Call it Round 2, the opposition.
More than 100 people signed up to speak at the second public hearing on Denver Public Schools’ recommendations for turning around six of its lowest-performing schools. Three are recommended for closure and three for new leadership.
And while speakers at Monday’s session tipped in favor of support for the plans, opponents dominated Thursday’s marathon hearing of more than four hours. School Board President Theresa Peña said it was the highest speaker count in 15 years.
Students from Greenlee K-8 in west Denver, where DPS recommends removing the principal and most teachers, sang to school board members in an effort to get them to vote no on Nov. 30.
“All I know is, everything’s gonna be alright,” they chorused to Alicia Keys’ pop hit No One.
Another group of students chanted “We are P.S. 1” as their classmates talked about how the school has changed their often troubled lives. DPS is recommending closure for the charter in central Denver which serves many students with special needs.
“The majority of our students come from the margins,” said P.S. 1 Charter Principal Laura Laffoon.
Some adults – parents, teachers – came close to tears as they spoke against the proposed changes.
“My name is Helen Garcia and I’m sorry, I’m going to cry,” said the woman known as “Grandma Helen” to those at Lake Middle School in northwest Denver, where the proposed changes have prompted the most outcry. “What you’re trying to do is separate my family.”
Groups also took their sides – the Denver Classroom Teachers Association against the proposals, the parent-organizing groups Metro Organizations for People and Padres Unidos in support.
“The status quo is not an option for our kids,” said MOP member Jennifer Gonzalez.
DPS hopes to receive at least $13 million in federal funds over three years to make dramatic changes at the long-struggling campuses, part of President Obama’s push to turn around the country’s worst-performing schools.
Northwest numbers questioned
Proposed changes at Lake, the district’s lowest-performing middle school, include scaling back and re-starting the school’s struggling International Baccalaureate program with a new principal and staff.
A number of parents in northwest Denver spoke in favor of that change on Monday.
The more controversial part of the proposal is to require that Lake share its building with a new branch of the district’s highest-performing middle school, West Denver Prep Charter.
DPS also wants to place a second West Denver Prep program at the Emerson Street School, about two miles from Lake.
Christopher Scott, a former school board candidate, was among those who argued Thursday that there are not enough children to support two new charters, Lake and nearby Skinner Middle School.
“There simply are not enough kids in northwest Denver to fill these schools,” he said.
But DPS statistics show 950 children live within Lake’s boundaries and attend a district middle school program. Of those, only 430 attend Lake.
Similarly, 644 children live within Skinner’s boundaries and attend a district middle school program. Only 186 attend Skinner.
The district also is reporting larger class sizes in area elementary schools that are expected to swell the middle school population.
For example, the number of middle-school aged children living near Skinner is expected to grow by more than 140 students over the next three years, said David Suppes, DPS chief operating officer.
He also points to bulging classes at elementary schools near Lake, such as Brown, where enrollment this fall is up by 95 students since fall 2005. Brown’s combined first-grade classes this year top 100 students.
“It’s not a stretch to say you can have that many kids,” Suppes said in an interview last Friday.
Segregation a concern
Some northwest Denver parents who drive their children to middle schools outside their neighborhood said West Denver Prep will not draw them back.
The original charter serves a high-poverty, predominantly Hispanic population and is known for its firm discipline, uniforms and longer school days.
Anne Button, who drives her seventh-grader across town to the Hill Campus of Arts & Sciences, said she’s representative of the many parents who choice out of Lake and Skinner.
“Unfortunately, it’s generally the parents of high-achieving kids who have higher incomes and more mobility who are leaving,” she said. “Please understand that the high-achieving elementary school kids like mine don’t need West Denver Prep and will not come back for West Denver Prep.”
Button said the choicing out by more affluent families has left neighborhood schools increasingly poor and increasingly segregated.
Arturo Jimenez, the school board member who represents northwest Denver, said he’s concerned the proposed boundaries for the new Lake and West Denver Prep will only deepen that segregation.
DPS would essentially split Lake’s current boundaries between the two, with each school having 300 to 400 students.
“What the district is proposing right now is … a small IB re-start tailored towards a higher-income and a higher percentage of Anglo students,” Jimenez said, “and it’s proposing that the West Denver Preps serve the low-income Latino students …
“It looks like unintended, and I say unintended, segregation will occur if we let that play out and I’m worried about that.”
Jimenez is proposing the West Denver Prep program recommended for Lake be placed instead at the former Del Pueblo Elementary in central Denver, now used for administrative offices.
‘Weigh really carefully’
A number of speakers on Thursday backed Jimenez’ Del Pueblo plan, including State Rep. Jerry Frangas, who represents northwest Denver.
But that wasn’t enough to convince Michelle Moss, the board’s vice president, who points to district data showing 300 children in grades 3 to 5 near Del Pueblo and 1,332 in those grades near Lake.
“It really showed there aren’t as many kids in the Del Pueblo area as are in the Lake area,” she said. “And so I’m not sure why we would put (West Denver Prep) there to compete for fewer kids.”
Co-location – or placing a new school program in an existing school building as proposed at Lake – has drawn strong opposition.
Thursday, Lake teachers questioned how they would share common areas such as the library and worried the change would upset students in three special education center programs there. DPS Superintendent Tom Boasberg has said the programs would stay at Lake but that few other details have been decided.
And Patrick Ridgeway, an active northwest Denver parent, warned co-location would be the “death” of Lake.
But parents in other parts of the city praised the idea.
Greg Allen, who lives in Green Valley Ranch in far northeastern Denver, said a proposal to combine two charter schools on a campus serving grades ECE-12 is exciting.
“We believe co-locating schools is a more efficient use of land and energy,” he told board members.
DPS secondary schools are only about 60 percent full. Lake, for example, enrolls fewer than 600 kids in a building the district says can serve more than 1,000.
Moss, who represents southwest Denver, said she’s watched the co-location of West Denver Prep and the Kunsmiller Creative Arts Academy in her area and “I don’t see either one of them suffering for it.”
She and other board members now a little more than a week to mull the district’s recommendations.
“For me, it’s got to be about what’s right for the kids in this district, not the adults,” Moss said. “And that’s what we have to weigh really carefully.”
Nancy Mitchell can be reached at email@example.com or 303-478-4573.