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Support lacking for DPS reform plan

Lisa Calderon holds up signs Tuesday showing her opposition to the proposed reform plan in Far Northeast Denver.
Lisa Calderon holds up signs Tuesday showing her opposition to the proposed reform plan in Far Northeast Denver.

A district plan to dramatically alter six low-performing schools in Far Northeast Denver appeared to win little community support during a packed and emotional meeting Tuesday that was interrupted by opponents chanting “Say no!”

A majority of the nearly 200 people who stuck around to meeting’s end indicated by informal polling that they believe the proposal would provide worse choices for students living in Montbello and Green Valley Ranch and would lower student achievement.

Scroll to the bottom to see video of the protest.

“I think the feedback is really important,” Denver Public Schools Superintendent Tom Boasberg said afterward, “and we need to go back and continue the discussions … and think about what is truly the best scenario for the students of this area.”

He declined to say whether the district would return with a changed plan at the next committee meeting on Oct. 26. School board members are expected to vote on the proposal in November.

Creating a community committee

A group of parents, community members and teachers have been meeting since April to talk about how to improve schools in the area, which is home to some of DPS’ most struggling campuses.

Community members, parents, students and teachers crowd the cafeteria at Martin Luther King Junior Early College to hear more about the reform plan.
Community members, parents, students and teachers crowd the cafeteria at Martin Luther King Junior Early College to hear more about the reform plan.

Last month, the district released its proposal to the 40-member Far Northeast Community Committee and last night’s meeting was its debut at what was billed as an “all-community” meeting. Parking lots at Martin Luther King Junior Early College in Montbello were filled to overflowing and, inside, the school cafeteria was jammed.

Many parents, such as Dolores Gonzalez, who has a daughter at Rachel B. Noel Middle School in Montbello, came to figure out how their students would be affected by the plan.

But Gonzalez, who’s a member of the community committee, also expressed frustration that the proposal contains some details that were new to her.

“I don’t remember ever discussing this or recommending this,” she told a cluster of people gathered in a classroom during the night’s “break-out sessions” to talk about specific schools. Her group focused on Noel.

Details of the proposal

District leaders say they took information gathered during seven previous meetings to shape the proposal first disclosed Sept. 28. Details of the plan include:

  • Ford Elementary would be replaced by a campus of the Denver Center for International Studies magnet program.
  • Green Valley Elementary would undergo “turnaround,” meaning a new principal would be hired and teachers would have to reapply for their jobs.
  • McGlone Elementary also would undergo “turnaround,” though their recently-hired principal would stay.
  • Oakland Elementary would be replaced by a campus of the SOAR charter school.
  • Noel Middle School would be replaced by a 6-12 arts program with 100 students per grade; a KIPP charter school would be co-located at the school.
  • Montbello High School would be replaced by a 9-12 Collegiate Prep Academy with 150 to 200 students per grade. A Denver Center for International Studies 6-12 magnet program would open at the school as would a High Tech Early College.
DPS administrator Antwan Wilson, who oversees high schools, sought to answer questions about Montbello's role in the reform proposal.
DPS administrator Antwan Wilson, who oversees high schools, sought to answer questions about Montbello's role in the reform proposal.
T.Cheshier/Chalkbeat TN

Montbello’s fate drew the most interest from those at Tuesday’s meeting, and several speakers questioned why a popular new principal would have to make changes.

The principal, Anthony Smith, took the microphone to explain that he had asked for some of them.

“Transformation is occurring at Montbello. If you come to Montbello now, you see a different school,” he said. “That is not enough, though. I want to impress upon you that we have to do more … We have to make sure that every student that walks through those doors has equal opportunity for success.”

The proposal comes with millions of dollars attached in the form of federal grants, awarded to DPS for work underway at Noel and Montbello.

Voices raised in opposition

At meeting’s end, organizers tried to check consensus on the proposal by having community members respond to questions using “clickers,” or hand-held devices that allow for anonymous voting.

As one question as being read aloud, however, opponents began to speak up. Lisa Calderón, who belongs to two groups that have expressed opposition to the plan, loudly urged audience members to “Say no” and held up signs expressing the sentiment in English and Spanish.

Signs went up around the room and the chant began – “Say no, say no.”

Calderón later said that her experience with the closures of Cole Middle School and Manual High School, blocks from her home in near northeast Denver, spurred her activism. The schools re-opened but, for example, Manual initially accepted only 9th-graders, growing a grade at a time.

As a result, Calderón said her children were forced to leave their neighborhood to go to school farther away – East High and DCIS – and DPS provided no assistance.

“When we see this happening in another neighborhood, it’s our obligation to try to raise awareness – don’t believe the hype,” she said. “There’s no evidence that these turnaround strategies work.”

Audience members used clickers to respond to questions about the proposal.
Audience members used clickers to respond to questions about the proposal.
T. Cheshier/Chalkbeat TN

Members of the Denver Classroom Teachers Association also are critical of the plan, which they say involved little input from teachers. Four of the committee members are listed as “teacher representatives.”

“I have visited five of the six schools and the response I got from faculty, from teachers, is they have had very limited or no involvement at all,” said DCTA President Henry Roman.

At Tuesday’s meeting, “the message was clear and evident, the community is not satisfied with the proposed scenarios,” he added.

Laurie Zeller, executive director of A-Plus Denver, the citizens’ group that worked with DPS to convene the committee, agreed, “It’s clear there’s a lot of communication that needs to take place in the community.”

“I was disappointed that the folks decided to try to stop the meeting,” she said. “We were asking for their input and they decided to … yell instead of have a deliberative conversation. But I understand that passions are high, there’s a lot of history here…

“Tonight’s input will have a role,” she said. “But bear in mind the committee is more than half parents. The group in the room tonight were not more than half parents and a lot of them don’t even live in the neighborhood.”

Selected questions and responses about DPS proposal

The number of respondents to each question varied slightly but about 190 people were on hand when polling began. FNE refers to Far Northeast Denver.

Question: Where do you live?

  • 80239 (Montbello) – 46%
  • 80249 (Green Valley Ranch) – 28%
  • Other – 26%

Question: Are you a parent?

  • Yes – 48%
  • No – 51%

Question: Are you a committee member or a community member?

  • Committee member – 13%
  • Community member – 87%

Question: To what degree do you think this scenario will provide FNE students better choices closer to home?

  • Significantly worse choices – 45%
  • Worse choices– 11%
  • No change in choices– 17%
  • Better choices– 13%
  • Significantly better choices – 14%

Question: To what degree will this scenario improve student achievement in the FNE?

  • Significantly lower student achievement – 44%
  • Lower student achievement – 12%
  • No impact on student achievement – 21%
  • Improve student achievement – 14%
  • Significantly improve student achievement – 9%

An organizer asking audience members questions about the DPS reform plan is interrupted by opponents:

Some of those supportive of changes in Far Northeast Denver talk about why:

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