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DPS hears support for turnaround ideas

They came, they commented and, perhaps surprisingly, most of them liked it – with caveats.

The first of two public comment sessions this week on Denver Public Schools’ turnaround plans for six of its lowest-performing schools drew an overflow audience Monday night at 900 Grant St.

More than two dozen parents, teachers, students and community members spoke largely in favor of the recommendations, which include closing three schools and replacing the leadership at two others.

“Certainly, there are concerns about some of them and we need to respond to those concerns,” DPS Superintendent Tom Boasberg said afterward. “But from northeast Denver to southeast Denver, from northwest Denver to southwest Denver, there was very strong support for the proposals.”

A second public hearing is scheduled for Thursday and “quite a few” speakers already are signed up for that session, according to DPS staff. DPS board members typically hear public comment on Thursdays.

But Monday, no one spoke on behalf of Philips Elementary in northeast Denver or for Skyland and P.S.1 charter schools – all of which would close under the DPS plan.

Nor did anyone talk about Greenlee K-8 in central Denver, which would get a new principal and revert to an elementary if DPS board members approve the staff recommendations on Nov. 30.

(Update: Some schools, including P.S. 1 Charter, have told Ed News that they previously were told Thursday was their opportunity for public comment and they plan to show their support then.)

Focus on northwest Denver

Instead, the focus was northwest Denver, where Boasberg is recommending Lake Middle School re-start its International Baccalaureate program and share its building with West Denver Prep charter middle school.

Lake is DPS’ lowest-performing middle school; West Denver Prep is its highest. Both serve high-poverty, mostly Hispanic student bodies.

Josephine Canales, whose four grandchildren live with her near Lake, said she and her oldest grandson – who will enter middle school next fall – toured one of West Denver Prep’ two existing campuses.

“I believe this would be a great program for the Lake community,” she said. “I have three others to follow him and I want to see effective change now.”

In the weeks leading up to the Nov. 2 release of the recommendations, some Lake parents advocated for keeping the IB program at Lake. But they also argued against placing another school in the building.

“That does not bother me,” Canales told board members Monday. “I think it’s time we used the building to its full capacity.”

The prospect of sharing Lake did bother other speakers, however.

Amber Tafoya, who described herself as a future parent in northwest Denver, said she also had toured West Denver Prep and “they’re doing amazing things.”

But “I think there are still questions about whether or not a Lake turnaround can be successful with a co-location,” she said.

More speakers said that while they didn’t particularly like the idea of schools sharing Lake, they do like the idea of reinvigorating Lake’s floundering IB program.

Support from Brown parents

Tony Curcio was among the nine parents with children at Brown Elementary, an IB school that feeds into Lake, who spoke in support.

“Though I’m not thrilled about DPS’ proposal to co-locate West Denver Prep at Lake,” he said, “I am pleased to hear the DPS proposal is to commit the resources necessary to make IB at Lake Middle School successful.”

Several Brown parents said they were happy to hear that Brown’s IB coordinator, Amy Highsmith, is being recommended as principal of the new IB program at Lake.

“The momentum we see at Brown is just going to continue at Lake,” said Kelly Bondurant, who has a first-grader at Brown.

Brown has seen increases in enrollment and test scores since it became an IB school in fall 2005. It’s grown by 96 students, to 461 this fall, and it’s posted double-digit increases in test scores, with more than half of its students proficient or advanced in reading and math on last spring’s state exams.

It’s also become more reflective of the neighborhood it serves, parents said Monday. In 2005, Brown students were overwhelmingly Hispanic. In 2008, its students were 53 percent Hispanic, 34 percent white, 6 percent Asian, 5 percent American Indian and 2 percent African-American.

But Lake, which became an IB school after Brown, has struggled and some are concerned that placing West Denver Prep alongside the new Lake IB will siphon away attention, resources and students.

Brown parent Hi Howard said he supported the charter moving into Lake but wanted it given a lease agreement of only three years – so that the new Lake could expand if families demanded it.

Board member proposes change

Arturo Jimenez, the school board member who represents northwest Denver, said he plans this week to submit a new recommendation that would move the West Denver Prep proposed for Lake into the former Del Pueblo Elementary school. It now houses district offices.

In addition to moving a West Denver Prep campus into Lake, DPS staff is recommending a second West Denver Prep program be placed in the Emerson Street School facility and that Emerson be relocated. After a year, that West Denver Prep would be moved onto the North High School campus.

That worries some parents, who question why two West Denver Prep campuses should be located within two miles of each other in northwest Denver.

Helen McDermott said her daughter, a sixth-grader at Academia Ana Marie Sandoval in northwest Denver, doesn’t need the strict structure and longer school day of West Denver Prep.

What she needs instead, McDermott said, is a program geared for students at or above grade level that is rich in options such as foreign language, art and honors courses. That’s not offered close to home.

“Please limit West Denver Prep to one school in our neighborhood,” she urged, “and support our existing schools, Lake and Skinner, and grow them into the dynamic neighborhood schools that we need.”

Click here to read the Ed News story about DPS’ turnaround plans.

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

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