofitted to meet the needs of a district that’s 100 miles west of Denver.

For example, instead of firing teachers and principals who weren’t accelerating student learning fast enough, the district adopted a new curriculum and gave its teachers lots of training.

“The belief that the people are the problem is wrong,” the superintendent said. “Our teachers are professionals, and we believe in them. We’re proving that there is a framework or a pathway for rural schools to improve that’s about building capacity within your own community.” Read more.

7 things to know about how Colorado schools punish their youngest students

After state lawmakers rejected a bill to limit the use of suspensions in the earliest grades, Chalkbeat wanted to know more about the early childhood discipline landscape in Colorado. Data from the Colorado Department of Education revealed several trends.

Among them: Young black boys are suspended at disproportionate rates. Some rural school districts have the highest early childhood suspension rates in the state.

And despite nationwide debate about the impact of harsh discipline on young children and local efforts to bring the numbers down, suspensions in the early grades are actually going up. Read more.

In Denver’s gentrifying neighborhoods, some middle-class parents are avoiding the school down the block

Many neighborhoods in Denver are gentrifying, with middle-class families moving into what have historically been working-class communities. That type of demographic shift could easily lead to neighborhood schools that are more integrated by family income and race.

But that doesn’t always happen in Denver. Instead, data show that wealthier families – more often than low-income families – are using Denver Public Schools’ universal school choice process to send their kids to schools elsewhere in the city.

That’s a problem because research shows integrated schools boost test scores for students from low-income families without lowering the scores of those from wealthier ones. Denver officials want to see those benefits, but allowing parents to choose may be thwarting them. Read more.

Why this Colorado principal hand delivers birthday cards to more than 2,000 students and staff

Northglenn High School Principal Sharee Blunt is Colorado’s 2018 School Principal of the year — but perhaps even more impressive is the enormous number of birthday cards she hand delivers each year. If you’re one of those people who can barely remember your spouse’s birthday, you’ll be floored by Blunt’s annual feat.

In our interview with Blunt, part of Chalkbeat’s “How I Lead” Q&A series with distinguished school leaders, she talks about what she realized after a mother’s emotional reaction, and why she gave a teacher a pass during a lesson that went awry. Read more.

union power

Charter teachers won big in nation’s first strike. What now?

PHOTO: Yana Kunichoff / Chalkbeat
Teachers from Acero charter schools in Chicago protest stalled negotiations Oct. 24, 2018, as they readied to vote on authorizing a strike.

Some 500 unionized teachers joined in the nation’s first charter strike last week, and succeeded in negotiating wage increases, smaller class sizes and a shorter school day. Their gains could foreshadow next year’s citywide contract negotiations — between the Chicago Teachers Union, with its contract expiring in June, and Chicago Public Schools.

“The issue of class size is going to be huge,” said Chris Geovanis, the union’s director of communications. “It is a critically important issue in every school.”

Unlike their counterparts in charters, though, teachers who work at district-run schools can’t technically go on strike to push through a cap on the number of students per class. That’s because the Illinois Education Labor Relations Act defines what issues non-charter public school teachers can bargain over, and what issues can lead to a strike.

An impasse on issues of compensation or those related to working conditions, such as length of the school day or teacher evaluations, could precipitate a strike. But disagreements over class sizes or school closures, among other issues, cannot be the basis for a strike.

The number of students per class has long been a point of contention among both district and charter school teachers.

Educators at Acero had hopes of pushing the network to limit class sizes to 24-28 students, depending on the grade. However, as Acero teachers capped their fourth day on the picket line, they reached an agreement with the charter operator on a cap of 30 students — down from the current cap of 32 students.

Andy Crooks, a special education apprentice, also known as a teacher’s aide, at Acero’s Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz school and a member of the teachers bargaining team, said that even having two fewer students in a classroom would make a huge difference.

“You really do get a lot more time with your students,” Crooks said. “And if you are thinking about kindergarten in particular, two less 5-year-olds really can help set the tone of the classroom.”

In district-run schools, classes are capped at 28 students in kindergarten through third grade, and at 31 students in fourth through sixth grade. But a survey by the advocacy group Parents 4 Teachers, which supports educators taking on inequality, found that during the 2017-2018 school year, 21 percent of K-8 classrooms had more students than district guidelines allowed. In 18 elementary school classrooms, there were 40 or more students.

The issue came up at last week’s Board of Education meeting, at which Ivette Hernandez, a parent of a first-grader at Virgil Grissom Elementary School in the city’s Hegewisch neighborhood, said her son’s classes have had more than 30 students in them. When the children are so young and active — and when they come into classrooms at so many different skill levels — “the teachers can’t handle 30 kids in one class,” she told the board.

Alderman Sue Garza, a former counselor, accompanied Hernandez. She also spoke before the board about classroom overcrowding — worrying aloud that, in some grades at one school in particular, the number of students exceeded the building’s fire codes. (Board chair Frank Clark said a district team would visit the school to ensure compliance fire safety policies.)

While the Chicago Teachers Union aren’t technically allowed to strike over class sizes, the union does have a history of pushing the envelope when it comes to bargaining.

Back in 2012, when the Chicago Teachers Union last went on strike, they ended up being able to secure the first limit on class sizes in 20 years because the district permitted the union to bargain over class size.

They also led a bargaining campaign that included discussion over racial disparities in Chicago education and school closures, arguing that these trends impacted the working conditions of teachers.

“Even if you can’t force an employer to bargain over an issue, you can push them to bargain over the impact of an issue,” Bob Bruno, a labor professor at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, explained.

The Chicago Teachers Union also emerged from its 2012 negotiations with guarantees of additional “wraparound services,” such as access to onsite social workers and school counselors.