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Northeast Denver elementary school to lose ‘relentless’ leader

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
A Columbine Elementary School student runs past a protest sign made my parents. Denver Public Schools told Columbine principal Beth Yates she wouldn't be returning as the school's leader next year. Parents and teachers want to know why. A district official was supposed to meet with teachers Thursday, but canceled and asked to reschedule.

Northeast Denver parents and teachers are demanding answers from Denver Public Schools after officials decided to replace the principal of their elementary school next year.

Second-year principal Beth Yates notified Columbine Elementary School staff last week that DPS has decided to move her to another position within the district. A letter to parents, signed by Yates, followed.

“I want to sincerely thank the Columbine Elementary community for welcoming me and for giving me the opportunity to be a part of the lives of the amazing students at this school,” Yates wrote. “I appreciate the opportunity to have served your children, school, and community.”

The abrupt announcement has brought plenty of tears, anger and confusion to the struggling school that has had four principals in six years.

Columbine’s instructional superintendent Erin McMahon was scheduled to meet with teachers and parents Thursday afternoon. However, that meeting was canceled. McMahon offered to reschedule and meet with with individual teachers who had questions during the school’s lunch hours Friday, said several teachers and parent advocates.

But teachers, who were asked to prepare questions in advance for McMahon, balked at the idea. They said they deserved a full staff meeting with McMahon. The staff has requested McMahon visit the school Friday or Monday after school.

Parents and community leaders have long called for a more engaged process with school decisions. Critics of DPS say the district often imposes decisions on school communities against their will.

Neither Yates nor district officials were immediately available for comment. But a district spokeswoman said late Thursday the district is working to schedule a meeting with Columbine staff early next week.

Instead, Columbine staff met with Yates privately Thursday, some leaving the meeting with tears.

“They didn’t learn anything new,” said Meghan Carrier, a parent engagement organizer for Together Colorado, a nonprofit parent advocacy organization. Together Colorado has worked on education issues in northeast Denver, including at Columbine, for more than 10 years. Some parents who spoke to Chalkbeat Colorado were a part of the organization’s parent leadership program.

Columbine’s students are predominantly poor and minority students. Less than 20 percent are English language learners. The elementary school is among the district’s lowest performing. Since 2010, the school has slid annually in the district’s annual ratings of schools.

Teachers and parents pointed to a lack of consistent leadership.

“Every year we come back there’s a new principal,” parent Yolanda Mata said in Spanish. “There are new rules, different expectations for our students. There has been a lack of culture and consistency.”

Yates inherited a troubled school, teachers and parents said. But she persevered, said Jenna Cataleta, the school’s behavior interventionist.

Parents described a school previously out of control. Two first grade teachers left during the middle of the 2012-13 school year. A string of substitutes were assigned to the classes to fulfill the year. Fourth and fifth graders, parents said, showed no respect for teachers. A revered math teacher also walked out.

But that all changed this year, they said. A smaller student body, a crop of new teachers and a principal with a year under her belt meant a more structured environment tailored to learning, they said.

“She is really good with the community,” said Maria Alcocer, a kindergarten teacher. “She knows everybody’s names.”

Alcocer and other teachers vividly described Yates as a passionate leader who, in the year and a half since taking over Columbine, has made significant progress improving the school’s culture and student tests scores.

“She’s the first one in, the last one out,” Cataleta said.

Yates greets almost every student individually in the morning and waves goodbye to them every afternoon outside of the school, teachers said. The principal also worked toward speaking better Spanish to communicate with parents.

“She’s relentless,” Cataleta said. “I’ve seen so much positive growth in the students I work with. [Yates] was able to have a lot more control this year.”

Parent Stela Gomez, who has sent all four of her children to Columbine, said she was skeptical of Yates at first.

Gomez said her child was one of the first graders who lost his teacher. He entered second grade this year behind in math skills, but he’s already making progress to be caught up.

“I heard things about her,” she said. “But she turned out pretty good. I’m so upset with DPS right now. They don’t have it together here.”

The district’s decision to replace Yates even has some central administration employees scratching their heads.

Two district employees familiar with Columbine, speaking on the condition of anonymity to preserve their relationships with their employer, said internal testing showed positive growth in almost every grade and content area.

They said it makes sense to replace a school leader who isn’t getting the job done, but that isn’t the case with Yates.

“We’ve all risen,” Cataleta, the behavior interventionists said. “She’s not just our principal, she’s our role model.”

While parents and teachers are coming to terms with the fact Yates won’t be returning, they’re asking the district to make them part of the process to move Columbine forward.

“Parents want to have a voice in the decisions that impact their schools, their communities,” activist Carrier said. “Parents aren’t asking to choose the principal, but be a part of the process.”

Whether the change is for the better, parents feel slighted they weren’t consulted.

“We may not be able to make the decision [of who leads our school] on our own, but our children are a part of this school,” said parent Consuelo Del Valle. “We should be notified and be a part of the process every step of the way.”

Another parent, Yolanda Mata said DPS only asks parents for help when it’s convenient to them.

“DPS wants our help with reading to our children,” she said. “But the big decisions they make on their own.”

CorrectionThis article has been updated to reflect the correct title of Meghan Carrier, parent engagement organizer for Together Colorado.

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

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.”