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.”

Why not Michigan?

As Michigan’s poorest 4-year-olds wait for classroom seats, free pre-K for all kids seems elusive

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
All New York City four year-olds — including these kids who attend school is in the city's education department headquarters — are guaranteed a spot in a city-funded pre-K. In Michigan, far fewer students have access to free preschool.

Michigan is the home to America’s most famous study on the benefits of early childhood education.

But when it comes to providing free prekindergarten for all children, other states and cities are leading the way.

Vermont, Florida, Washington, and the District of Columbia have public programs for all 4-year-olds, regardless of income. Seven more states have greatly expanded their pre-K programs, too, including Wisconsin, where free voluntary pre-K is in the state’s 1848 constitution.

But not Michigan. Not yet, at least.

The pioneering Perry Preschool Study began in Ypsilanti in 1962 and followed 123 study participants starting at age 3 through the age of 40. Among the study’s  findings: Those who went to pre-K were more likely to graduate from high school and less likely to repeat grades. They were also less likely to use drugs or commit crimes.

As they grew older, they were more likely to be employed and to have stable homes, savings accounts, significantly higher incomes, and report good relations with their families.

Skills such as cooperative play lay the groundwork for children to get along with others. In addition, learning to use fine motor skills and mastering shapes, colors, numbers, and the alphabet, contribute to future growth.

Further research has underscored the worth of pre-K, making it a rare realm of bipartisan support. In fact, funding for early childhood education has risen under the past three governors.

“I’ve been around long enough to see Democrats and Republicans in office, and early childhood education continues to be on the radar as a positive,” said Lena Montgomery, director of the Wayne County branch of the Great Start Readiness Program, a state funded initiative for 4-year-olds from low-income families.

But even though the governor’s own 21st Century Education Commission recommended that Michigan expand pre-K with $390 million in new investment, he chose instead to further study the impact of Great Start. In his most recent budget, he allocated $300,000 to do that research, and kept spending for Great Start flat at $245.6 million.

Momentum toward providing publicly funded pre-K, often called universal preschool, has been slowed by cost, teacher shortages, and family resistance, advocates say. They also note that there is no incentive for different institutions to pool their money to pay for a more comprehensive pre-K program in the state.  

Other states and cities have navigated similar challenges. But Michigan families face a patchwork of options. They may keep young children at home, pay for private childcare or pre-K, or, if they meet income or disability requirements, they can enroll them in Great Start or federally funded Head Start. Both are designed to support vulnerable children, including families with low-incomes.

But there aren’t enough seats, even for every child in need. Great Start’s Montgomery said she has 27 programs with qualified families on wait lists. It’s common, she said, for policymakers to say they support children. But some families are still falling into the gaps because more money is needed, she said.

About 133,000 Michigan children are not enrolled in any early childhood program.

Half of Wayne County’s 3- and 4-year-olds are enrolled in various pre-K programs, said Iheoma Iruka of Highscope, though she added that “we can’t vouch for the quality of these programs.”

The education plan of Gretchen Whitmer, the Democratic nominee for governor, advocates for a universal program that expands Great Start until all 4-year-olds are eligible, similar to what the 21st Century Education Commission recommended. It would be paid for, according to her campaign staff, with anticipated increases in the School Aid Fund, which is mostly made up of sales, income, and property taxes. It would also use tax revenue from, among other things, the marijuana ballot initiative that’s expected to pass in November. Tax hikes shouldn’t be necessary, her staff said.

Bill Schuette, the Republican nominee, has an education plan that emphasizes third-grade literacy over pre-K. It mentions need-based transportation scholarships for preschoolers, and he said in a recent interview that universal pre-K was an option that he’d consider.

Hope Starts Here, the $50 million initiative created by the Kellogg and Kresge foundations to improve Detroit’s early childhood systems, has a number of suggestions to pay for universal pre-K. Among them: a dedicated tax proposal, a local sales tax on alcohol, coordinated philanthropic and corporate giving, and leveraging all federal grant money.

States and cities around the nation have experimented with other strategies. Georgia tied pre-K funding to the state lottery. New York City’s new universal program for all 3- and 4-year-olds comes from a mix of city, state and federal funding. Oklahoma, a pioneer in the field, discovered that school districts with half-day kindergartens were receiving state money meant for full-day programs. Lawmakers reformed the state aid formula so that those resources went into pre-K. (The districts had been spending the extra money on sports.)

Others have expanded access by combining different sources of money. North Carolina integrated pre-K with its K-12 schools and contributed part of the Title 1 money that’s allocated to school districts. Chicago is moving toward universal pre-K with a mix of state and district budget increases, and block grants. Washington, D.C. blends Head Start and local funding into its education formula.

A pilot model for blended funding in Michigan can be found in Flint, where the state’s only Educare program is based on the grounds of a former elementary school. The national Educare Early Learning Network draws from multiple revenue sources, including federal, state, and philanthropic dollars.

But regardless of where the money is coming from, opportunities to expand pre-K programs may be missed because of the statewide teacher shortage. In addition,  salaries are not as high as they are in K-12 schools. The median salary for Head Start teachers is $27,613, and for lead Great Start teachers, $37,440, according to a statewide advocacy organization.

To recruit and retain more teachers at all levels, including pre-K,  a new public-private initiative called Teach 313 launched in Detroit in August. Other places facing shortages or high turnover for its preschool teachers have turned to Teach for America to fill gaps, or provided scholarships for early childhood educators to obtain degrees that would raise their wages.

But before Michigan can explore other strategies and expand into universal pre-K, it needs to make the program it already has available to more families.

If you ask Montgomery from Great Start about her wish list, it begins with providing pre-K to all the children who are sitting on waitlists.

“It would be wonderful to to say to parents, ‘We have a spot for your child,’” Montgomery said. “ ‘You don’t have to wait for someone to drop out or leave.’ It would be wonderful to say to the people who want to run programs, or to expand their programs in their communities, ‘We have the funds for you set up and run a high quality program.’ ”


Who’s in and who’s not? Chicago board to announce new boundaries for popular Taft High

PHOTO: Tim Boyle / Getty Images
Taft High School is one of Chicago Public Schools' most overenrolled campuses. In 2019, it will spin off its freshman class to a separate campus.

The Chicago school board will announce much-anticipated new attendance boundaries on Tuesday for one of its most crowded schools, William Howard Taft High School on the Northwest side.

Starting next school year, Taft will spin off one grade level to a new campus, the Taft Freshman Academy, which is expected to enroll 1,000 freshman. Chicago Public Schools will give those living within the new attendance area priority in enrollment.

“I look forward to what CPS has to say about the new campus,” Taft Principal Mark Grishaber told Chalkbeat Chicago. “This is good for every kid on the Northwest side.”

A community meeting on the new boundaries will be held from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. Tuesday at Wilbur Wright College, 4300 N. Narragansett Ave.

At its regular monthly meeting at 10:30 a.m. Wednesday, the board will discuss the Taft boundaries and also what to do about its underrolled schools, which are primarily neighborhood schools.  A state law signed in August requires Chicago to make a plan for intervening in schools that do not have enough students.

The Chicago school district faces a critical decline in enrollment, but still plans to invest $1 billion to shore up existing schools and build new ones.