Welcome home

At reconfigured Jefferson Junior-Senior High, students are told show up and have fun

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Jefferson Junior-Senior High School Principal Michael James.

EDGEWATER — Well before noon on a recent Tuesday, 33 soon-to-be eighth graders are dancing back-to-back while Katy Perry’s “Firework” blares from the speakers.

When the music stops, the students scramble to find a new partner. The student left standing without a new mate must dance alone on a chair in the center of the gym.

“You must dance like you have never danced before,” Michael James, the principal of the newly reconfigured Jefferson Junior-Senior High School, said to each student who shyly climbed on top of the chair.

Backward dancing was just one of a few activities James and his eighth graders participated in earlier this month as part of Jefferson’s new-student orientation.

Most of the seventh and eighth graders enrolling at Jefferson would have attended Wheat Ridge 5-8. But that school was closed due to chronic low performance on state tests. So instead of attending the Wheat Ridge school, the middle schoolers are joining their high school peers at Jefferson.

The school shuffle is part of a larger programmatic overhaul at a cluster of schools in Jefferson County that serve mostly low-income and Latino students. Most of those schools are in Edgewater, a tiny municipality that borders Denver’s west side, and have bounced on and off the state’s accountability watch list for several years.

Jeffco Public Schools officials hope the changes that include expanding a dual-language program, more cooperation between schools, and a project-based learning curriculum that stretches from kindergarten through high school, will be enough to consistently improve student learning.

The new-student orientation at Jefferson Junior-Senior High was a symbolic first step toward those ideas becoming a reality.

“I want them to connect fun activities to Jefferson,” said Principal James. “I know there is a lot of great learning to be had, but we’re going to have a fun time as well.”

During the three day orientation, the new students also got a tour of the school from student leaders, set personal and academic goals, and learned what teachers and counselors think it takes to be a successful Saint, the school’s mascot.

“There’s no slack time when school starts,” Angelique “Doc” Acevedo-Barron, one of the school’s deans, told the eighth graders. “You must be able to pass each of your classes. There’s no more social promotion.”

As part of the changes at Jefferson, student progress will be closely monitored by teams of teachers. Students who fall behind will be given extra tutoring and other opportunities to catch up. That includes an extra hour of learning each day for seventh and eighth graders, Acevedo-Barron said to some student moans.

“We’re going to make it happen,” Acevedo-Barron said. “We’re going to nip any slacking in the bud. We’re about school.”

Other opportunities those junior high students will have at Jefferson that they did not have at Wheat Ridge include more electives and greater math support, said James. Each math classroom will have a teacher and between three and five tutors to assist students. The students will also have greater access to support services and James said he hopes to have more regular conversations with families.

Some teachers from Wheat Ridge 5-8 are following their students to Jefferson. Tom McLoughlin is one of them. He helped James during orientation week.

“We’re really excited to be working for Michael James,” McLoughlin said. “There’s already a lot of buy-in from the current staff and students.”

McLoughlin said that he thinks combining the middle school and high school will encourage younger students, especially eighth graders, to stay focused.

“They won’t have that ‘king of the school’ mentality anymore,” McLoughlin said. “It will be be nice for them to see their older peers go on and graduate. As well as some who aren’t. They’ll be able to see that difference.”

Students at orientation were equally shy and excited.

Angelo Hulse, an incoming seventh grader, said he’s ready to learn.

“I just want to know how to get good grades so I can go onto college and play college football,” he said. “And we get to have lockers and there will be more fun stuff to do.”

Destanie Allen, meanwhile, said she was excited to meet new friends. But as a new ninth grader, she was well aware of the new social pecking order at the 7-12 school.

“We’re right in the middle,” she said.

Back in the gymnasium, James pulls his eighth graders in for a huddle and ice cream bars.

“Come with a positive idea of what this place is and about who you are,” he said. “We can have a lot fun. If you’re not afraid to have fun, you will. Don’t worry about what other people think of you.”

Finding a home

Denver school board permanently co-locates charter elementary in middle school building

Students and staffers at Rocky Mountain Prep's first charter school in Denver cheer in 2012. (Photo by The Denver Post)

A Denver elementary charter school that was temporarily granted space in a shuttering district-run middle school building will now be housed there permanently.

The school board voted Thursday to permanently place Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest charter school in the Kepner Middle School building, where it is sharing space this year with three other school programs. Such co-locations can be controversial but have become more common in a district with skyrocketing real estate prices and ambitious school quality goals.

Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest is part of a homegrown charter network that has shown promising academic results. The network also has a school in Aurora and is expected to open a third Denver school next year in the northwest part of the city.

Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest was first placed at Kepner for the 2015-16 school year. The placement was supposed to be temporary. The district had decided the year before to phase out low-performing Kepner and replace it a new district-run middle school, Kepner Beacon, and a new charter middle school, STRIVE Prep Kepner, which is part of a larger network. The district also temporarily placed a third charter school there: Compass Academy.

Compass has since moved out of Kepner but the other four schools remain: Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest, Kepner Beacon, STRIVE Prep Kepner and the Kepner Legacy Middle School, which is on track to be completely phased out and closed by June 2019.

In a written recommendation to the school board, district officials acknowledged that permanently placing Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest at Kepner would create a space crunch.

The Kepner campus has the capacity to serve between 1,100 and 1,500 students, the recommendation says. Once all three schools reach full size, officials expect the schools will enroll a total of approximately 1,250 students. Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest currently serves students in preschool through third grade with a plan to add more grades.

“DPS facilities staff are currently working with all three schools to create a long‐term vision for the campus, including facility improvements that ensure all three schools have what they need to continue to excel,” says the recommendation from Chief Operating Officer David Suppes and Director of Operations and Support Services Liz Mendez.

District staff tried to find an alternate location for Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest but were unsuccessful, the recommendation says. The district does not have many available buildings, and competition for them among district-run and charter schools can be fierce. In northeast Denver, seven secondary schools are currently vying for the use of a shuttered elementary.

Future of Schools

Indianapolis needs tech workers. IPS hopes that George Washington will help fill that gap.

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy

Indiana companies are looking for workers with computer expertise, and Indianapolis Public Schools leaders want their students to fill that gap.

Next year, George Washington High School will launch a specialized information technology academy designed to give students the skills to pursue careers in IT — and the exposure to know what jobs even exist.

“Half of what kids aspire to be is either someone they know does it or they’ve seen it on TV,” said Karen Jung, president of Nextech, a nonprofit that works to increase computer science preparation in K-12 schools. Nextech is partnering with IPS to develop the new IT program at George Washington.

For teens who don’t know anyone working in computer science, meeting role models is essential, Jung said. When teens see women of color or artists working in computer sciences, they realize there are opportunities for people like them.

“Once we put them in front of and inside of workplaces … it clicks,” Jung said. They believe “they would belong.”

The IT program is one of three academies that will open in George Washington next year as part of a broad plan to close nearly half of the district’s high schools and add specialized focus areas at the four remaining campuses. In addition to the IT academy, George Washington will have programs in: advanced manufacturing, engineering, and logistics; and business and finance.

The district is also moving to a model without neighborhood high schools. Students will be expected to choose high schools based on focus area rather than location. This year, many current high schoolers were required to reapply in an effort to make sure they enroll in academies that fit their interests.

The district will host a showcase of schools to help parents and students with their selections. The showcase runs from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday at the Indiana State Museum.

Stan Law, principal of Arlington High School now, will take over George Washington next year. (Arlington will close at the end of this year.) He said the new academies offer an opportunity for students to see what they need to master — from soft skills to knowledge — to get good jobs when they graduate.

“I want kids to really make the connection of the purpose of high school,” Law said. “It is that foundation for the rest of your life, in terms of the quality of life that you are going to live.”

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Stan Law

When the IT academy launches next year, students who select the program will be able to spend about one to two classes per year focused on information technology, said Ben Carter, who runs career and technical education for IPS.

Carter hopes the academies will reshape George Washington and other IPS campuses by connecting potential careers with the work students do everyday at school. Students who share a focus area will be in a cohort, and they will share many of the same core classes such as English, math and history, said Carter. Teachers, in turn, will be able to relate what students are studying in their history class to projects they are working on in the IT program, for example.

To show students what a career in information technology might look like, students will have the chance to tour, connect with mentors and intern at local companies.

“If I’m in one of these career classes — I’m in software development, but then I get to go to Salesforce and walk through and see the environment, to me as a student, that’s inspiring,” said Carter. “It’s like, ‘oh, this is what I can have.’ ”

He added. “It increases engagement but also gives them a true sense of what the career is.”