School’s possible move out of Stapleton stirs hopes, worries

A proposal to move a popular middle school with an international focus out of Denver’s trendy Stapleton neighborhood and into a much more diverse and generally less affluent part of town is drawing questions from parents in both areas.

Denver Public Schools staff are proposing to locate McAuliffe International School, in its first year of operation at Swigert International School in Stapleton but already a sought-after option by families, into the soon-to be half vacant Smiley Middle School building in Park Hill beginning in fall 2014. The Denver school board is expected to vote on the plan May 16.

Photo from McAuliffe International School website

District officials portray the move as a win for both communities.

For Park Hill, it means a desperately needed high quality middle school option in an area where schools have struggled academically and which has among the highest rates of families choosing schools outside their neighborhood boundary.

For Stapleton, it means McAuliffe, a school in the process of becoming an International Baccalaureate program, will have the space it needs as it continues to grow and will be able to equitably serve all students in the northeast region.

But some Stapleton parents don’t want to lose a high-quality middle school right in their midst that their children can bike or walk to. And parents of current McAuliffe students from Stapleton worry about their middle-schoolers sharing a campus with a high school, since the middle school is being relocated to a building that also shares space with Venture Prep High School.

Learn more

Some Park Hill parents, meanwhile, worry Stapleton parents could get preferred status in the choice process over their kids at the newly placed McAuliffe.

“For folks that are opposed – some are concerned about sharing space with a high school,” McAuliffe Principal Kurt Dennis said Tuesday. “Some are concerned about a shift in school culture. But it all comes down to how we execute it. If we continue to provide kids with a great education, all those concerns disappear. If we don’t, a lot of people will say, ‘I told you so.’”

Stapleton parents worry about shared boundary

Compounding matters is a district proposal to create a shared middle school boundary for McAuliffe and up to five other middle schools covering a much larger geographical area than the schools had previously served. Smiley has historically had its own relatively compact neighborhood school boundary in Park Hill and McAuliffe’s boundary was confined to Stapleton.

kurt dennis
McAuliffe International School Principal Kurt Dennis

The demographics in the two school boundaries are very mixed. In Stapleton, 70 percent of the residents are white, 13 percent Latino and 10 percent black. Greater Park Hill is made up of very different populations. South Park Hill has similar racial demographics to Stapleton. But in northeast Park Hill, 14 percent are white, 51 percent black and 30 percent Latino.

District officials say if there are enough quality options, all students should get into their top choice middle school under the new boundary system.

“Ideally what you’re looking at is having a nice cross section of kids from all parts of northeast Denver,” Dennis said. “There will be five high quality choices in the area. I think it’s a really good balance in terms of race and socioeconomics and student achievement as well.”

The notion of larger boundaries shared by multiple schools is one the district is keen on employing as a way to guarantee high quality school seats for every child in the district. Shared boundaries are already in place in the Far Northeast as part of a sweeping effort to turn around low-performing schools. In Stapleton, a shared elementary boundary is in place.

However, if too many students opt for the same school, or schools, then top choices may not be guaranteed — and that has sparked fears from parents that their children may be shut out of McAuliffe.

Shannon Fitzgerald, head of choice and enrollment services in Denver Public Schools, said some Stapleton parents with younger children are worried since they’ve already had trouble getting their children into Swigert International – even when they live literally next door since three Stapleton elementary schools have a shared boundary.

“They’re very nervous about their kids being able to access McAuliffe,” Fitzgerald said. “People are feeling burned about the Swigert thing.”

Fitzgerald says she’s trying to help parents take a longer view.

“We can’t guarantee every single kid would get into McAuliffe,” she said. “Parents are having a hard time getting their heads around …another school. We anticipate there will be more than enough middle school seats. And they will all be high quality options.”

Furthermore, Fitzgerald said the new boundary and middle school plan should ensure – and expand – socioeconomic and racial diversity in all the area schools.

“We strongly believe schools have a lot more success if they have a heterogeneous makeup,” she said.

McAuliffe Principal Dennis agreed, but said the demographics of his school may not change that much under a new shared boundary. He said half his students already come from Park Hill. About 22 percent of the school’s students qualify for free and reduced price lunch, an indicator of poverty, and 40 percent are racially diverse.

The end of Smiley

Smiley Middle School

The move, which would occur in 2014-2015, is possible because the school board in December voted to phase Smiley out due to lagging test scores and declining enrollment. The Venture Prep school board also agreed – with some nudging from the district – to close its middle school, also located at Smiley.

These decisions ultimately leave Venture Prep High School at Smiley — along with lots of extra seats.

The siting of McAuliffe at Smiley seems increasingly likely due to support from the school, as well as high profile backing from school board president and McAuliffe parent Mary Seawell.

“I’m excited to send my daughter there,” said Seawell, who has been working on plans related to McAuliffe and a shared middle school boundary for more than a year. “McAuliffe is going to have to move no matter what… This is more accessible as a neighborhood school than where it would go otherwise.”

McAuliffe aims to reach build-out with 630 students.

“There has been a general consensus that it makes sense,” Dennis said. “It’s in the best interest of both the school and kids from both Park Hill and Stapleton that we do make the move.”

View McAuliffe and Smiley middle schools in a larger map

School safety

Hiring more security officers in Memphis after school shootings could have unintended consequences

PHOTO: Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Tennessee’s largest district, Shelby County Schools, is slated to add more school resource officers under the proposed budget for next school year.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson earmarked $2 million to hire 30 school resource officers in addition to the 98 already in some of its 150-plus schools. The school board is scheduled to vote on the budget Tuesday.

But an increase in law enforcement officers could have unintended consequences.

A new state law that bans local governments from refusing to cooperate with federal immigration officials could put school resource officers in an awkward position.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen recently reminded school personnel they are not obligated to release student information regarding immigration status. School resource officers employed by police or sheriff’s departments, however, do not answer to school districts. Shelby County Schools is still reviewing the law, but school board members have previously gone on the record emphasizing their commitment to protecting undocumented students.

“Right now we are just trying to get a better understanding of the law and the impact that it may have,” said Natalia Powers, a district spokeswoman.

Also, incidents of excessive force and racial bias toward black students have cropped up in recent years. Two white Memphis officers were fired in 2013 after hitting a black student and wrestling her to the ground because she was “yelling and cussing” on school grounds. And mothers of four elementary school students recently filed a lawsuit against a Murfreesboro officer who arrested them at school in 2016 for failing to break up a fight that occurred off-campus.

Just how common those incidents are in Memphis is unclear. In response to Chalkbeat’s query for the number and type of complaints in the last two school years, Shelby County Schools said it “does not have any documents responsive to this request.”

Currently, 38 school resource officers are sheriff’s deputies, and the rest are security officers hired by Shelby County Schools. The officers respond and work to prevent criminal activity in all high schools and middle schools, Hopson said. The 30 additional officers would augment staffing at some schools and for the first time, branch out to some elementary schools. Hopson said those decisions will be based on crime rates in surrounding neighborhoods and school incidents.

Hopson’s initial recommendation for more school resource officers was in response to the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 people and sparked a wave of student activism on school safety, including in Memphis.

Gov. Bill Haslam’s recent $30 million budget boost would allow school districts across Tennessee to hire more law enforcement officers or improve building security. Measures to arm some teachers with guns or outlaw certain types of guns have fallen flat.

For more on the role and history of school resource officers in Tennessee, read our five things to know.

Sheriff’s deputies and district security officers meet weekly, said Capt. Dallas Lavergne of the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office. When the Memphis Police Department pulled their officers out of school buildings following the merger of city and county school systems, the county Sheriff’s Office replaced them with deputies.

All deputy recruits go through school resource officer training, and those who are assigned to schools get additional annual training. In a 2013 review of police academies across the nation, Tennessee was cited as the only state that had specific training for officers deployed to schools.

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