new school new path

Northfield’s “IB for All” a dramatically new model for Denver high schools

Northfield High School rises from the ground

On the surface, the new Northfield High School slated to open in Denver’s Stapleton neighborhood next year might seem as traditional as can be — a large, comprehensive high school drawing students from the surrounding neighborhood.

But the school’s new principal, Avi Tropper, also has an audacious and unusual ambition for the school: to prove that all students — no matter their prior academic history — can thrive under the demanding International Baccalaureate course of study that’s typically targeted only to high-achievers.

Many other high schools have “de-tracked,” meaning they’ve placed all students in higher-level courses instead of tracking them into classes of varying difficulty based on their past academic performance. A few have implemented “IB for all,” in which every student spends ninth and tenth grades in rigorous preparatory classes and then transitions into the IB Diploma Program as a junior.

But Northfield may be the first school in the country to try “IB for all” with so high a proportion of low-income students.

Tropper, 34, plans to recruit at least a third of his student body from the lower-income neighborhoods of Far Northeast Denver, and an estimated 40 to 50 percent of the school’s students will likely be from low-income families, as measured by eligibility for federally subsidized school lunches.

“What Avi is trying to do will be challenging, and to be blunt it should be,” said Kevin Welner, a professor of education policy at the University of Colorado in Boulder, who has studied de-tracking efforts nationwide. “It should be hard.”

But, said Welner, there may be a moral imperative to try.

“The reason we have so much tracking is that people say, ‘de-tracking looks too hard. I am not going de-track,’” Welner said. “But when you put kids in low track classes you give up on them.”

LEARN MORE:
Northfield High School Principal Avi Tropper will be holding a series of informational meetings for parents over the next several weeks, including one Thursday Oct. 16 in Stapleton. Here are the dates, times and locations.Visit Northfield High’s Facebook page

Denver has already seen its share of resistance to the idea of making selective academic programs more inclusive. Last year, the district signaled its intention to open its well-known, 30-year-old IB program at George Washington High School, to students in its general-track program who have historically been barred from taking the more demanding courses. The move drew fierce protests from some parents, who fear that opening the program to a broader pool of students will dilute its rigor. Changes take effect next school year.

But Tropper is confident that his model will work, and he bristles at the suggestion that a student body with more low-income kids will be tougher to get over a high bar.

“I don’t believe that free- and reduced-lunch status determines whether a student can learn,” Tropper said during a recent interview. “At some level I just don’t accept the question. Underlying the question is a question I have thought a lot about, which is when you implement a program that is rigorous and challenging school-wide, how do you support every single student through it?”

Avi Tropper
PHOTO: Alan Gottlieb
Avi Tropper

The answer, Tropper said, is relatively straightforward. Design a system where teams of teachers work closely with the same small group of students over four years. Use proven, engaging curriculum at ninth and tenth grades that ties seamlessly into the 11th and 12th IB Diploma Program. Provide a variety of extra supports for struggling students. And, perhaps most important, focus as much on the psychological well-being of students as on academics.

“Developing the ‘whole person’ is “an important part of high school, of working with adolescents,” Tropper said. “It is a time of exploration, a time of self-definition, a time to figure out who am I, what do I want to do with my life, what do I value, what’s important? Sometimes schools don’t do a good job of working with students as they explore these questions. We are focused on that.”

Will all that be enough to make Northfield work for all students?

Perhaps, but if the school truly intends to work with students at widely varying levels of academic preparation, then Tropper is taking on a huge challenge, said Frederick M. Hess, resident scholar and director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington D.C.-based think-tank.

“If your reality is some kids doing math at a fifth- or sixth-grade level, and you are trying to run an IB program, it will take an enormous amount of energy to get those kids up to grade level, much less to an IB level,” Hess said. “That time and energy will come at expense of other kids, most likely the more prepared kids.”

Northfield will launch with some advantages, Hess said. First, the fact that the school will open with only ninth-graders makes it possible to establish a strong school culture with the founding class. Also, hiring Tropper a year before the school opens gives the principal a chance to plan, build a program, and recruit an aligned and fired-up teaching staff.

Given those advantages, Hess said, It seems likely Northfield will get off to a strong start.

Then, “as you add grades, add teachers, add kids, it just gets harder to keep the web as tightly wound,” he said. “It’s easy to imagine a story of one to two years of great success but then to see things starting to get more challenging.”

Despite Hess’ cautions, Tropper and his plans have fans among educators who have implemented “IB for all” in their schools.

“Avi’s is a wonderful experiment,”  said Carol Burris, who has gradually rolled out an “IB for all” program at South Side High School in Rockville Centre, N.Y. over the past several years.

Although her school has a much lower proportion of low-income students than Northfield — about 14 percent — Burris said the way Denver Public Schools and Tropper are thinking about the school’s student composition gives it a real shot at succeeding.

“His school has a nice natural alignment of an attendance area that is predominantly upper-middle income, with lower-income kids choicing in because they have bought into the challenge and want the challenge,” Burris said. “I am so excited for him. He can count on me and the few other pioneers of ‘IB for all’ to give him support.”

Eric Hieser, who has run the Sturgis Charter Public School in Hyannis, Mass. for 10 years, said one key to Northfield’s success will be in carefully defining what the principal, staff, and district consider success to be.

Hieser said his school (where fewer than 10 percent of students qualify for subsidized lunches) does not measure itself based on how many students pass IB exams or earn the prestigious IB diploma. Rather, he said, staff focuses on helping each student achieve at his or her highest potential. Passing IB exams and getting college credit is not nearly as important as challenging oneself and putting forth maximum effort, he said.

“You take IB (classes) so you can move on and be successful, develop analytical skills that prompt you to question everything,” he said. “If you hustle, you will be better served for having been in IB, whether you pass exams or not, than going through a 11th or 12th grade history class that has no accountability to it.”

Tropper plans to help develop these critical and analytical thinking skills in part by giving students a major say in how their school operates. Students will play key roles in designing many aspects of the school’s culture, including its dress code and discipline policies. He has enlisted the services of Project VOYCE, a Denver nonprofit, to train students in advocating for their own empowerment.

Empowering students comes with risks, but Tropper said the payoffs are potentially huge.

“Sometimes I get questions about this: ‘well, students might make mistakes.’ I like to point out that adult government makes plenty of mistakes as well,” he said. “What  happens in high school is there is a space and environment of support where yes, we might make some mistakes, but we can support each other and move beyond that. That  is critical to success for a high school.”

 

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 cbauman@chalkbeat.org.

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