artistic vision

Denver School of the Arts would grow, move high school program downtown under city plan

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar
The Denver School of the Arts vocal jazz ensemble at the Denver Performing Arts Complex.

Denver’s premier public arts school would relocate its high school program to the heart of the city’s cultural district in a plan revealed Thursday for how to reinvent the decades-old downtown Denver Performing Arts Complex.

The move would allow the in-demand Denver School of the Arts to expand, and the proximity to public transit would remove attendance barriers for students who live far away or whose families can’t drive them to the school’s northeast Denver campus, Denver Public Schools officials said.

“We have a beautiful facility, but we’re isolated where we are,” said Denver School of the Arts principal William Kohut.

To be centrally located and surrounded by professional theaters, concert halls and opera houses — not to mention the urban campuses of several state colleges — would provide “unbelievable” opportunities for the students, he said.

“We are so excited to be part of this magical transformation,” said acting superintendent Susana Cordova, who acted in theater productions when she was a DPS student.

A rendering of the plan for the Denver Performing Arts Complex.
PHOTO: Courtesy City of Denver
A rendering of the plan for the Denver Performing Arts Complex.

The Denver School of the Arts this year serves 1,088 kids in sixth through twelfth grade. The plan calls for keeping the middle school in the current building and expanding the program to accept more students, Kohut said.

The high school program, which has 668 students this year, would relocate to a new space within the Performing Arts Complex capable of holding up to 1,000. With two separate facilities, the school could potentially double the number of kids who attend.

Mayor Michael Hancock said he doesn’t know where the city will get the funding for the ambitious project to remake the arts complex into a more open, interactive and diverse destination. A city committee is tasked with delivering a financial plan by the end of the year.

Today, demand for the Denver School of the Arts is high and getting in isn’t easy. The school offers several majors, from orchestra to creative writing to stagecraft, and students must audition for a spot. Admissions data from the 2014-15 school year shows that about half who make the cut come from DPS. Another 37 percent come from other Colorado public schools, while about 14 percent come from private schools or out of state.

In a district where a majority of students qualify for free and reduced-price lunch, a proxy for poverty, very few of the kids accepted to the Denver School of the Arts come from low-income schools, according to a recent report by the pro-education-reform organization A Plus Denver. Only eight students from 101 DPS schools where more than 80 percent of kids are living in poverty got into the arts school in the 2014-15 school year, the report found.

Van Schoales, CEO of A Plus Denver, said growing the school and relocating it downtown would go a long way toward increasing access for low-income kids.

“It’s bold, it’s smart and I think it’s very doable,” he said.

One idea to further increase access is to get rid of auditions for middle schoolers interested in some of the school’s majors that require less prior knowledge and training, while keeping a competitive admissions process for the high school, Kohut said.

Denver School of the Arts senior Syeeda Keith performs at the unveiling.
PHOTO: Melanie Asmar
Denver School of the Arts senior Syeeda Keith performs at the unveiling of the plan.

“We need to expand,” he said. “We’re turning away a lot of kids.”

From the city’s perspective, a public arts school would provide a much-needed daytime use for an arts center where most performances take place at night.

“Unless we have matinee performances, it’s pretty sleepy,” said Ginger White-Brunetti, the deputy director of Denver Arts and Venues, which oversees the arts complex.

Several Denver School of the Arts students performed at Thursday’s unveiling, dancing under the complex’s iconic outdoor glass ceiling on the stage where the mayor spoke minutes before, and singing an acapella medley of Michael Jackson songs in the lobby of the Buell Theatre.

“It would be incredible for the students to have access to those venues,” said dancer Olivia Gieringer, who was one of four seniors who performed short dance pieces. “It prepares you for a professional career. All of us are trying to become performers.”

Finding a home

Denver school board permanently co-locates charter elementary in middle school building

Students and staffers at Rocky Mountain Prep's first charter school in Denver cheer in 2012. (Photo by The Denver Post)

A Denver elementary charter school that was temporarily granted space in a shuttering district-run middle school building will now be housed there permanently.

The school board voted Thursday to permanently place Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest charter school in the Kepner Middle School building, where it is sharing space this year with three other school programs. Such co-locations can be controversial but have become more common in a district with skyrocketing real estate prices and ambitious school quality goals.

Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest is part of a homegrown charter network that has shown promising academic results. The network also has a school in Aurora and is expected to open a third Denver school next year in the northwest part of the city.

Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest was first placed at Kepner for the 2015-16 school year. The placement was supposed to be temporary. The district had decided the year before to phase out low-performing Kepner and replace it a new district-run middle school, Kepner Beacon, and a new charter middle school, STRIVE Prep Kepner, which is part of a larger network. The district also temporarily placed a third charter school there: Compass Academy.

Compass has since moved out of Kepner but the other four schools remain: Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest, Kepner Beacon, STRIVE Prep Kepner and the Kepner Legacy Middle School, which is on track to be completely phased out and closed by June 2019.

In a written recommendation to the school board, district officials acknowledged that permanently placing Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest at Kepner would create a space crunch.

The Kepner campus has the capacity to serve between 1,100 and 1,500 students, the recommendation says. Once all three schools reach full size, officials expect the schools will enroll a total of approximately 1,250 students. Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest currently serves students in preschool through third grade with a plan to add more grades.

“DPS facilities staff are currently working with all three schools to create a long‐term vision for the campus, including facility improvements that ensure all three schools have what they need to continue to excel,” says the recommendation from Chief Operating Officer David Suppes and Director of Operations and Support Services Liz Mendez.

District staff tried to find an alternate location for Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest but were unsuccessful, the recommendation says. The district does not have many available buildings, and competition for them among district-run and charter schools can be fierce. In northeast Denver, seven secondary schools are currently vying for the use of a shuttered elementary.

Future of Schools

Indianapolis needs tech workers. IPS hopes that George Washington will help fill that gap.

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy

Indiana companies are looking for workers with computer expertise, and Indianapolis Public Schools leaders want their students to fill that gap.

Next year, George Washington High School will launch a specialized information technology academy designed to give students the skills to pursue careers in IT — and the exposure to know what jobs even exist.

“Half of what kids aspire to be is either someone they know does it or they’ve seen it on TV,” said Karen Jung, president of Nextech, a nonprofit that works to increase computer science preparation in K-12 schools. Nextech is partnering with IPS to develop the new IT program at George Washington.

For teens who don’t know anyone working in computer science, meeting role models is essential, Jung said. When teens see women of color or artists working in computer sciences, they realize there are opportunities for people like them.

“Once we put them in front of and inside of workplaces … it clicks,” Jung said. They believe “they would belong.”

The IT program is one of three academies that will open in George Washington next year as part of a broad plan to close nearly half of the district’s high schools and add specialized focus areas at the four remaining campuses. In addition to the IT academy, George Washington will have programs in: advanced manufacturing, engineering, and logistics; and business and finance.

The district is also moving to a model without neighborhood high schools. Students will be expected to choose high schools based on focus area rather than location. This year, many current high schoolers were required to reapply in an effort to make sure they enroll in academies that fit their interests.

The district will host a showcase of schools to help parents and students with their selections. The showcase runs from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday at the Indiana State Museum.

Stan Law, principal of Arlington High School now, will take over George Washington next year. (Arlington will close at the end of this year.) He said the new academies offer an opportunity for students to see what they need to master — from soft skills to knowledge — to get good jobs when they graduate.

“I want kids to really make the connection of the purpose of high school,” Law said. “It is that foundation for the rest of your life, in terms of the quality of life that you are going to live.”

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Stan Law

When the IT academy launches next year, students who select the program will be able to spend about one to two classes per year focused on information technology, said Ben Carter, who runs career and technical education for IPS.

Carter hopes the academies will reshape George Washington and other IPS campuses by connecting potential careers with the work students do everyday at school. Students who share a focus area will be in a cohort, and they will share many of the same core classes such as English, math and history, said Carter. Teachers, in turn, will be able to relate what students are studying in their history class to projects they are working on in the IT program, for example.

To show students what a career in information technology might look like, students will have the chance to tour, connect with mentors and intern at local companies.

“If I’m in one of these career classes — I’m in software development, but then I get to go to Salesforce and walk through and see the environment, to me as a student, that’s inspiring,” said Carter. “It’s like, ‘oh, this is what I can have.’ ”

He added. “It increases engagement but also gives them a true sense of what the career is.”