Priorities and pushback

A heated debate over the desire for a traditional high school in far northeast Denver boils over

PHOTO: Andy Cross, The Denver Post
Jorge Robles, 12, raises his hand at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Early College in 2010.

A community conversation in far northeast Denver started as an effort to ask residents what they want in their schools. It has boiled over into a heated debate about whether to resurrect the region’s shuttered traditional high school.

The aim of a series of community meetings run by Denver Public Schools over the past year was to come to consensus on education priorities, a district spokeswoman said. Those priorities, she said, would “inform future district policy-making.”

But when word got out that some residents were asking for the return of a traditional high school, the backlash was fierce. Principals, teachers, parents, and students from some of the small schools that have grown in the absence of a big high school lined up at a recent school board meeting to give passionate testimony about what they consider a flawed process and a dangerous recommendation that could threaten their schools’ existence.

Participants in the Far Northeast Commission, as the community meetings were known, were set to discuss a draft of their priorities in March. But that meeting has since been rescheduled and recast as a way to bridge the divide among the people who live and work in the area.

“This is the illusion of community engagement,” said Stacy Parrish, the principal of High Tech Early College, one of three small high schools that replaced the shuttered Montbello High School. “How can these be named as priorities? Whose voices were invited to the table? The work of the Far Northeast Education Commission has been disingenuous.”

Some of the community members who participated in the commission don’t disagree – but for a different reason. What’s disingenuous, they said, is that although the district solicited their feedback, they have no faith Denver Public Schools officials will take it seriously.

“They appease the community by having these forums and public meetings, and yet the policy is already set in place,” said Narcy Jackson, a Montbello resident who runs a mentoring program for student athletes. “I don’t think anything is going to change.”

District officials are billing the rescheduled meeting, now set to take place April 14, as a “phase two” of commission work. But they said they’re still figuring out exactly how it will work.

“We do have to acknowledge that work was done over the last year: People came and people have a voice,” said school board member Jennifer Bacon, who represents the region. “We can acknowledge we could have done it differently or more robustly for engagement, (but) in no way should we de-legitimize the voices of the people who did come.”

Community concerns

There has long been controversy over how best to serve students in the far northeast, a newer but more remote part of the city full of affordable, suburban-style houses. Most students in the region are black or Hispanic and come from low-income families.

In 2010, the Denver school board approved a massive turnaround plan involving six schools in the far northeast. The plan called for Montbello High – where fewer than 60 percent of students were graduating, and almost all who went on to college needed to take remedial classes – to be phased out and replaced with three smaller schools.

On the night of the vote, students, parents, and teachers pleaded with the school board to give Montbello High another chance. The board also heard from supporters of the plan, who wore graduation caps and T-shirts that said: “We Demand Great Schools in Far Northeast Denver.” In the end, a majority of the seven board members sided with Superintendent Tom Boasberg and a community committee that recommended the sweeping changes.

Today, there are 11 high schools in far northeast Denver. They include the three schools that replaced Montbello, five other district-run schools, and three charter schools, which are publicly funded but independently run. Most have fewer than 500 students.

Several share campuses in an arrangement known as co-location, and four schools serve grades six through twelve, mixing middle and high school students in the same building.

The Far Northeast Commission started as a series of meetings held at coffee shops and schools in the region. Erin Brown, who leads the city’s Office of Children’s Affairs and lives in the far northeast neighborhood of Green Valley Ranch, said she and other city leaders were pushing the district to “engage in an authentic community process” to figure out what parents wanted for their kids. Denver schools are governed by an elected school board, not the mayor, but Mayor Michael Hancock made education a big part of his first election campaign.

When the district decided to form the commission, Brown signed on as one of three co-chairs. The first several meetings in the summer and fall of 2017 drew about 30 people each, according to meeting sign-in sheets.

But Brown said it was difficult for the commission to gain momentum because the people who showed up from one meeting to the next were rarely the same. So she said the co-chairs decided they’d get further if they held meetings on specific topics that had emerged as areas of community concern: academics, student wellness, co-location, and athletics.

The topic of athletics hit a nerve in Montbello, a neighborhood with a proud history of excelling at high school sports, especially football. More than 60 people showed up to a November meeting on the subject.

They included Brandon Pryor, a football coach for the Far Northeast Warriors, a team created after the closure of Montbello High that draws players from several high schools in the region. His wife Samantha, an attorney who graduated from Montbello, also attended.

The Pryors have young children and said they recently began paying closer attention to Denver Public Schools policy after hearing that the ratings they relied on to choose schools for their kids overstated students’ reading abilities, an issue the district has taken steps to remedy.

They were also bothered by the crowded classrooms at their children’s schools, the stories they’d heard about teachers starting GoFundMe campaigns to buy books, and the number of student athletes they’d seen leaving the far northeast to attend traditional high schools that offered more electives and a better shot at earning a college athletic scholarship.

They also don’t like the idea of sending middle school students as young as 11 to school in the same building as 18-year-old high school seniors. They said that from what they’ve seen, efforts to keep the age groups separated result in strict rules about who can use certain parts of the building and when – an arrangement they likened to “a prison pod structure.”

“Black and brown communities have been ignored as a whole and targeted for these Frankenstein experiments, like co-location,” Brandon Pryor said.

Samantha Pryor came up with a way to visualize that feeling: Before giving public comment at a recent school board meeting, she printed up T-shirts that said, “20%,” a reference to the district’s goal that 80 percent of all students will attend high-quality schools by 2020.

“We really believe we are the 20 percent,” she said in an interview.

Notes from commission meetings in November, December, and January obtained in an open records request show many participants shared the Pryors’ concerns. In January, the commission generated lists of draft priorities to be discussed at the now-canceled March meeting.

The priorities included recruiting more teachers of color, increasing funding for school counselors and social workers, and installing lights on the Montbello playing fields.

Also on the list: Have a comprehensive high school option in the far northeast.

‘Everything we do is threatened’

In asking for a traditional high school, community members said they never called for specific smaller schools to be closed. Brown also denies that was part of the conversation.

But that idea began circulating sometime before the school board’s monthly meeting on March 15. The public comment portion of the meeting was stacked with principals, teachers, students, and parents from three of the small district-run high schools in the far northeast touting their accomplishments and criticizing the commission. It was clear they were on the defensive.

“Everything we do is threatened by the idea of opening a new high school in the far northeast,” said Kimberly Grayson, principal of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Early College, which serves about 1,000 students in grades six through twelve and also offers free college courses.

“We are a family,” said senior Jamar Holmes Moore, “and breaking up a family never ends well.”

Parrish, the principal of High Tech Early College, spoke about the “atrocities” of the Far Northeast Commission and asked that board members view its identified priorities as “a case study of the lived experience of a small group of stakeholders.”

Rhonda Juett, principal at Noel Community Arts Middle School in Montbello, said the divisiveness got so bad that without the support of her fellow principals, “this last week and a half would have been my last because I would have tendered my resignation.”

Grayson, Parrish, and Juett declined to be interviewed for this story.

Boasberg tried to reassure them. He cited statistics to show the turnarounds in the far northeast are working: Graduation rates are up, he said, and college remediation rates are down.

However, he also said the commission’s discussions highlighted “a real desire to build stronger bridges across the community, to build stronger opportunities for students to come together across schools, whether that’s in athletics, whether that’s in the arts, or other opportunities.”

Several high school athletes gave public comment as well, including one who said he lost scholarships to play football at several Division I colleges because he didn’t meet the academic credit requirements. His small high school, he said, didn’t offer enough courses.

Others spoke about how their schools don’t have access to a library or computer lab, and how different bell schedules make it hard for players to get to practice at the same time.

Opening a traditional high school would remedy those issues, said Khaaliq Stevenson, a student athlete at Collegiate Prep Academy, one of the three schools that replaced Montbello High. But, he added, “we are not trying to bash the other options that are already here.”

School board member Bacon, who campaigned on a promise to improve the district’s community engagement, told meeting attendees that nothing is set in stone.

“We have not made a decision or a resolution to reinstate Montbello High School,” she said. “Any such proposal will be made through a community process after deeply engaging in conversation with principals, families, teachers, parents, students, and analytical and strategic leaders. The conversation, however, has become one that people have demanded we have.”

The question now is whether community members who feel burned by the district all over again will want to continue having the conversation. Bacon hopes they will.

In fact, she said she sees a silver lining in the turmoil. While the flawed process did nothing to repair the community’s trust in the district, Bacon said she hopes the “bubbling up of frustration” will push community members to come together to hash out their differences, find their commonalities, and repair the rifts between them.

“The one thing I’ve taken away from this is we can’t avoid these hard questions of, ‘Where are we in the far northeast with our education?’” she said. “This is not the best we can be.”

growing enrollment

Answering a call: Here’s who raised their hands to open a new middle school in Stapleton

PHOTO: Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post
Sold signs can be seen on many of the homes in Stapleton on August 1, 2018, in Denver, Colorado.

Leaders of two stand-alone Denver schools and one local school network sent letters to the district this week signaling their intent to apply to open a new middle school in the growing Stapleton neighborhood in northeast Denver. The leaders were responding to a call from Denver Public Schools for schools interested in filling that need.

All of the letters come from leaders of highly rated semi-autonomous district schools. They include:

  • High Tech Elementary School, a stand-alone school located in Stapleton. It currently serves students in preschool through fifth grade and is interested in expanding to serve students in sixth, seventh, and eighth grades, as well. High Tech uses a “technology-enhanced, personalized, project-based approach” to teaching its students, according to its letter.
  • Beacon Network Schools, which currently runs two middle schools in Denver: Kepner Beacon in southwest Denver and Grant Beacon in south-central Denver. The Beacon schools also focus on personalized learning, partly by giving students access to technology that allows them to learn at their own pace. The new Stapleton school would be the network’s third middle school.
  • Denver Green School, a stand-alone school serving students in preschool through eighth grade in southeast Denver. The Denver Green School’s hands-on curriculum is focused on “what sustainability means in relation to our classrooms, our community, our planet, and ourselves,” according to its letter. The new Stapleton school would be its first expansion.

Denver Public Schools announced last month its intention to open a new middle school in Stapleton in the fall of 2019. Data from this year’s school-choice process showed rising enrollment in parts of northeast Denver, including Stapleton, officials said. That’s a different trend than in many other parts of the city, where enrollment is expected to decrease.

But instead of simply opening its own new schools, the Denver district uses a process known as the “Call for New Quality Schools.” The call is essentially a request for proposals for new schools. Leaders and developers of district-run and charter schools submit applications, and the Denver school board decides which to approve and give coveted space in district buildings.

For Stapleton, the district is looking for a middle school that could serve up to 600 students. It would start with sixth grade in August 2019 and add a grade every year. The exact location of the school has yet to be determined. The district has said the school “should be designed to be diverse and inclusive,” though it has not laid out any specific criteria.

Letters of intent from those interested in applying were due Monday. Full applications are due Oct. 26. The school board is set to make a decision in December.

The call process is in line with the district’s “portfolio strategy” approach. That involves cultivating a mix of different types of schools – district-run schools, independent charter schools, and others – and letting families choose. It also involves closing schools with low test scores, though the district is taking a break from that controversial strategy this year.

None of the proposed Stapleton middle schools would be charter schools, which are publicly funded but independently run. The area – officially known as the Greater Park Hill-Stapleton Enrollment Zone – already has two charter and three district-run middle schools.

The proposed schools would likely be “innovation” schools, which are district-run schools with charter-like autonomy. That means they can waive certain state and district rules to do things such as set their own calendars or employ their teachers on a year-to-year basis.

The Beacon schools are innovation schools that are also part of an “innovation management organization,” which gives them more budgetary flexibility than regular innovation schools.

Denver Green School is an innovation school that is also part of a district-approved “innovation zone.” The zone is similar to an innovation management organization in that the schools within it have the same budgetary flexibility. But it’s different because the zone is overseen by a nonprofit board of directors that can hire and fire its school leaders.

High Tech is an innovation school, but it is not part of a zone or a management organization.

To open a new school in Stapleton, the Beacon network would have to jump through one fewer hoop than the other two. That’s because the school board has already approved Beacon to open three more middle schools. The network has not specified where or when it would open those schools, and it could take one “off the shelf” to apply for placement in Stapleton.

By contrast, Denver Green School and High Tech would have to first submit an application to open a new middle school and then apply for placement in Stapleton.

More seats

New data, shifting plans: Denver district calls for new middle school in Stapleton

PHOTO: Kevin J. Beaty/
McAuliffe International School.

Six months after Denver district leaders opted not to seek proposals for new schools serving specific grades and neighborhoods, they changed course Wednesday, announcing plans for a new middle school on the north side of the growing Stapleton neighborhood.

District officials said the move was prompted by data gleaned from this year’s school choice process showing rising enrollment in parts of northeast Denver. That localized trend contrasts with forecasts of shrinking enrollment in the district overall.

The new school will open in the fall of 2019 and serve students in a swath of northeast Denver the district calls the Greater Park Hill/Stapleton enrollment zone.

Jennifer Holladay, the district’s associate chief of portfolio management, said while the district compiles enrollment projections each fall, a separate look at enrollment data this spring informed Wednesday’s announcement.

“It became clear that we are going to need some extra seats in Greater Park Hill/Stapleton,” she said. “We always learn something new through the choice season.”

The neighborhoods’ enrollment zone currently includes five schools with middle grades: Denver Discovery School, McAuliffe International School, Bill Roberts K-8, and two links in the district’s biggest charter chain, DSST: Stapleton and DSST: Conservatory Green.

Students in enrollment zones — a tool the district has used with mixed success to increase integration — are guaranteed a seat at one school in the zone, but not necessarily the one closest to them.

PHOTO: Denver Public Schools
This map shows the Greater Park Hill/Stapleton enrollment zone.

Wednesday’s announcement functions as an invitation to prospective school developers — whether charter or district-run — to propose middle schools for that location. The process, officially known as the “Call for New Quality Schools” usually happens in the spring, but in this case will unfold during late summer and fall. The school board will pick from the applicants in December.

Holladay said the call for applicants is open both to school operators that have previously won approval to open new schools but haven’t yet opened those schools and to those submitting new proposals. She said operators that currently have district approval to open middle schools are the DSST charter network and the Beacon Network, which runs two innovation schools in the district: Grant Beacon and Kepner Beacon.

Parent Amanda Allshouse, who is president of the neighborhood organization Stapleton United Neighbors, said there’s definitely a need for a new middle school in the area. She said many parents there expressed a desire for another large comprehensive middle school similar to McAuliffe at a community forum attended by Superintendent Tom Boasberg in May.

The high-performing school is the largest of the five middle schools included in the enrollment zone and one of the district’s most sought-after placements for incoming sixth-graders.

Stapleton resident Dipti Nevrekar is another parent hoping the zone’s new middle school will be like McAuliffe, with an array of sports, activities and arts offerings — and an International Baccalaureate program that will feed into the one at Northfield High School. She said her son was lucky enough to gain entrance to McAuliffe for the coming year, but several of his friends were not.

The number of sixth-graders in the Greater Park Hill/Stapleton enrollment zone is expected to jump by more than 100 students by the fall of 2019, to more than 900 total. The new middle school will start with just sixth-graders and add a grade each year, eventually maxing out at 500 to 600 students.

PHOTO: Denver Public Schools
District data shows projected increases in middle school enrollment in the Greater Park Hill/Stapleton enrollment zone.

The new middle school will be the district’s first to open since the citywide Strengthening Neighborhoods Committee released recommendations last winter aimed at increasing integration in Denver schools. One piece of the recommendations calls for the district to evaluate all new school applicants on their ability to appeal to a diverse student body, create a diverse teaching staff, and use curriculum that takes into account students’ cultural backgrounds.

Holladay, who said the new middle school will be designed to be diverse, said the district will create a way to measure such components in the coming months.