heated discussion

Northfield High School parents, students sound off against sharing campus with charter school

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar
Nearly 300 people packed into Northfield High Monday night.

Emotions ran high Monday night in Denver’s Northfield High School cafeteria, which was packed with nearly 300 people who had come to discuss the school district’s plans for the campus.

Parents interrupted the superintendent to accuse Denver Public Schools of breaking its promises to Northfield High, the city’s first new comprehensive high school in 35 years. Students made impassioned pleas against a plan to co-locate a high-performing charter school there. And a mother of two middle schoolers at that charter school, DSST: Conservatory Green, choked up.

“Where would you put our children?” Lechelle Schilz asked. “I hear a lot of hatred.”

Superintendent Tom Boasberg tried to assuage their fears, diffuse the tension and debunk the perception that the Paul Sandoval Campus in northeast Denver was ever meant to belong solely to Northfield High. It was always intended to house multiple schools sharing athletic fields and common areas, a strategy the district uses all over the city to keep costs low, he said.

“Can we have a successful, comprehensive Northfield High School with a top-flight (International Baccalaureate) program and can we have a successful Conservatory Green High School sharing the same campus? I believe the answer is absolutely,” he said at the three-hour meeting. “We can do both. And one does not take away from the other.”

But many parents and students left the meeting unconvinced.

“I feel betrayed,” said Northfield High sophomore Devante Tanguy.

The school board is scheduled to vote Dec. 15 on a plan that calls for using funds from the $572 million bond issue approved by voters last month to build a new, 500-seat high school building on the campus. It would be occupied by DSST: Conservatory Green High School, another link in the district’s biggest charter chain and a continuation of the nearby DSST: Conservatory Green Middle School. That building is expected to be completed by the fall of 2018.

The plan also includes:

— Temporarily placing a new elementary school, Inspire Elementary, at the Paul Sandoval Campus for the 2017-18 school year until construction is complete on a new building in the booming Stapleton neighborhood. Inspire would initially serve kindergarten through 2nd grade.

— Temporarily placing DSST: Conservatory Green High School at the nearby Samsonite Campus for 2017-18 until the new building is ready on the Paul Sandoval Campus.

— Monitoring enrollment at Northfield High, which currently serves 9th and 10th graders with plans to add 11th grade next year and 12th grade the following year. If additional capacity is needed for the fall of 2019 or 2020, the district would borrow money to add more seats.

— Begin planning to fully build out Northfield High with funds raised through a bond issue anticipated to go before voters in 2020. The district is planning to add 1,000 additional seats to the Paul Sandoval Campus with 2020 bond money, 500 of which would be for Northfield High. The other 500 seats would be for a new, yet-to-be-determined middle school.

Boasberg reiterated the district remains committed to Northfield High’s vision of comprehensive high school serving a diverse population that offers all kids the opportunity to participate in the rigorous International Baccalaureate program. Last year, the student body was split evenly between white students, black students and Latino students. Half qualified for free or reduced-price lunch, an indicator of poverty.

The district predicts that Northfield High will eventually serve between 1,200 and 1,500 students, putting its enrollment on par with comprehensive Denver high schools such as George Washington and South but remaining smaller than 2,500-student East High.

This year, Northfield has 415 students in grades nine and 10. Seventy percent of students who live within the high school’s boundary — and are thus guaranteed a seat — choose to go elsewhere, which is on the high end for the district’s comprehensive high schools. Sixty-two percent of Northfield students are from outside the boundary.

Parents credit Northfield’s relatively low enrollment to the school’s tumultuous start. Its first principal resigned rather than be fired in October 2015, two months after the school opened, following an investigation into inappropriate responses involving student discipline.

The school had an interim principal last year. Amy Bringedahl, a longtime educator who served as principal of a DPS middle school last year, was chosen to helm Northfield this year.

Parents and students Monday night said they felt repeatedly hoodwinked by the district, which they complained wasn’t investing in Northfield High like it should.

“We wanted a comprehensive high school, a school that had a wide range of options,” said a Northfield High sophomore who took a turn at the microphone. “We were promised additional buildings so we could grow our school into the best school.

“Before you open up something new, why don’t you build what you already started?” he continued. “I question DPS’s commitment to our school. I pose it as an open question to DPS tonight: Do you support our school? Because you’ve sure got a funny way of showing it.”

Boasberg insisted the district does. But he said it doesn’t make sense to build out the school to 1,500 seats now if it won’t need that many for several more years. When parents pushed back, saying they were under the impression the 2016 bond would pay to complete Northfield High, Boasberg said they were mistaken.

The bond proposal stated the money would pay for 500 additional seats on the Paul Sandoval Campus, he said: “It doesn’t say ‘Northfield High School.’ It never said ‘Northfield High School.’”

One woman in the audience shouted back.

“I didn’t vote for the bond because I knew you were going to do this,” she said angrily.

Many DSST parents and staff members attended the meeting, as well. They expressed dismay at the attitude of the Northfield High supporters and said sharing a campus, which DSST does at several of its locations, is a great way to teach children the value of cooperation.

“I think there is a way to have a vital Northfield High School and a way to have a vital and exciting DSST: Conservatory Green High School,” said a father of two DSST middle school students. “Is it perfect? No. My dream would be that they’d each have their own campus. But there’s something innovative and exciting to me and we are in support.”

At the end of the meeting, some Northfield parents said the proposal felt like “a done deal.”

“I think our community is being held hostage by DPS until the 2020 bond,” said Amy Passas, who has an 8th grader and a 5th grader. Even though she lives close to Northfield and is considering sending her 8th grader there next year, she said she’s also considering East High.

school support

When students miss school, they fall behind. Here’s how one group is curbing absenteeism.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Two of Agape's staff members work with students on reading at Whitney Achievement Elementary School. The staff members, though employed by the Memphis nonprofit, are integrated into school life.

When Crystal Bullard moved to Memphis from the Bahamas last year, she was looking for a new life and a better education for her three young children.

What she found was an overwhelming school system that was hard to navigate, and an environment where her children felt like outsiders.

Her children, ages 4, 7 and 9, were initially bullied at Whitney Achievement Elementary School, the North Memphis school she chose because it was closest to her home. The bullying meant her kids didn’t want to go to school. For Bullard, missing a day or two was a common problem at the beginning of last school year.

“When I came here, I didn’t know nothing. I had nothing,” Bullard said. “I came to this school because it was the first I found. But it was so hard to get the kids up and here every day. We struggled with that for many weeks.”

Bullard is not alone in her daily battle to get the kids to school. Almost a fifth of Memphis students are considered chronically absent, which means they missed at least 18 days during the school year. Research has shown chronic absenteeism is linked to negative outcomes for students, including lower test scores, higher dropout rates, and even a greater risk of entering the criminal justice system.

Absenteeism has such a large impact on learning, districts are under pressure from new national legislation to include chronic absenteeism data in how they evaluate schools.

In Memphis, a local nonprofit is working to improve attendance numbers. Agape Child & Family Services places its employees in schools throughout Memphis to help with attendance, behavior, and academic issues.

Bullard said her life began to change when her family joined the Agape program. The three full-time Agape workers at Whitney walked Bullard through why it was crucial for her kids to come to school every day. They provided her with school supplies and uniforms, and tutored her children. Agape also provided counseling for Bullard and her children through another part of its organization.

“My kids have too many friends now,” Bullard said. “They aren’t afraid, they’re excited to come to school. My kids are 100 percent better now than when we came. We still have issues to work out, but we feel welcome.”

For schools like Whitney Elementary, days of missed instruction can quickly put students behind academically. Whitney was taken over in 2012 by the state’s Achievement School District, which is trying to turn around Tennessee’s worst-performing schools. Every day of instruction matters in their efforts to boost student achievement, Whitney principal LaSandra Young said.

“Our attendance is low at the start of the year because students have transferred or moved,” said Young. The school currently enrolls 263 kids — Agape helps the school track students down.

Agape, Whitney Elementary, Memphis
PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Crystal Bullard’s children started preschool and elementary school at Whitney last year.

“Sometimes it’s as simple as they don’t have school supplies yet or are struggling with transportation,” Young said. “The extra support they provide is crucial because every day of attendance really does matter.”

Charity Ellis, one of Agape’s staff members at Whitney, said her job can look very different day-to-day, but working closely with students is consistent. Some days Agape pulls students out of class to work intensely on reading or math skills. Or if students are struggling with behavior in class, Agape staff members will pull the students into the hallway to speak with them and calm them down.

Agape staff also try to stay in constant communication with parents, especially if their kids are missing school, Ellis said.

If parents are running late, they might decide to keep their student at home rather than bring them for a half day, Ellis said. “But when we communicate with them how important every hour of learning is, they get that. Sometimes all it takes is one conversation and how deeply we care about their kids.”

Agape worked with 82 kids at Whitney Elementary last year, who were chosen by the school, including Bullard’s three children. About 90 percent of those students are now attending at least 90 percent of the school year, said David Jordan, CEO of Agape.

The program has grown every year from when it began in 2013 with 113 students. Now, more than 550 students are a part of Agape programs in 16 schools throughout the Frayser, Raleigh, Hickory Hill, and Whitehaven neighborhoods — and they are all now at school for at least 85 percent of the school year. This is just shy of their goal for Agape students to attend more than 90 percent of the year.

For comparison, 57 percent of all students in Shelby County Schools and the Achievement School District attend school for more than 90 percent of the year, Jordan said.

Jordan emphasized that keeping kids in school goes beyond daily attendance — the program also helps students with academics and behavior, so they don’t miss school because of suspensions. Agape helps out parents, too.

Agape, Whitney Elementary, Memphis
PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Whitney Principal LaSandra Young (right) hugs a student who is pulled out of class to work with Agape.

“A lot of our parents are underemployed and dealing with trauma,” Jordan said. “We provide family therapy, but also job coaching and help. We see this as a two-generation approach, the parents and their children are in this together.”

Bullard said the family counseling provided by Agape at Whitney has made a huge difference in her family’s mental health. When they first moved in 2017, Sergio, her oldest child, struggled with his behavior at school and he was sometimes pulled out of class.

“We’ve been through a lot,” Bullard said. “When Sergio first came here, he had a mean spirit in him. A don’t-care attitude. But at our sessions, he opened up and up. He’s still fighting with his sister, but it isn’t the rage it used to be. He’s calmed down a lot.”

Sergio also had a habit of hiding his school work from her, Bullard said. That’s changed, too, and he enjoys showing off what he’s learning to his mom.

“Now he likes to say big words that he knows I don’t know,” Bullard said. “But it’s great. We’ve never had this kind of support before.”

Jordan said that stories like Bullard’s are encouraging but acknowledges there’s still a lot of work to be done. He said he’s hopeful Agape will be able to add more and more students to the program every year.

“We know that keeping kids in school consistently is one of the things that works,” Jordan said. “We also know that students in under-resourced neighborhoods in our city need more support. The schools need more people who can help. We can provide that.”

Here’s the full list of schools Agape is in, broken down by neighborhood:

Sorting the Students

How a diverse Indianapolis Montessori school quadrupled its applications in two years

Spots at School 87 filled up quickly this year.

When Sara Martin and her husband looked at elementary schools for their son three years ago, they were hoping for a spot at one of Indianapolis Public Schools’ most sought-after magnet programs. Instead, they landed at School 87, a Montessori school in a poor neighborhood that is among the magnets that typically have open seats after the district lottery.

The Martins, who had included the school among their choices without even going for a tour, were convinced after visiting the westside school and seeing happy students working independently. “I just kind of fell in love with it,” Sara Martin said.

Since the Martins were placed there, however, School 87 has gone from not quite filling its seats to quickly reaching capacity this fall. Nearly 340 students applied to School 87 this year — about four times the number that applied two years ago, according to district data. Enrollment has also grown slightly, reaching about 370 students this year compared to about 340 students in 2016-17.

And unlike some of the most popular magnet schools that primarily serve families who are middle class or white, School 87’s demographics nearly mirror the rest of the district. Most students are poor enough to get discounted meals, and the student population is racially diverse. The school is also in a poor neighborhood north west of downtown, which is significant because families who live within about a half a mile of a magnet school have priority in admission.

There are lots of reasons why School 87, which is also known as George Washington Carver, could be growing more popular. This year, the prekindergarten-8th grade school likely got a boost from Enroll Indy, a new enrollment system that allows families to apply for Indianapolis Public Schools and many charter school options through a single website. The nonprofit did extensive outreach to families, and more students applied to magnet schools across the district.

But applications were already growing, thanks to recruitment efforts and word of mouth. The school has also performed relatively well on standardized tests, and it has a B grade from the state.

School 87, which began as a school-within-a-school, was given its own campus in 2013, one of three in the district that offer Montessori, which calls for students directing their own learning in structured environments. The model has a reputation for attracting affluent, liberal parents, and it has traditionally been confined to private schools.

Indianapolis Public Schools, however, has offered Montessori education for decades. It is an increasingly common option at public schools across the country, and recent research suggests that it benefits children from low-income families.

Kristin Hancock, a teacher who has been with the program since it started, said that while Montessori schools typically attract affluent parents, School 87 continues to serve students from diverse backgrounds.

“We have kids from the neighborhood, kids that are from our old neighborhood … that we’ve still carried on with those families for a really long time,” she said. “We have pretty much just the same kids that anybody else would.”

One reason Sara Martin, whose father is from El Salvador, was drawn to School 87 is because of its diversity. The family lives outside the district, and they chose Indianapolis Public Schools in part because students come from so many backgrounds, Martin said.

That diversity also shapes the admission campaign at School 87. Because it serves a community with many Spanish speakers, they made sure to have Spanish speaking staff members doing outreach, said Principal Mark Nardo.

The school has not made radical changes to its recruitment methods in recent years, but staff members have gotten better at it, Nardo said. The school enrollment committee, which includes teachers and other staff, used a host of approaches to recruiting new families last year. They visited the nearby community center and Head Start programs, hosted an enrollment event to help parents fill out the application, and updated marketing materials. On the side of the building, which sits beside a highway, a banner advertises the program to passing drivers.

The school also attracts students through word-of-mouth, Nardo said, and they encourage families to tell friends and neighbors about the program. “It’s common sense to sit there and talk to your parents that are here and just say, ‘hey, you are an ambassador, please go out and spread the word.’ ”