Changes

Far northeast Denver gets campus upgrades, but not the traditional high school some want

PHOTO: Seth McConnell/The Denver Post via Getty Images
A seventh-grade biology class at the Montbello campus in Denver in 2017.

Denver students who return this fall to the five small schools on the Montbello campus will find a refurbished library with a dedicated librarian — something they didn’t have this past year.

New stadium lights will mean high school athletes no longer have their after-school practices cut short by the setting sun. Students at the two high schools on the campus will be able to take elective courses at either school, widening their academic possibilities.

These changes will create something closer to a traditional high school experience for students in far northeast Denver. Some residents have been asking for the return of a comprehensive high school in the region. It hasn’t had one since the school board voted in 2010 to close low-performing Montbello High and replace it with smaller schools that share facilities.

The five schools on the Montbello campus are:
  • DCIS Montbello Middle School
  • DCIS Montbello High School
  • Noel Community Arts Middle School
  • Noel Community Arts High School
  • STRIVE Prep Montbello Middle School

The three middle and two high schools on the Montbello campus served nearly 1,800 students this past school year. Nearly all of them were students of color, and 88 percent of students qualified for free or reduced-price lunch, an indicator of poverty.

District officials point to higher test scores and rising graduation rates as proof the small schools are working. But some community members disagree, in part because they say shared campus arrangements have created other academic and social inequities. In the past year, parents, athletic coaches, and students have been increasingly vocal in demanding change.

Denver Public Schools Superintendent Tom Boasberg said the district heard the feedback “loud and clear.” The library renovation and other changes will “bring some real, tangible, and meaningful benefits to our students in the far northeast,” he said.

Community members said they’re a start.

“We like to say we acknowledge what the DPS has done in response to all of this community agitation,” said Brandon Pryor, a Denver parent and football coach who has emerged as one of the strongest advocates for change. “We want to stay away from thanking them because the things they’re doing are the things they should have been doing already.”

School board member Jennifer Bacon, who represents the area, wants to help the community continue its advocacy. She is working to form a committee of parents, students, teachers, and other residents to come up with a vision for what public education should look like in the far northeast — and, perhaps, a model for future new schools in the region.

“You can’t just dangle low-hanging fruit and believe that’s enough,” Bacon said of the district’s efforts to address the concerns. However, she added, “you have to also start somewhere. The fact that we are means that a point was made, and it was received.”

The changes the district is making for the 2018-19 school year stop well short of reopening a traditional high school. Superintendent Boasberg said that while he hears that desire, “our first priority is to invest in the schools that we have.”

The changes include:

Providing “open access to a high-functioning library” for the schools on the Montbello campus, “including a dedicated librarian, for research and study time,” according to a letter Boasberg sent to families after touring the campus alongside community advocates.

All five schools will share a single library and librarian.

This past school year, one of the schools on the campus, DCIS Montbello, used the library as a math classroom during the fall semester, district officials said. When the library reopened during the spring semester, there was no librarian and no computers there. (Students have access to computers in their classrooms, and some schools issue students their own, officials said.)

The library renovation will add technology, and update the paint, flooring, furniture, and book selection, district officials said. It will be funded through a variety of sources, including a tax increase voters approved in 2016. Funding for the librarian position will come out of the district’s central budget, not individual school budgets, officials said.

Adding lights to the athletic fields at the Montbello campus and the nearby Evie Dennis campus, which houses a mix of elementary, middle, and high schools. The district is also aligning bell schedules at all district-run high schools in the far northeast.

That will enable student athletes from the various schools who play as a single team under the banner of the Far Northeast Warriors to start practice earlier. Football coach Tony Lindsay said that this past year, the schools’ bell schedules were all over the place. The school with the earliest dismissal time let students out at 2:45 p.m.; the latest dismissed them at 4:15 p.m.

A bus went from school to school, collecting the athletes, who wouldn’t arrive at the field until 4:45 p.m., he said. That posed a major problem in the fall, when it gets dark by 5:15 p.m.

The district is paying for the lights at the Evie Dennis campus with money from the 2016 tax increase and using reserve funds to pay for the Montbello lights, officials said.

Hiring an athletic liaison to help students meet the academic eligibility requirements to play sports for Denver Public Schools and qualify for college scholarships.

When Lindsay coached football at a traditional high school in south Denver, he required his players to attend a 45-minute study hall before practice so they could keep up with their homework. But the disparate bell schedules and lack of field lights didn’t allow him to do the same in the far northeast. As a result, he said, some athletes fell behind. Others left for larger, more traditional high schools in other parts of Denver and in surrounding districts.

“They didn’t want this mess,” Lindsay said. “I don’t blame them, but I’m hurt by it. I live out there. That’s my community.”

The liaison will connect student athletes with tutoring and other academic support, officials said. The position will be funded by the district, not the schools.

Expanding the number of available electives for some students. High school students at DCIS Montbello and Noel Community Arts School will be able to take elective courses at either school. According to district officials, those could include Advanced Placement, college-level, and foreign language courses, as well as band, orchestra, dance, and theater.

Many of the changes for next year are related to athletics. That’s because some of the strongest advocacy has come from the football coaches and their players, who showed up at school board meetings this year to speak publicly about the needs in the far northeast.

Lindsay, Pryor and others also participated in a series of community meetings run by Denver Public Schools over the past year and a half. The meetings started as an effort to ask residents in the region what they want in their schools. They ended in a heated debate about whether to reopen a traditional high school. The idea prompted backlash from leaders of the small schools that replaced Montbello High, as they initially saw it as a threat to their existence.

That conflict seems to have cooled, but those who want a traditional high school aren’t relenting. Narcy Jackson, who also participated in the meetings and runs a mentoring program for student athletes, said the changes the district is making don’t go far enough to address inequities.

“They give, like, a crumb,” Jackson said. “That’s supposed to suffice.”

District officials argue that students in the far northeast are getting a better education now than they did before the phase-out of Montbello High, which began in 2011 and ended in 2014 when the last class graduated. In addition to the two small high schools on the Montbello campus, there are six other small high schools and three alternative high schools in the region. They are a mix of district-run and charter schools, and all but one have fewer than 600 students.

Average ACT scores in the far northeast increased from 15.7 points out of 36 in 2011 to 17.7 in 2016, district data shows. That number does not include scores from the alternative schools.

The five-year graduation rate rose from 69 percent to nearly 88 percent. The district prefers to use a five-year graduation rate, rather than a four-year rate, because officials believe in allowing students to stay longer to take free college courses or do apprenticeships.

In addition, high school enrollment in far northeast schools has nearly doubled, from 2,056 students in 2010 to 4,069 students in 2017, district data shows. Officials see that as a sign families are increasingly satisfied with their local schools.

Pryor, the parent and football coach, sees things differently. Test scores are increasing, but he said they’re still not where they should be. ACT scores lag behind the district average. At DCIS Montbello, only 11 percent of 9th graders met expectations on last year’s state literacy test. As for the graduation rate, “that’s not an indication of kids doing better,” Pryor said.

“They’re just passing them through,” he said, “creating an illusion that they’re serving our kids better, but they’re not.”

He’d like to work with other community members to design a brand-new high school. He hopes to start by visiting schools around the country that have been successful in educating black and Latino students. He said he appreciates that Bacon, the school board member, wants to keep the conversation going beyond the changes the district is making next year.

“We’ve identified problems,” Pryor said. Now, he added, “it’s time to work on solutions.”

Changing course

After pressure from school board members, University of Memphis middle school drops its academic requirement

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
University of Memphis' elementary, Campus School, is one of the highest achieving schools in the state.

Leaders of a popular elementary school known for its high academic performance are changing the entrance requirements at a proposed middle school in hopes of creating a more diverse student body.

After the Shelby County Schools board raised concerns that the University of Memphis’ plans would continue a pattern of student enrollment from its elementary school, Campus School, that is mostly white, university leaders said last week they would drop the academic requirement for the middle school.

Most Memphis students do not meet state standards for learning. Under the revised proposal, students would need satisfactory behavior records and fewer than 15 unexcused absences, tardies, or early dismissals.

In addition, the school is meant to be a learning lab for teachers earning their degrees. School leaders hope these teachers will eventually return to the Memphis school system to work with children who live in poverty. But currently, the student body doesn’t reflect the population school leaders want to serve.

“We need to make sure that new teachers are getting everything they need. That way you then can learn how to be successful in a diverse community,” board member Miska Clay Bibbs said.

White students made up two-thirds of the elementary school in 2017, the highest percentage in the district. Only 8 percent of the students lived in poverty — the lowest in the district. By comparison, more than half of students in Shelby County Schools live in poverty while only 8 percent are white.

The Memphis district has added more speciality schools in recent years to attract and retain high-achieving students, including white students, who might otherwise choose a private school or schools in the surrounding suburbs. Campus School is one that attracts a lot of white families.

It wasn’t always like that, board member Michelle Robinson McKissack said. She and other board members urged university leaders to do more intentional outreach to the surrounding neighborhood that would have priority in admissions.

“It’s surprising to me that it did seem to be more diverse when I was a child going to Campus in the mid-70s than today,” she said. “And I want to ensure that University Middle looks like Campus looked when I was going to school there.”

Until recently, Campus School was the only school with a contract in the district. Compared to charter schools, contract schools have more say in how they choose students. That allows the University of Memphis to give priority to children of faculty and staff.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
University Middle would be housed in the former St. Anne Catholic School near Highland Street and Spottswood Avenue.

Paul Little and his wife chose their house because of its proximity to Campus School. If the university’s middle school had been open, he would have enrolled his oldest daughter there. He considered other public options, but ultimately decided on an all-girls private school.

“For a long time, I was against private schools in general because if people with high academic achievers pull their kids out of public school, you’ve left a vacuum,” he said.

Little, a White Station High School graduate, disagrees with the assertion that Campus School is not diverse, citing several international students who are children of University of Memphis faculty.

At a recent school meeting, “when I looked out over the cafeteria, I saw a lot of diversity there… That’s never been a concern for me,” he said. He said he was encouraged by the university’s outreach plans “to make the school as diverse as possible.”

Board members are expected to discuss the contract with University of Memphis on Tuesday night, vote the following week, and then open online applications to the school Jan. 30. The school would open in August with sixth-graders with plans to add one grade each year after that.

voices of the vote

Meet Denver teachers who voted yes to a strike, no to a strike — and just aren’t sure

PHOTO: PHOTO: Andy Cross/The Denver Post
Skinner Middle School math teacher Peter English walks out of the Riverside Baptist Church with his son, Landon, left, and daughter Brooke strapped to his chest after voting on whether to go on strike ()

Throughout the day, the parking lot of Riverside Baptist Church filled up as Denver teachers made their way into a meeting organized by their union, the Denver Classroom Teachers Association.  

Months of negotiations that failed to produce a deal between top leaders of Denver Public Schools and the union had given way to individual teachers facing a choice: To strike or not?

Along with reporting the news of the day — which you can read about here — Chalkbeat spent time visiting with teachers to get a sense of what was shaping their decision-making.

Most teachers we spoke with, both in depth and in passing, said they voted “yes” to strike. Union officials have said two-thirds of those who vote Saturday and in a second session Tuesday must sign off on a strike for it to proceed, and the prevailing wisdom among teachers we interviewed was that support is strong.

The decision, though, is far from black and white for many teachers, regardless of where they ultimately land.

Here are the stories of three teachers, all at different places:

Krista Skuce, Slavens K-8 school: Yes to strike

At the urging of teachers and parents, Slavens K-8 students turned out early on a few recent mornings to show support for their teachers. They wore red in solidarity and posed for pictures.

They also brought questions. “Why are you doing this?” was one.

Krista Skuce, a physical education teacher and 14-year Denver Public Schools employee, would tell students that she lives 40 minutes from the school because she can’t afford to live in Denver.

Krista Skuce

But there is more to her story. Her spouse, she said, is no longer able to work, beset by medical issues, unable to draw disability benefits, and in need of costly care including massage therapy, chiropractic appointments, neuromuscular therapies, and more.  

At the same time, Skuce said her pay “doesn’t seem to be going anywhere.” So she hustles, earning extra pay by driving across town to coach softball and basketball.

Skuce, like many teachers who stopped to talk about their votes on Saturday, believes the district can do more to boost teachers’ base pay — before bonuses and incentives.  

She said her salary has only increased $4,000 or $5,000 in the past 14 years, even though she has been teaching 27 years, has a master’s degree, and is National Board Certified.

Skuce said she knows that by voting to strike, she could very well end up taking money out of her own bank account. Striking teachers don’t get paychecks.

“I am hoping the district and the DCTA do the right thing and recognize the fact that there are some people here who are on the edge,” she said. “We are on the edge emotionally, financially. We know these are good people. And I think teachers are people who wake up every morning with forgiveness.

“You have to take a stand and say what you are for at some point in time in your life — and this is it,” she said. “I’m willing to do it, scary or not.”  

Jason Clymer, John F. Kennedy High School: No to strike

An English teacher at John F. Kennedy High School, Jason Clymer stands with his fellow union members in the belief teachers aren’t paid enough. He finds fault with what is asked of teachers through LEAP, the district’s growth and performance system for teachers.

“Teachers at my school feel extremely micromanaged and can’t catch a breath,” he said.  

But in the end, after being one of the first teachers in the door Saturday and attending an information session, Clymer said he voted against the strike.

“Going on strike is very hard,” said Clymer, whose wife works in human resources for the district’s central office. “And I think the agreement DPS came to was close enough.”

Clymer questioned picking a fight now because of the limited scope of the negotiations. That would be the current agreement governing ProComp, the pay system that provides teachers one-time bonuses for things like teaching in a high-poverty school, getting strong evaluations, having students who earn high test scores, or teaching in a high-performing school.

He said he’d like to save some political leverage to focus on other issues covered by the district’s main contract with the union.

“It’s really unfortunate these things can’t all be negotiated together,” he said. “If the district came out and said, ‘We want to give you more money, not as much as you like, but we want to devote more to things like mental health services,’ I really think that would be a winning argument.”

In opposing a strike, Clymer said that he did not want to divide his fellow teachers

“Although I voted no, I believe in the union,” he said. “And if the union voted to strike, I will absolutely support the union.”

Paula Zendle, Denver Green School: Undecided about strike

Paula Zendle is dreading the moment that is appearing increasingly likely: standing before her students at the Denver Green School and explaining why she won’t be there to teach them.

“I tell them constantly, ‘Don’t miss school, don’t miss school. Don’t be absent, don’t be absent, don’t be absent,’” said Zendle, her eyes welling up with tears as she waited on a friend. “I have been fighting to avoid a strike. I hate this. It’s utterly and totally agonizing to me.”

Paula Zendle

Zendle said she left a career in the corporate world for the classroom and has been teaching eight years. She teaches English language acquisition and Spanish at the Green School, a popular and highly-rated middle school option in a district that celebrates choice.

 Zendle said she has done her research and written to the district’s chief financial officer. What bothers her is a system she believes rewards younger teachers and underpays teachers in terms of the cost of living.  

The average Denver teacher currently earns about $51,000 in base pay and $57,000 with incentives, according to data from the state education department and the district. That’s less than teachers in districts like Boulder Valley, Cherry Creek, and Littleton.

District officials have agreed to put $20 million more into teacher compensation and defended their most recent offer on Saturday as “compelling.”

For Zendle, the prospect of facing her students — and that she works in a supportive school environment — is contributing to her struggle in deciding whether to vote “yes” to strike.

So if the moment does come, what will she tell her students?

“We have the right to protest unfair taxpayer spending,” she said. “This is not only unfair, it’s unconscionable. Their priorities have been wrong for 10 years.”

Then she paused and made clear that her decision had not been made. She considers herself a person of principle, and that will guide her in making a decision.