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.”

reaction

Some see a victory in Denver pausing its school closure policy, others a ‘slap in the face’

PHOTO: Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite.com
Hasira "H-Soul" Ashemu leads the Black Parent Empowerment Summit at Denver's Shorter Community AME Church in May 2018.

The day after the Denver school board decided to take a break from its controversial school closure policy, the district sent an email to some parents who oppose closing schools.

“I am reaching out to you with great news,” said the email, sent by employees of the district’s public affairs team. It went on to explain that the policy would be on hold next year while the school board conducts a districtwide listening tour to get feedback on how the district should define success and what it should do when schools fall short.

But not everyone who got the email thinks the news is great.

Some parents and community members are suspicious of the board’s motives, theorizing that it’s a political stunt to curry favor with voters. They feel burned by board members who disregarded their pleas to give struggling schools another chance, and they’re skeptical that gathering more public opinion will change officials’ minds.

“To me, that feels like a slap in the face,” said parent Beth Bianchi, whose daughter was a student at Gilpin Montessori School in 2016 when the school board voted to close it.

Those who support the district’s aggressive approach are wary for different reasons. They wonder if pausing the policy will mean students in struggling schools won’t get the help they need. Instead of closing or replacing low-performing schools, the board will now require principals to give written and verbal reports about their improvement strategies.

“I hope the school board is willing to hold schools accountable for those plans,” said Krista Spurgin, the executive director of Stand for Children Colorado, which supports many of the district’s strategies. She said that while she understands that school closure can be difficult, “we can’t have kids sitting in schools unprepared for two, three, four years.”

Board member Lisa Flores, who proposed the pause, said it was partly prompted by a desire to reflect on how the 2-year-old policy has played out and how it might need to change. The first year was rocky, especially when it came to Gilpin, an elementary school in a gentrifying neighborhood that had low test scores and dwindling enrollment, but also fierce defenders.

The backlash against the closure of Gilpin was loud. It bolstered an already growing opposition to using school closure as an improvement strategy, which the district had been doing even before the policy was in place. Over the past 13 years, the district has consolidated, closed, or replaced more than 50 low-performing schools. Critics say it’s disruptive and demoralizing, and disproportionately affects poor communities.

A year after the Gilpin vote, the opposition won a political victory. With four of the seven school board seats up for grabs, Denver voters elected one candidate opposed to closures and two who questioned how they were being done. An incumbent who’d supported closures also won.

Even though the district didn’t close any schools in 2017, the opposition continued to gain steam. More community groups formed to fight against closures and against the district’s continued approval of charter schools, which are publicly funded but independently run.

Hasira Ashemu is co-director of one of the groups, called Our Voice, Our Schools. Spurred by a report that chronicled how black teachers in Denver feel mistreated and black students’ needs go unmet, the group recently hosted a “Black Parent Empowerment Summit.” It drew more than 350 people to talk about improving education for Denver’s students of color.

Ashemu, who goes by “H-Soul,” said the group welcomes the pause of the closure policy. He sees it as a sign that community pushback is having an impact on district leaders.

“We know this is not a result of DPS coming to some enlightened position around school closures,” Ashemu said. “We know this is directly related to communities organizing.”

Pam Shamburg, executive director of the Denver Classroom Teachers Association, agrees. She said many teachers are concerned about school closures, and pausing the policy is “a step in the right direction.” However, she hesitated to call it an outright win.

“We’ve gone through all this upheaval,” she said, referring to a host of reform efforts meant to improve Denver schools, including closure. “Some things are marginally better, but it is worth everything we’ve gone through to get there?”

District officials regularly point to statistics that show Denver students are learning more now than in the past. Students posted record academic gains on state literacy and math tests last year, and the percentage of kindergarten through third-grade students identified as reading significantly below grade level is dropping. More high school students are taking college-level classes, and 51 percent of graduates immediately enrolled in college in 2017.

But the district still faces significant challenges. About 38 percent of Denver third-graders met expectations on the 2017 state literacy test, meaning they could read at grade level. That’s far short of the district’s goal that 80 percent of third-graders meet that bar by 2020.

The district also has wide achievement gaps: White and middle-class students score higher on state and national tests than students of color and those from low-income families. And while Denver’s graduation rate has risen, it lags behind the rates of other large Colorado districts.

Katherine Murphy, a former Gilpin parent, is among those who see the break from the school closure policy as a piecemeal solution. That’s because the policy relies on the district’s school rating system to flag the lowest-performing schools for closure.

The rating system faced significant criticism this past year from some who believed it was too harsh and others who thought it was too lenient. Until the district fixes its ratings, Murphy – who is a member of another community group critical of the district, called Our Denver, Our Schools – said she doesn’t think pausing the policy will make much difference in the long run.

“It’s good on you for making a move toward the right direction,” she said of the school board, “but we’re still not addressing the root problems of your system, and you’re not doing enough.”

Christine Campbell of the Center on Reinventing Public Education, a Seattle-based research organization that follows Denver’s reforms, said she was surprised by the move. But she also said she understands where it’s coming from. It seems, she said, that district leaders are taking more heat lately from both those who think they’re being too aggressive in their quest to improve schools and those who think they’re not being aggressive enough.

In line with Denver’s national reputation as a reform leader, Campbell said the district should seize the moment to take stock of the progress and pushback and, along with the community, come up with an innovative way to help struggling schools going forward.

“I think Denver is in a nice position to say, ‘What could the next thing be?’” Campbell said.

a different model

Denver expands its experiment with more autonomous ‘innovation zones’

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar
McAuliffe Manual students gather for a photo with Denver Public Schools officials at a press conference in 2017.

Five more Denver schools will have additional freedom this fall from school district rules.

The school board voted unanimously Thursday to allow one school to join an existing “innovation zone” and another four to create a new one. Innovation zones represent a different way of managing schools that is somewhere between the traditional approach and that of charter schools, which are publicly funded but independently run.

Schools in innovation zones are district schools, but are overseen by a separate nonprofit board of directors. The idea is that grouping together schools that share a common goal or focus, and giving them more autonomy over how they spend their time and money, allows them to try new things. The ultimate goal is for the schools to do better by their students.

“I don’t know how these zones are going to end up performing over time,” Denver school board vice president Barbara O’Brien said, “but the need to allow people to try their hardest, to do the best they can and color outside the lines is a really important step.”

The school board approved the first-ever zone in 2016. Called the Luminary Learning Network, it was composed of four district schools: Ashley Elementary School, Cole Arts & Science Academy, Denver Green School, and Creativity Challenge Community.

A fifth school, Escuela Valdez, will now join. Valdez is a dual-language elementary in northwest Denver, where students are taught in English and Spanish. It has high test scores and is rated “blue,” the highest of the district’s color-coded ratings. That fits with the zone’s philosophy of taking already successful schools “from good to great.”

The board also approved the formation of a second zone called the Northeast Denver Innovation Zone. It will consist of four schools in northeast Denver that follow the International Baccalaureate, or IB, curriculum: Swigert International elementary school, McAuliffe International and McAuliffe Manual middle schools, and Northfield High School.

All four of those schools are also high-performing, but the common thread is the rigorous IB curriculum, which has its own tenets and requirements. School leaders hope to create a more seamless experience for students from preschool through 12th grade by better aligning curriculums, teacher trainings, and other practices across the schools.

“The creation of the zone opens a door for collaboration,” Pam Jubis, a parent of two Swigert elementary school students, said during public testimony at Thursday’s board meeting.

Another goal, according to school leaders, is to create a feeder pattern that would ultimately funnel more IB middle school students to Northfield High, which opened in 2015.

Several school board members expressed concerns that the zone could hurt enrollment at other high schools. They were particularly worried about Manual High School, a struggling school that’s also located in northeast Denver and shares its building with McAuliffe Manual Middle School. McAuliffe Manual is modeled after McAuliffe International, the district’s most sought-after middle school. It was placed at Manual in part to feed into the high school.

Kurt Dennis, who serves as principal at McAuliffe International and helped found McAuliffe Manual, told the school board earlier this week that the middle school at Manual is still committed to that arrangement. The feeder pattern is meant to be between McAuliffe International and Northfield, not McAuliffe Manual and Northfield, he said.

“Our intention for McAuliffe Manual is that we are partners with Manual,” Dennis said.

Innovation zones were created by a 2008 state law. Denver Public Schools has taken the concept and run with it. The 92,600-student district is known nationwide for its “portfolio management” approach that incorporates a wide range of school types.

To join an innovation zone in Denver, schools must first be designated “innovation schools.” That status allows them to waive certain state and district rules, such as the length of the school day or year. To get that status, a majority of staff members must vote to adopt an “innovation plan” that details which waivers the school is seeking and why. The same staff voting requirement is in place for joining an innovation zone.

Being part of a zone exempts school leaders from district meetings and trainings, thus allowing them to spend more time working with teachers and students. The leaders are supervised by an executive director hired by the zone’s board of directors, not a district administrator.

In addition, zone schools have more control over how they spend the state per-student funding they receive. They can opt out of paying for certain district services that are non-negotiable for regular district schools, and instead use that money to pay for things that meet their school’s specific needs, such as an additional special education teacher.

Valdez plans to use that budget flexibility to provide additional bilingual speech therapy services, parents and teachers told the school board. The school’s current therapist works part-time and is so overwhelmed with paperwork that it’s cutting into her time with students, they said.

“Though our school is bilingual and our current teacher is very good, the school would benefit from having bilingual support services,” Ivonne Gutierrez, a parent at the school, said.

In exchange for increased autonomy, schools in both zones agreed to work to improve their ratings, which are largely based on test scores, within three years. The Luminary Learning Network is heading into its third school year with three of its four schools on track. Whether or not they meet that goal could influence the board’s future support of the zone.

Eight other schools previously signaled their interest in joining the Luminary Learning Network or forming innovation zones of their own. However, only Valdez and the four schools in the Northeast Denver Innovation Zones submitted applications this year.