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Stapleton crowding, diversity solutions aired

In August, hundreds of Stapleton parents filled a gym to demand a solution to their overcrowded schools and there was despairing talk of educating kids at the city police academy across the street.

Tuesday night, with news that funding for a third school is nearly secure, a smaller group of parents appeared largely to embrace the solutions being recommended by Denver Public Schools’ staff.

A smiling Lesley Bush, who heads Stapleton’s Community Education Coalition, said the group’s goal was “high-quality neighborhood schools that were also diverse.”

“I am so proud today to say we have achieved our goal,” she told about 125 parents in the gym at Bill Roberts K-8 School.

DPS’ recommendations include building a third school, to open in fall 2011, to serve another projected 500 to 600 students in the housing development at the former airport in northeast Denver.

For fall 2010, the recommendations include moving the Odyssey Charter School now sharing space in Stapleton’s Westerly Creek School into nearby Philips Elementary, a low-performing school slated for closure.

The move would open up 12 classrooms or about 300 seats at Westerly Creek, which has been serving fewer than 300 students in preschool through grade 2.

In addition, DPS would make Stapleton schools the home school for 40 to 80 Philips students, an action expected to increase diversity at the two largely white and more affluent schools.

Diversity as community goal

At Tuesday’s meeting, DPS Superintendent Tom Boasberg was presented with a letter signed by 400 Stapleton residents supporting a goal of economic diversity at its schools.

DPS is urged to “protect Stapleton’s founding mission of diversity by striving for a 33 percent allocation for free or reduced lunch choice seats in all Stapleton redevelopment schools,” the letter states.

Exactly how the schools are to reach that goal is not clear.

“For sure, the work is a long ways from over,” said state Sen. Mike Johnston, who represents the area and whose signature, along with that of Denver City Councilman Michael Hancock, tops the list.

He cited “three big questions” as unresolved in the proposed Stapleton solutions, including “What is the plan for accomplishing the diversity goals?”

The letter asks DPS to work with the Stapleton schools’ leadership teams “to develop a plan to phase this in over the coming years.”

Bill Roberts, which serves nearly 700 students, has a free or reduced lunch rate of 17 percent while Westerly Creek’s rate is 6 percent, according to fall 2008 figures.

Philips’ poverty rate, meanwhile, is 80 percent. More than 90 percent of its students are minority.

Bush, the Stapleton mom, said she’s heard trepidation from some parents that there will not be enough room in Stapleton schools to reach the diversity goal – or that Stapleton children might have to give up their seats to attain it.

“I want to let you know that we will have the capacity to do it,” she told those gathered in the gym. “I would not have signed off on any letter or anything having to do with the Stapleton children not coming first in our schools.”

Bridging the achievement divide

The Stapleton solutions are part of a larger series of recommendations that Denver school board members will vote on Nov. 30.

If board members sign off, students from one of DPS’ lowest-performing schools will be shifted to two of the district’s higher-performing buildings.

Less than a third of Philips’ students were reading at grade level on state exams given this past spring. In contrast, more than 70 percent of the students attending Bill Roberts achieved that level.

An anxious mom asked DPS leaders how they planned to bridge that gap.

“This was a question that I posed immediately,” said Westerly Creek Principal Jill Corcoran. “When you’re bringing kids in from a very low-performing school, you need to have them identified and you need to have research-based interventions in place immediately …

“We started conversations last week about what that would look like. It could possibly be an intense summer school session for the kids coming over from Philips as well as additional intervention teachers in both the schools to make sure we’re supporting them.”

Boasberg said federal school turnaround dollars are expected to come with Philips’ closure and some of that money would flow to Westerly Creek and Bill Roberts to work with former Philips’ students.

Westerly Creek, which would serve preschool through grade 4 next fall, could expect 30 to 50 Philips students next year. Roberts could see 10 to 30 fifth-graders.

But Corcoran noted many families living around Philips send their children to other schools. If the higher-performing Stapleton schools become their new home school, “those numbers could go up.”

About a third of the Philips’ boundary area would be shifted to Stapleton. The school is less than two miles from Bill Roberts and Westerly Creek.

“As long as it’s intentional and you have the necessary support in place from the very beginning, I think it could really work,” Corcoran said of folding Philips students into her school. “I really believe, with all the right support, you can bring any child up to grade level.”

Click here to see DPS’ presentation to the Stapleton community, including more details about the financing for a third school and its location.

Click here to see the letter sent by Stapleton community members to DPS, outlining an economic diversity goal.

Nancy Mitchell can be reached at nmitchell@pebc.org or 303-478-4573.

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