sudden departure

Northfield High School principal out after investigation into student discipline

The principal of Denver’s Northfield High School resigned Tuesday rather than face being fired after a school district investigation found “multiple” instances of inappropriate responses involving the discipline of students at the school that opened this fall, Denver Public Schools officials announced Tuesday night.

Avi Tropper was hired with great fanfare to lead a bold new experiment at DPS’s first new comprehensive high school in 35 years. The goal: to build an integrated school and show that all students, regardless of past academic history, can succeed under the demanding International Baccalaureate program usually reserved for the highest achievers.

The district’s investigation found “multiple incidents” of problems with how students are disciplined, including inappropriate use of force, inappropriate escalation of relatively minor incidents, inappropriate supervision of security personnel, Tropper stating his intentions to use suspension as a tool to force at least one student out of the school and inappropriate behavior towards parents raising concerns, according to district staff and a letter to the Northfield community.

In an interview Tuesday with Chalkbeat, Tropper, who had been put on administrative leave during the investigation, said he did nothing wrong in the student discipline cases. He described the district’s investigation as “tremendously flawed,” featuring “falsehoods and lies.” He said the district failed to talk to faculty who could refute some of the claims.

Tropper said he resigned because he does not believe the district buys into the Northfield vision. He suggested district officials are bowing to pressure from a vocal group of Stapleton neighborhood parents who dislike the inclusive nature of the school and want their children in higher-level classes separate from others.

“We need a district that abides by its publicly stated values instead of folding under pressure,” Tropper said.

Susana Cordova, DPS’s chief of schools, said that was not true, and that the district stands by the investigation and its results.

“We remain 100 percent committed to the vision of Northfield High High School, which is a vision about an inclusive, high-performing school,” Cordova said. “This is not an easy decision to make. However, we believe that it was in the best interest of the school community to make this change based on the result of the investigation.”

DPS did not provide details of the discipline cases, but in a letter to families earlier this month noted that two families raised concerns about how their children were disciplined by a campus security officer. Both the officer and Tropper were put on leave during the investigation.

9News has previously reported that one of the incidents was triggered by a dress code violation, quoting the student’s mother as saying the school security guard “inappropriately handled” her daughter, holding her hands behind her back. She had been wearing a bandana.

Northfield opened in August with a freshman class and will add a grade every year.

Tropper refuted several of the findings of the district’s investigation. For instance, he said the claim that he was using suspension to force a student out is a “blatant lie.” He said the student was suspended for fighting, and his grandmother said she was planning to transfer him to another school. He said suspension is a last resort and the decision for a student to leave is up to the family, not the school.

Avi Tropper, the former Northfield High School principal (photo by Alan Gottlieb).
Avi Tropper, the former Northfield High School principal (photo by Alan Gottlieb).

Cordova said principals must enforce clear, consistent and fair procedures around behavior and discipline with the goal of keeping kids safe. In the letter to the school community, the district said it found multiple instances of cases not being dealt with promptly or fairly in accordance with districtwide discipline expectations and in a way that de-escalates conflict as effectively as possible.

Cordova said Tropper resigned in lieu of being fired.

Tropper wrote in his three-sentence resignation, which he let Chalkbeat review: “Please be aware that this resignation does not waive any legal right that I may have.”

Staff defections have accompanied the turmoil. A full-time teacher, two part-time teachers and an office staff member have left Northfield recently, district officials said. One teacher sent an email to school families just before resigning, saying she is “concerned that the administration is not addressing incidences of violence or threats of violence, which is causing bullying to escalate in the classroom.”

Tropper convened a staff meeting following the email, and a majority of staff did not believe that was an accurate depiction of the culture at Northfield, according to the earlier letter sent from district staff to families.

Tropper has plenty of support among remaining faculty who remain steadfastly loyal to him, and many parents.

Brent Stickrath, who left a job teaching in the IB program at George Washington High School in Denver to teach science at Northfield, said Tuesday he is disappointed Tropper is no longer leading the school.

Northfield stats
The school primarily draws from the following neighborhoods:
  • Green Valley Ranch
  • Montbello
  • East Park Hill
  • Stapleton

Student demographics

  • 29.4% Black
  • 30.7% Hispanic
  • 30% White
  • 8% multiple races
  • 2.8% Asian
  • .5% American Indian/Alaskan Native

Percent of students eligible for free and reduced-price meals

  • About 54%

“Northfield High is a safe place for our students to grow academically,” Stickrath said. “It just is. I think there is a mischaracterization that the school had a lot of discipline problems and so forth.  Really, the focus has been on academics. The focus will continue to be on academic growth and the development of strong citizens. I just think Avi was central to the vision of this school. I am just saddened he is not able to be a part of it anymore.”

Debra Jackson, who has a son at Northfield, also was disappointed to learn of Tropper’s departure.

“I just feel Avi really believes in the school, believes in the kids, and didn’t get a chance to follow through,” she said. “There are troubled students there, and not all will make it. But they should be given the opportunity to succeed.”

Other parents interviewed by Chalkbeat after school on Tuesday said the school has had a rough start, with too many students disrupting class and neither teachers nor administrators doing enough in response.

“It’s been chaotic,” said parent Carl Sakamaki, who described his daughter as a strong student who came up through Stapleton schools. “I don’t think they were ready. I think they’re trying, but a lot is falling short.”

Students interviewed Tuesday before the announcement of Tropper’s resignation painted a mixed picture of the school. A group of about half-dozen African-American freshmen said they felt stereotyped by staff, with one saying anyone male is perceived to be a gang member. But they also said the work at Northfield is challenging, teachers are mostly supportive and they’re learning.

“It’s been rough,” said freshman Earl Watkins. “It doesn’t feel like a real high school. They don’t treat us like we’re almost adults. Not all of us disrespect the adults.”

DPS said a former DPS principal, Ed Salem, will continue as acting principal and a new interim principal is expected to be named shortly for the remainder of the school year.

The school security officer’s status is not yet resolved, district officials said. He too was placed on administrative leave.

Chalkbeat deputy bureau chief Nic Garcia contributed information to this report.

Here is the text of DPS’s letter to Northfield families:

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

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.”