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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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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