tough choices

DPS faces thicket of challenges in placement of new southwest Denver middle schools

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
DSST Cole High freshman Jayr Cardenas is the first to arrive for the school's morning meeting.

In its first big test of the 2015-16 school year, the Denver school board next week is set to pick from among a group of applicants vying to open new middle schools in coveted available district building space in southwest Denver.

Denver Public Schools staff is urging that a soon-to-be-closed middle school be given new life as a district-run international school and that growing charter school network DSST open a middle school on the Abraham Lincoln High School campus.

The recommendations, shared Thursday evening during a school board study session, have been the subject of intense speculation and are far from the final word, with the board expressing interest in alternate scenarios.

The competition for the space in southwest features two district-run schools and two charters — three emerged as strong contenders — and represents a test of both a new policy for awarding space to new schools and of how the district juggles roles as both a school operator and authorizer.

Long known as welcoming to charter schools, DPS is trying to cultivate more entrepreneurial school founders of its own. But with building space at a premium, the district finds itself in an awkward position: Those homegrown leaders are competing for the same real estate with charter schools such as DSST, which has a track record of success and big expansion plans.

The board is set to vote on the recommendations for the southwest Denver middle schools Thursday, with public comment scheduled for Monday as part of a work session. As it weighs its decision, the board is struggling with how to compare new and existing schools, including figuring out how much weight to give past performance and measure community demand.

Pushback at Lincoln

As part of a series of reforms in a region that is largely low-income and Latino, DPS put out a call for new middle schools to replace struggling Henry World Middle School, which is being phased out, and to share space at Lincoln, which the district says is possible because of declining enrollment.

A vocal contingent of Lincoln students and parents — joined by the teachers union — is fighting the latter proposal. They argue that the school hallways, parking lot and cafeteria are overcrowded, and that co-locating a middle school on the high school campus would undermine Lincoln High.

On Thursday, the board showed little inclination of changing course. The DPS recommendation tries to extend an olive branch, suggesting that DSST’s middle school opening at Lincoln be delayed a year, until fall 2017, to ease the transition. The school would be “incubated” for a year at the College Heights University campus alongside DSST’s College View school.

The proposal also calls for convening a committee of Lincoln parents, students, staff and community members to help develop an improvement plan for the high school.

In recommending DSST for Lincoln, the district turned away a program its own people devised and built — Academia Lincoln.

The school, which the board signed off on last month without giving it a home, calls for dual-language Spanish and English instruction emphasizing science, technology, engineering, math and the arts.

The staff review found Academia Lincoln’s leadership could not describe the program in the same detail as the other contenders, and was not able to show the same level of community demand.

DPS staff also favored DSST over another charter school, Compass Academy, for placement in Lincoln. Compass opened this fall with a sixth-grade class in temporary space in Kepner Middle School and promises a seal of biliteracy, strong English language development and close connections with Lincoln High.

New policy, questions remain

The site-selection process is being closely watched because it is the first test of a new DPS policy that ties new school location decisions to the schools’ academic performance, student enrollment patterns, community demand and other district priorities.

But as board members’ questions illustrated, the policy has not necessarily cleared things up.

Board member Mike Johnson asked how the district could judge Compass’s academic performance, since it just opened this year.

Alyssa Whitehead-Bust, DPS’s chief academic and innovation officer, said that with new or unproven schools, the strength of the application, school leader and other factors are considered.

Yet with past performance and public demand as determining factors, DSST is going to be hard to beat in any competition for buildings. In 2014, DSST schools accounted for five of the top 10 secondary schools in DPS when taking into account growth and proficiency on state tests.

The school board in June approved eight more DSST schools, putting it on schedule to have 22 schools by 2024-25. Given that aggressive growth strategy, DSST will almost surely be a player for any new building that suits its needs.

In recommending DSST for Lincoln, the district cited that high academic performance, that it aligns to many aspects of the district’s priorities and has a 144-student wait list for its other area school. The report cited as cons that DSST’s program “may not be for every child,” that DSST middle school students may not attend Lincoln and that the school lacks a bilingual emphasis.

DPS superintendent Tom Boasberg noted that DSST would offer a native language instruction program — offering core courses in Spanish — a first for the network.

Board member Arturo Jimenez, who represents northwest Denver, questioned whether placing a DSST middle school on campus is a precursor to closing Lincoln. Susana Cordova, DPS’s chief schools officer, said the district remains dedicated to Lincoln.

Alternate scenarios

Both DSST and Compass sought space in Henry in addition to Lincoln. DPS staff recommended that the Henry building be turned over to district-run Bear Valley International School, which promises an International Baccalaureate program, personalized learning and biliteracy support with every student getting some Spanish.

The district cited the school’s strong design and leadership, its alignment with district priorities and evidence of demand.

Although DSST and Compass already boast waiting lists in the area, DPS staff ranked the Bear Valley school above them both in enrollment demand based on “a substantial number of petition signatures” in support of the school.

Boasberg told board members another important factor influenced the decision around Henry — the fact that the staff already had recommended placing DSST on the Lincoln campus, in effect taking it out of play for Henry. Staff prioritized putting DSST, its highest performing applicant, in the area of greatest need.

The staff report left open an alternative scenario — co-locating DSST and Bear Valley at Henry and moving Compass Academy into Lincoln High School. That, however, has drawbacks, the report noted, including denying the region’s highest-need students access to DSST and the risk that the area around Henry cannot sustain two middle schools.

Still other possibilities include DSST at Henry and Compass at Lincoln, or DSST getting both buildings.

Board member Barbara O’Brien was blunt in sharing her frustration about the site selection process, saying the logic behind the recommendations remain elusive even after multiple explanations. She said she would have “appreciated an attempt to take our questions seriously” and more seriously discuss alternatives to the staff recommendations.

“I just want to make sure we are not being kind of ad hoc in how we rate some of these things,” O’Brien said.

Marcia Fulton, executive director of Compass Academy and former leader of the Odyssey School, an expeditionary learning school, said Friday she is confident the district will find the school a permanent home in this round or a future one.

“They see our strong potential as a gift to the southwest community,” she said. “I heard that loud and strong. This is complex. It is about kids in southwest Denver that we are all trying to serve with heart and soul. There are a lot of factors the district has to weigh.”

The district’s site-selection process is new and features built-in tensions, DSST chief executive Bill Kurtz said Friday.

“We need to have the opportunity for new schools — district or charter-led — to be created because they will ultimately bring innovation and new ideas and opportunities to the district,” Kurtz said. “We were a new school at one point and we appreciated that chance was afforded us. At the same time, I think it’s really important in communities that have not had great schools for a long time that we very carefully consider the track record of schools.”

Tensions over dual roles

Whitehead-Bust, the chief academic and innovation officer, acknowledged the tension of the district staff wearing “dual hats” as both school operator and authorizer. She emphasized DPS offers the same help during the process to both district and charter applicants and maintains a“firewall” between its operator and authorizer functions — making sure people aren’t working on both — to screen out any actual or potential conflicts of interest.

“We’ve worked incredibly hard to mitigate the tensions of being both an authorizer and operator,” she said.

Most of the district’s community engagement took place during summer, and turnout at times was bleak. Southwest Denver parent Jose De Jesus, in comments translated from Spanish and provided by an interpreter, said Friday he does not feel involved. He said he feels kept in the dark about what is going on at Lincoln, where his daughter is a senior.

“Lincoln needs to be given the opportunity to succeed and relocate the resources that it needs to send the students well prepared to be successful in college or in whatever career they choose,” De Jesus said. “If the middle school comes in, it’s not going to get the resources that it needs.”

In an interview Friday, Boasberg said the public should have “lots of confidence” in the staff recommendations after more than six months of work and dozens of conversations with community members.

“We’ve had very, very strong new school proposals come forward that promise tremendously improved school opportunities for our kids in a region of town that for too long has not had high enough quality middle schools,” he said.

“In many ways, this is a terrific position to be in, to have more very high quality new school applicants than buildings for them to fit in,” Boasberg said. “At the same time, that is what is causing so much discussion and anxiety. Of these very good choices, which one is best? Given there are multiple schools and multiple buildings, there are multiple alternatives. It’s not an up or down simple choice.”

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”


Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”


Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”


Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”


Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”


Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”