changing of the guard

Denver middle school principal tapped to lead Northfield High

PHOTO: Ann Schimke
Northfield High School opened in fall 2015 with about 200 freshmen.

Denver’s Northfield High School, which has gone through several changes since its tumultuous start and the abrupt departure of its founding leader, has named a new principal for next year.

Amy Bringedahl is currently the principal of Merrill Middle School in southeast Denver. Before that, she was an assistant principal at several Denver schools, including South High. She’s been an educator for 23 years in both Michigan and Colorado.

Bringedahl said she wants Northfield to be the top high school in Denver Public Schools while staying true to its vision of an inclusive and tough academic program.

Northfield, which is located in northeast Denver and started this past fall with ninth graders and a plan to add a grade every year for the next three years, was designed to erase academic divides by offering the rigorous International Baccalaureate program to all kids.

“I am a very competitive person,” Bringedahl said, “and with the potential that’s there, I see nothing that would bar us from creating a world-class education for all of our kids.”

Amy Bringedahl
Amy Bringedahl

Bringedahl was one of two finalists for the job; the other, Stacy Parrish, is a principal resident at North High School. DPS announced Bringedahl’s hire to the Northfield community Wednesday.

Retired Lakewood High School principal Ron Castagna has been serving as the interim principal at Northfield since founding principal Avi Tropper resigned in October following a district investigation that found multiple instances of inappropriate student discipline at the school.

Tropper was hired in December 2013 to helm Denver’s first new comprehensive high school in 35 years. Ahead of Northfield’s August 2015 opening date, the former New York City assistant principal spent more than a year designing the academic program and recruiting the staff.

Tropper also helped author the school’s lofty innovation plan, which requested waivers from certain state and district rules to allow the school to carry out its program.

Among the characteristics listed in the plan: All students would take International Baccalaureate classes, usually reserved for the highest achievers, in math, science, English, history and a foreign language. They’d also choose two “pathways” of study from a roster of electives including biomedical science, engineering, studio arts and theater.

The plan also calls for students to attend school from 8:45 a.m. to 4:45 p.m. because research shows teenagers need more sleep in the mornings; to abide by a dress code that prohibits hoodies, yoga pants and clothing with words on it; and to participate in physical education every day.

Interest was high. Northfield was the second-most requested high school in all of DPS for this school year. It opened with a diverse class of about 200 freshman, many of whom live in the nearby neighborhoods of Stapleton, Montbello and Green Valley Ranch.

District statistics show that a third of the students are white, a third are African-American and a third are Latino — a rarity in a district where most Latino students attend predominantly Latino schools. Half of the students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, a proxy for poverty.

But there were concerns from the start. Parents wondered how the late release time would interfere with after-school athletics and how the “IB for all” philosophy would play out in the classroom. The dress code seemed overly strict and contradictory: students weren’t allowed to wear hoodies but the school had sweatshirts branded with the Northfield logo for sale.

Parents said the biggest problem was a lack of communication from school leaders.

“It was enough where it created a lot of negative feelings in the community,” said Chris Baumann, a Stapleton parent whose daughter is a Northfield freshman.

Northfield ninth-graders head out of the gymnasium for their first day of classes.
Northfield ninth-graders head out of the gymnasium for their first day of classes.

Baumann said that after months of feeling as though they weren’t being heard, some of his friends and neighbors decided to send their kids to another high school at the last minute.

Two months into the school year, Tropper was put on administrative leave pending the student discipline investigation. In the end, he resigned rather than face being fired, DPS said.

Tropper told Chalkbeat in October that he did nothing wrong in the student discipline cases. He said he resigned because he didn’t believe the district bought into the Northfield vision.

The district tapped Castagna to take his place on an interim basis. A veteran principal with experience leading an IB high school, Castagna said he quickly realized Northfield was aiming to do a lot without having all of the pieces in place. For instance, only one teacher was trained in IB and the school didn’t have an IB coordinator, which is a requirement of the program.

Castagna has since chosen a staff member to fill that role and has helped the ninth-grade teachers develop a curriculum that will give students a good baseline of knowledge to take on the challenging IB classes that will eventually be offered in 11th and 12th grade.

Castagna has also made changes to improve the school’s culture. When he arrived, the atmosphere felt “somewhat chaotic,” he said.

“It wasn’t a very welcoming environment,” Castagna said.

His first two days, he said he watched as adults stood at the doors, opening kids’ jackets to look for dress code violations. A student pointed out that Castagna himself was out of compliance because he’d worn a tie decorated with school buses labeled with the words “School Bus.”

Castagna relaxed the dress code and tweaked the bell schedule. Students now get out of class at 4:20 p.m. so they have 25 minutes to seek extra help from teachers if they need it.

Bringedahl said she’s looking forward to meeting with Castagna and other district officials to learn more about where the school has been and where it’s headed.

“Now that the hiring process is done, it’s time for me to dig into the innovation plan,” she said. Bringedahl added that there are some “great components to it” and that she’ll work with Castagna, the teachers and parents to figure out what’s doable for next year.

Baumann and other parents credit Castagna with stabilizing the school after a rocky start. Thad Jacobs, who lives in Green Valley Ranch and has a freshman daughter at Northfield, noted that communication has improved and the school culture seems more vibrant.

By the time his daughter is a senior, Jacobs hopes Northfield is everything it’s trying to be: an inclusive place with a strong athletics program where all students take high-level classes.

“I think we’re headed in the right direction,” he said.

Here’s the DPS letter announcing Bringedahl’s selection:

First Person

I was too anxious to speak in class. Then the adults at my school teamed up to help me.

PHOTO: Getty Images

“Which group wants to present first?” the teacher said.

That day, the whole school had worked on mini-projects in groups, and now it was time to share our work with students from different grades. I was surrounded by a lot of faces I had never seen before. I was only a freshman and everything felt new.

My heart started beating fast, like it was trying to pop out of my chest. I started sweating, even though the air conditioner was on. I tried to dry my trembling, clammy palms by rubbing them against my pants. I wanted to raise my hand and say I wasn’t feeling well, but my mouth clamped shut and it felt like gravity made it impossible for me to lift my arm.

Usually I would get a little nervous when I had to do presentations, but I could always get through them. This day was different.

When the teachers closed the classroom doors, I felt trapped. I wanted to run outside, take a deep breath of fresh air, and calm down. To distract myself, I started to pinch my arm under the table. Then it was my group’s turn, and somehow my legs managed to make the motions to get me in front of the class.

When it was my turn to speak, the words I was supposed to say didn’t come out. I froze. Finally a familiar voice brought me back to reality. It was one of my groupmates presenting my part for me.

After we returned to our seats, I hugged my book bag. It wasn’t as soft as my pillow, but it was the only comfort I was able to find. I stared at the floor, which seemed like the only thing in the room that wasn’t disappointed in me. Once the bell rang I speed-walked past everyone to the train. As soon as I got home, I cried.

Unfortunately, memories of that awful afternoon stayed with me. I began to panic every time I had to talk to new people, which had never been a problem for me before.

The night before a presentation I wouldn’t be able to sleep or eat. I was afraid to tell my teachers how I was feeling; I didn’t want to be seen as asking for special treatment. Fortunately, when I did presentations, I managed not to freeze like before, but I still got incredibly nervous and sometimes stuttered out my words. If I had the choice, I’d make sure I wouldn’t have a speaking part in group presentations.

In 10th grade, my English class read “The Perks of Being a Wallflower.” I thought it was going to be just another lame book, especially since I hated reading. But when we finished the first chapter I felt the main character, Charlie, was speaking directly to me. It’s made up of letters he writes to an anonymous person. Charlie has a hard time talking about his emotions. When something bothers him, he stays quiet.

As an introvert, I related to Charlie. Besides the anxiety I got around presentations, I often felt bad about myself. So I decided to write an honest letter to someone I trusted: my English teacher, Ms. Boeck. I wrote about all my insecurities: my weight and my appearance, and how I felt worthless. While I was writing, I realized that I was depressed, my anxiety was getting worse, and I needed to get help.

I woke up early so I could approach Ms. Boeck before class. As I stood in front of her door, I got the sudden urge to turn around and throw out my letter. But then I remembered why I had written to her. I could tell she cared for each student, and I had seen other kids go to her for help.

I walked into the classroom and Ms. Boeck greeted me with a smile. All I had to do was give her the letter I was clutching tightly in my right hand. I knew this was the first step toward letting go of the pain in my chest that came from silently holding onto my struggles.

“This is a letter I wrote explaining something personal about me, and I wanted you to read it so you can help me,” I said, my voice cracking.

“Thank you, I’ll make sure to read it.” My teacher smiled and held eye contact, as if to assure me that whatever I’d written, she and I were going to find a solution together.

Around that time, I also told one of my closest friends about my anxiety. She understood, even though she didn’t have anxiety herself.

“Don’t worry, Natalie,” she said. “If you need help, you can come to me.” For the first time, I felt supported by people who cared about me.

After Ms. Boeck read my letter, she invited me and my friend to have lunch with her in her classroom. I learned that Ms. Boeck had also been diagnosed with anxiety. I couldn’t believe it, since she spoke with confidence in class.

Two weeks later I wrote another letter to my crew leader, Mr. Afghahi. Unlike the letter to my English teacher, this one acknowledged that I’d been having suicidal thoughts.

I found Mr. Afghahi in the hallway on a Friday after school. “I wrote you a letter,” I said.

“Is something wrong?”

I shook my head no as he took the letter. I left before he could ask any more questions.

On Monday morning Mr. Afghahi pulled me aside. “Thank you for sharing this with me,” he said. “The part of your letter about your suicidal thoughts concerned me. I don’t want to lose your trust, but I think it’s best if you go see a counselor who can help you. ”

I nodded. I didn’t want to speak to a stranger, but I knew it was the right decision.

A few days later, Mr. Afghahi walked me to the counselor’s office. She introduced herself with a warm, welcoming grin that showed all her teeth. I forced a smile.

After Mr. Afghahi left, the counselor talked about my letter as if she had memorized every word. It made me uncomfortable. I had only intended for Mr. Afghahi to know these things.

As I looked around the counselor’s office, a photo of her and her daughter caught my attention. It made me imagine the sadness a parent must feel when their child tells them about the kinds of feelings I was having. I pictured my mother with sorrow in her eyes.

The counselor asked me to clarify what I meant by suicidal thoughts, and when my depression and anxiety started. My vision began to blur as tears started forming, but I managed not to cry.

She told me I had to talk to my parents. In fact, the school required their approval for me to keep seeing her. I didn’t want my parents to know because they already came home tired and stressed. I wanted to be the “perfect daughter” to make their lives easier. I was also nervous because they were too busy to come to my school, and they don’t speak much English.

When I got home, my mom told me to go with her to her doctor’s appointment. In the empty waiting room, I told her that I was going through a tough time in school and felt anxious and depressed. I looked down when I saw her eyes redden and the first tear roll down her cheek. I had seen her cry before, but I had never been the reason.

I wanted to cry too, but I held it in. I felt as if my mom was asking herself what she’d done wrong, which broke my heart. My mom wrote a letter in Spanish saying I could see the counselor.

Over time, talking to my counselor got easier. After a month, I felt comfortable expressing myself to her. I even consider her a friend. Talking about my insecure feelings has helped me understand them better. I feel better about my appearance. The counselor made me do an exercise where I had to consider the positive aspects of my body, which helped me a lot. I’m less anxious now and I don’t feel as depressed. I keep my mind busy and have more support and people to talk to than I did before.

The counselor also taught me breathing exercises that help me calm down when I’m anxious. I close my eyes, inhale, and wait for two seconds to release the breath. When I close my eyes it feels like the world has stopped. No one else is around; it’s just me and my blank mind. My body is no longer tense. The silence is comfortable, not awkward. When I exhale, I feel like I’m letting go of everything that made my day bad.

Now I encourage myself to try new ways to practice speaking in front of people. I’ve started participating in Socratic seminars, which are open-ended discussions we have in class. I make sure I’m prepared and say something, even if I’m feeling nervous. Though I still don’t speak a lot, I usually get at least one idea out.

I’m a junior now, and hopefully by the end of the year I will be able to speak at least three times in one discussion. I still get really nervous in large groups and new situations. But when I feel like running away, I think of the progress I’ve made. I may still stutter or mess up in a presentation, but at least now I know that I’ve tried.

It was hard to open up, but having people to talk to about my anxiety has been a big help. Besides my counselor, I’ve told some other friends, though I didn’t go into the details. I also talk to my three brothers now, and they help boost my confidence and make me feel safe. My parents know about my anxiety, but I only tell them about my accomplishments, like participating in a discussion, so they are able to feel proud of me.

Now, before I have to give a presentation, I do things to prepare and feel more confident. I drink water to hydrate my body, do my breathing exercises in a quiet area, and practice my presentation with a friend. This year, we had to give another group presentation like the one on that awful day when I was a freshman. When it came to my part, all my fears went away, and I spoke loud and proud.

Natalie Castelan is a student at Expeditionary Learning School for Community Leaders in Brooklyn. This piece originally appeared in YC Teen, a project of the nonprofit Youth Communication. 

the best

Indy counselors share secrets to get middle schoolers on track for college scholarships

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy/Chalkebat
Students at Northwest Middle School

Indiana makes a promise to students from low-income families: maintain a 2.5 GPA and fulfill basic steps throughout high school, and the state will foot the bill for up to four years of college tuition.

But there’s a catch: For students to qualify for the aid, they must sign up for 21st Century Scholarships by the end of eighth grade, before many students even begin considering how to pay tuition. It falls on school counselors to let families know about the program, help them apply — and follow up relentlessly.

So it was a feat when counselors at Northwest Middle School in Indianapolis Public Schools were able to get nearly 100 percent of eligible students to register for the scholarships in 2017, the latest year with state data. That’s nearly double the signup rate across Marion County.

Now, the city is hoping that other educators can learn from Northwest and other successful schools. In May, Indianapolis Mayor Joe Hogsett’s administration launched Indy Achieves, a campaign to help more residents go to college or other post-high school training. One piece of the initiative is a coordinated effort to boost participation in 21st Century Scholars that includes a newly released toolkit for other guidance counselors.

The toolkit explains how educators can track which students have enrolled in the program, and it includes sample recruitment plans and letters to parents. It also offers practical tips, such as giving parents the paper worksheet instead of asking them to apply online and sending the form home with other permission slips. Finally, Indy Achieves offers administrative assistance submitting applications.

“I’m here today in no small measure because you all have this process figured out,” said Hogsett in a ceremony Monday.

At Northwest, the campaign to get students money for college had two prongs. First, it depended on getting students, teachers, and even counselors excited about the scholarships, staff say. Classes competed against each other to see who could get the most students signed up, with the promise of a pizza party for the winning class.

Last year, they upped the ante by offering ice cream and candy bars to students when they brought in their applications. When students saw others getting the rewards, it was a reminder to bring in their own forms, said counselor Vernita Robinson.

It was also important that teachers were enthusiastic about the effort, say the counselors who led the initiative. Even the counselors developed a spirit of competition as they tried to sign up as many students as possible.

“You just have to make it fun for the kids, and you have to make it fun for yourself,” said counselor Theresa Morning.  “I don’t know if we really changed any of our methods last year except for, we made a point to make sure last year that we had every child signed up.”

That dedication to getting students signed up is the second reason why educators at Northwest believe they were so successful. Beginning in September, they told parents about the scholarships, and for months afterward, they used a spreadsheet to track which students had applied. They sent home official letters telling families about the program. And as the year progressed, they called families to follow up.

“I think the key is to not stop at a handful of applicants,” said counselor Nicole Reid. “Just keep going until you have everyone on your roster that’s in eighth grade enrolled.”

All three counselors have left the school for other Indianapolis Public Schools campuses this year, following a districtwide high school reconfiguration that ultimately led Northwest to convert from a school serving grades seven through 12 to a dedicated middle school.

Indianapolis Public Schools interim superintendent Aleesia Johnson challenged the new students at the school to continue the success. “You all have to now carry on that legacy,” she said.

“We are all as a city committed to our students and our young people being able to go on and be successful,” Johnson said. “You do your part, and we commit to do ours.”