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DPS board split again on charter location

Denver school board members split their vote again Wednesday in placing a second campus of the district’s highest-rated middle school in northwest Denver.

The 4-3 vote to place West Denver Prep charter school at the Emerson Street School facility near Valdez Elementary next fall was applauded by more than 40 students, parents and community members.

Many wore signs reading “Bring West Denver Prep to Emerson now.”

The board split mirrored last month’s contentious vote on co-locating a West Denver Prep campus at nearby Lake Middle School, with members Jeanne Kaplan, Arturo Jimenez and Andrea Merida voting no.

Jimenez, who represents northwest Denver, said he believed parents in the audience had been “misled, maybe not intentionally,” by supporters of West Denver Prep.

“I don’t think parents have been given all of the information,” he said.

Many in the audience were from Valdez, where the school leadership council voted last month to end the school’s fledgling middle school program. They also voted to support bringing West Denver Prep to Emerson, a short walk away, to ensure their students a quality middle school option.

Concern about Skinner impact

But others in northwest Denver voiced concern that placing West Denver Prep at Emerson would continue to drain students from the neighborhood middle school, Skinner.

Skinner’s enrollment has dropped by more than half, to 300, since 2003 as three nearby elementary schools have added middle school grades and another charter has moved in the area.

A group of parents called Northwest Neighborhood Middle School NOW has rallied around Skinner and is working with Principal Nicole Veltze to bolster programs and to draw more neighborhood families.

“There is a need to protect programs in northwest Denver so we all feel like one community,” Renee Martinez-Stone, a NOW member, told board members on Wednesday.

NOW’s efforts prompted board members to include a provision in their resolution on West Denver Prep that promises “increased support for an enhanced academic program at Skinner Middle School.”

No dollar figures are yet attached to that “support” though Boasberg said the enhancements will begin this fall. Skinner is expected to apply for a district School Improvement Grant to fund the effort.

DPS staffers on Wednesday presented data showing there are 298 more students in grades 3, 4 and 5 in the Skinner boundary today than there would be occupied middle school seats in 2012, when all of the middle school options are fully implemented.

Still, Jimenez and some NOW members continue to worry that there will not be enough students in northwest Denver to sustain all of the programs. West Denver Prep is expected to stay at Emerson for one year and then move, as it adds grades, nearby – possibly North High School.

Question about educational equity

Merida said her “no” vote was about educational equity and she questioned whether West Denver Prep’s high test scores were a result of what she called “its testing environment.”

“You could say that it’s because it’s a testing environment,” she said, “that what’s really performing is the high degree of tests that are coming out of there.”

West Denver Prep’s existing two schools serve largely poor, largely Hispanic families in southwest Denver. The schools have a “warm strict” philosophy, combining uniforms and a longer school day with an intense academic focus.

The school’s original campus, on South Federal Boulevard, also has the highest academic student growth of any school in DPS.

“Why is that environment okay for Latino kids and not for other kids?” Merida asked. “Our people are people who value a well-rounded person as being a really educated person, someone who can speak about Picasso, someone who can talk about operas and symphonies …

“Why is it in the mind of some people that this particular program, which is rigorous, is the only one that’s appropriate for these kids?”

She pledged to put her own “boots on the ground” to encourage Spanish-dominant families to go to Skinner, where parents are calling for more honors classes and electives such as music and Spanish.

Other board members said placing another West Denver Prep in northwest Denver will help close the lingering achievement gap – which averages 30 percentage points in some subjects – between Hispanics and their white classmates.

Yes for ‘proven model’

“This really is an equity issue,” said school board member Theresa Pena. “This is all about closing the achievement gap and that’s the opportunity we have tonight.”

Board member Bruce Hoyt said his “yes” vote, first and foremost, was for “the absolute best chance to drive positive academic achievement in that neighborhood.”

“Although I am very encouraged and very excited about the changes going on at Lake and at Skinner,” he said, “we have a proven model at West Denver Prep that is so far superior to any of our middle school options in terms of academic achievement that I think it’s warranted to be in that location.”

West Denver Prep founder Chris Gibbons presented board members with forms signed by 228 students living in northwest Denver who intend to enroll in the two new programs.

“If right now there was to be only one West Denver Prep in Northwest Denver, we would have already made a decision of turning away 108 families that have applied to go to one of those schools,” Gibbons said. “That is not something I would be eager to do.”

Jimenez, in an earlier meeting with Gibbons, asked him to delay bringing one of the two schools to northwest Denver. Merida, in a prior board meeting, asked Gibbons to provide evidence of the numbers of families interested in West Denver Prep.

Gibbons, who has largely been quiet as debate has swirled around placing his schools in northwest Denver in the past several months, also addressed concerns about retention at West Denver Prep.

Only 61 percent of the students in the first West Denver Prep class three years ago remain at the school, he acknowledged. Of the second class, 82 percent remain at the school two years later.

In comparison, the retention rate at Lake Middle School over two years is 62 percent, according to DPS data presented Wednesday.

“This has been a difficult several months in terms of the politicization of some of the issues,” Boasberg said. “I cannot wait seven months from now to walk in the halls of Lake, of Skinner and of Emerson.”

Budget tops other news

In other business, DPS board members learned they’ll face estimated budget cuts of $42 million in state funding next school year as the state’s fiscal crisis continues. That includes cuts this year of $12 million, which will continue, plus another $30 million.

That $42 million equals 7.5 percent of the DPS’ general operating fund.

Chief Operating Officer David Suppes said schools will receive the same per-pupil base next year as they do this year – but that translates into a 4.5 percent reduction in actual purchasing power.

For example, he said, a principal who can afford to pay 100 teachers this year could only afford to pay 96 or 97 teachers next year with that same budget.

But Suppes said schools will have “maximum flexibility” over their budgets and he expects principals and their school leadership teams will strive to keep people and cut elsewhere if possible.

Budget assumptions for 2010-11 also include no raises for employees, other than increased contributions to their pension plans and to employee health-care subsidies.

Henry Roman, president of the Denver Classroom Teachers Association, said it’s early to say whether there will be a salary freeze for teachers or cuts in jobs.

“Schools will have more flexibility and my impression is schools will do their best to minimize the impact on teachers,” he said.

Roman called the likelihood of positions lost “minimal.” DPS typically hires 500 teachers a year so even if schools reduce positions, the likely result would be fewer new teachers hired, he and Suppes said.

Board members are expected to have a more in-depth budget discussion Tuesday. Principals will see their budget estimates Feb. 5 to begin planning for next school year.

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