More than a hundred people have appeared before the Denver school board in recent months with impassioned arguments for and against the proposed placement of a new elementary program in their neighborhood middle school.
Many have tried to convince the seven board members that plopping Creativity Challenge Community, known as C3, into Merrill Middle School in southeast Denver is guaranteed to boost Merrill’s future enrollment – many others are sure C3 will be Merrill’s death knell.
Few have expressed uncertainty about their opinions, and some have shed tears while making their case.
“This will kill neighborhood enrollment at Merrill, due to uncertainty and the negative impact of having an unrelated school at Merrill,” said Carol Angel, the president of its Parent Teacher Organization who has been speaking out against the plan for months.
“It has already gotten a lot of negative feedback. I have conversations with people who have fifth-graders, and when they hear about this co-location, they say, ‘Okay, I’ll cross Merrill off the list.’ ”
The debate will be settled Thursday night when the Denver Public Schools board votes on C3 at Merrill and a slew of charter school renewals, school placements and new school applications.
If C3 at Merrill is approved, the creativity-themed elementary will open its doors in fall 2012 with about 100 students, 50 each in the first and second grades, inside a middle school building where 545 students are now enrolled. The youngest C3 students, about 25 kindergartners, would be housed at the nearby Knight Early Learning Center.
The controversy over the C3 at Merrill plan has raged on, including becoming an issue in the recent school board elections, though shared campuses can now be found from one end of the district map to the other.
DPS, more than any other Colorado school district, has shown a growing appetite for co-locating schools.
“They are overwhelmingly very successful, cooperative experiences for kids and the schools,” said Superintendent Tom Boasberg. “Sharing facilities allows us to fully utilize the facilities that taxpayers have built, and it allows schools to serve a number of students in a way that matches the best educational program for the kids, rather than necessarily the size of a building that was built 60 years ago.”
DPS now features 12 shared campuses involving 28 schools, serving about 8,000 students.
Shared campuses not unusual across Colorado
Co-locations have become more common across Colorado, as districts look to capitalize on unused space in schools that have lost enrollment and to economize in a time when new capital projects are slowed by a weakened economy.
“To be very blunt, I think for us the politics have been challenging and the operations have been very straightforward and very positive.”
Chris Gibbons, West Denver Prep“There have been a lot of examples over the years on how we try to maximize the use of a physical structure,” said Bruce Caughey, executive director of the Colorado Association of School Executives. “The trick is making sure it works for the parents and the community, and sometimes that becomes an issue between neighborhood schools and schools that draw from a much larger population.
“This conversation overlaps with two kinds of things that are happening – economic efficiency, but also in providing more choices to parents. And it’s a convergence of those two issues which is creating more interest in this conversation.”
Data from the Colorado Department of Education show 255 schools in 89 districts across the state share the same address. That includes numerous schools in rural areas with K-12 campuses and metro-area examples such as STEM Lab and Westgate Charter in Adams 12 Five Star and MESA, Academy and North Valley secondary schools in Mapleton.
No district, however, has been as prolific in approving such arrangements as Denver.
The proposal to place C3 at Merrill Middle School is, in fact, just one of several shared campuses being considered by the board Thursday night. The others:
- West Denver Prep campus #5 at the leased Samsonite building in the Far Northeast, currently home to High Tech Early College.
- West Denver Prep campus #6 at the Evie Dennis campus in Green Valley Ranch, alongside SOAR, Denver School of Science and Technology, and Vista Academy.
- West Denver Prep-Harvey Park moving from its shared space at the former Kunsmiller Middle School to the former Lutheran campus to share space with West Denver Prep’s first high school.
- Denver School of Science and Technology campus #4 to open at Colorado Heights University, home to Summit Academy.
Presuming nothing changes in West Denver Prep’s plans, the charter network will have seven schools in Denver by this time next year. Four of them will be sharing a building with another DPS school.
Chris Gibbons, executive director of West Denver Prep, distinguishes between the politics and the operations of shared campuses.
“To be very blunt, I think for us the politics have been challenging and the operations have been very straightforward and very positive,” he said.
West Denver Prep has been in the midst of some of the most contentious co-location proposals, including the placement of a campus at Lake Middle School in fall 2010.
“The co-location decisions are very difficult if they limit a school’s program or growth capacity in some way. That is sensitive and challenging,” said Gibbons.
“I think the lessons learned are that the teamwork between the building leaders is critical, and a lot of attention needs to be invested in that in order for it to work.”
If so, the proposed placement of C3 at Merrill may be aided by a close partnership between Merrill first-year principal Amy Bringedahl and Julia Shepherd, the Cory Elementary School principal who would assume that post at C3.
“Amy and I feel we can really create something that is different than either of us has right now, where we combine our abilities to work together,” said Shepherd, citing examples such as an expanded library included in $750,000 in upgrades earmarked for Merrill.
“The possibilities are exciting for what would happen, potentially, for Merrill,” Bringedahl said during a tour last week of her building, which in recent years has averaged enrollment of fewer than 600 students. DPS says the space can serve 1,083.
“I feel the benefits of the co-location far outweigh any of the perceived negatives that are out there,” she said. “I really do.”
Challenges, brewing concern at teacher-led MSLA
Kim Ursetta, the former teachers’ union president who helped found the teacher-led Math and Science Leadership Academy, is finding campus sharing to be a mixed bag.
MSLA, which enrolls 254 kindergartners through fourth-graders this year, shares the former Rishel Middle School campus in southwest Denver with KIPP Collegiate High School. The high school serves 226 students in grades 9-11 and will add a 12th grade next year.
“It is becoming more and more challenging as our schools grow,” said Ursetta.
“Every year we have to sit down and negotiate the usage of space in the building. We have almost identical start and ending times. You have high school kids who drive, arriving or exiting parking lots while our kinders are trying to get into the building. It’s just a big challenge.”
“We would not like to keep sharing a school with students older than our children.”
Letter from MSLA parentsNow MSLA is being offered another co-location – this time, at nearby Kepner Middle School. That move, proposed for 2013-14, would coincide with an extension of West High School’s boundaries to the middle school levels, relieving Kepner overcrowding and reducing its enrollment over the next four years from more than 1,000 to between 650 and 700.
DPS is letting MSLA decide. If the school moves, it will be replaced at Rishel by a new KIPP elementary school. If it stays, the KIPP elementary will share space at the former Lutheran High School site now owned by DPS.
Many MSLA parents aren’t happy with the proposed move to Kepner. In a letter from “Parents of MSLA” presented to the school board earlier this month, they wrote, “We would not like to keep sharing a school with students older than our children. Each student should have his/her own space in accordance to his/her age and needs.”
Ursetta has twin fourth-graders at her school and a seventh-grader at Kepner “so I’m caught in the middle of this firestorm,” she said. She’s also undecided about the move and waiting to hear more from the district.
“I very much believe in the things they’re doing at Kepner,” said Ursetta. “And we want to do what’s best for the long-term goals of our school, preparing students to succeed in the 21st Century. If we are going to have at Kepner what we need for our kids to succeed, then I’m in favor of that.”
Lessons learned from space-sharing principals
Peter Castillo became principal this year of Kunsmiller Creative Arts Academy in southwest Denver, which has been sharing space with West Denver Prep-Harvey Park for the past two years.
- In the past six years, Merrill’s enrollment has peaked at 618 students in fall 2006. This year, it’s 545.
- DPS lists the school’s capacity as 1,083. Opponents of C3 at Merrill say it’s actually closer to 800.
- 61% of middle-school students living around Merrill attend other DPS schools this fall.
- The number of Merrill students from within its boundaries has increased in recent years. See stats.
His advice on co-location echoes that of other school leaders facing the challenge.
“I’d say, just have the principals sit down and communicate what the visions are for each other. If the visions mesh, there are a lot of positives that can be made from it,” he said. “If not, then there’s the bigger question of whether this is the best scenario. The two schools need to understand each other’s vision of what they want to do.”
Three principals of shared campuses offered mostly upbeat assessments when they spoke to school board members last week.
“Everything has been surprisingly smooth in my opinion,” said Stacy Miller, principal of Noel Community Arts School in far northeast Denver, which is sharing the Noel campus with KIPP Montbello College Prep and Noel Middle School.
The arts school and KIPP are growing while the middle school is phasing out its program.
“There are probably some challenges down the road for us,” Miller said. “As these programs begin to grow, we are going to have to become very thoughtful about space, because it will become more limited.”
Miller was principal at Merrill until April and is well aware of the debate over C3. A couple years ago, DPS considered using Merrill’s available space as an early childhood center. The idea was scrapped but Miller said she supported it and she supports C3.
“I think that space-sharing, because it’s an unknown, is often times a little scary or people have trepidation around it,” she said. “But I do think bringing a high-performing elementary into the area, or even into Merrill, has the potential to strengthen a feeder pattern that needs to be strengthened.”
“By sharing that space and having families in the neighborhood coming in, and seeing what a fantastic place Merrill is, it can be a huge advantage.”
Opponents say DPS not willing to listen
A consistent complaint from opponents of the C3 proposal is that there hasn’t been adequate community input. It’s a theme that repeatedly surfaces with DPS reforms, from earlier co-locations to the Far Northeast turnaround plan that sparked a recall effort against board president Nate Easley.
Supporters of C3 point to DPS meetings in the Merrill community in June and September, as well as those at South High School this past spring. Monthly informational open houses about C3 have been held throughout the fall, and are scheduled into January.
Board member Jeannie Kaplan has often criticized the DPS administration as doing too little to explain its intentions to the community it serves – or to heed its constituents’ concerns.
“It’s like everything else, if you can get people to see the positives of it, that’s going to work better than if you’re not listening to community,” said Kaplan. “And that to me is what’s happening at Merrill. They’re not really listening to people.”
Board member Andrea Merida, whose district includes MSLA and Kepner, said she’s hearing the same complaint from parents who are “unanimously” against moving MSLA. If MSLA is to move at all, she said, parents want their own school.
Boasberg said DPS leaders are listening, and empathize.
“Every school would like its own building, and we understand why they do,” he said.
“At the same time, in these economic circumstances, we don’t think it’s appropriate to have hundreds and hundreds of vacant seats in a building and instead use tens of millions of taxpayer dollars to build new buildings nearby.”
“This vote will kill Merrill Middle School.”
Cory parent Nicolas WeiserNicolas Weiser, who has two children at Cory Elementary, said DPS has long ignored Merrill and parents’ pleas to improve the school. He worked with DPS on the community engagement meetings.
“Over the course of several months, and in dozens of emails, private and public meetings, and phone conversations with senior DPS staff, not ONCE did DPS articulate a plan or show genuine interest in improving Merrill,” he wrote in an email. “This vote will kill Merrill Middle School.”
Bruce Hoyt, the board member who represents the Merrill area, believes community input has been sufficient. He noted the C3 location vote was scheduled for June but was delayed until this week specifically to allow for more discussion.
“The shared campus idea is never popular when we first raise it, but in hindsight, it’s working pretty darn well in this district,” he said. “It has worked well in Chicago, and New York and other places, and it seems to me to be wise stewardship of taxpayer dollars … which can then be put back into the classroom.”
Board member Mary Seawell said she’s ready to vote. She’s met with parents and toured the school and other locations considered as alternatives.
If some community members feel shut out of the process, Seawell said, “We need to look at it, and if there’s holes in that, we need to learn from that and improve, and we always can.”
“It’s not just quantity,” she said. “You can do a lot of community meetings, but how you do them and how you engage is just as important as the number.”
Shared campuses in Denver Public Schools in 2011-12
Beginning in 2009
- Kunsmiller Middle School campus – Kunsmiller Creative Arts Academy and West Denver Prep-Harvey Park charter
- Rishel Middle School campus – Math and Science Leadership Academy and KIPP Collegiate Denver High School charter
- Smiley Middle School campus – Smiley and Venture Prep charter, formerly Envision
- West High School campus – West and Manny Martinez Middle School charter
Beginning in 2010
- Evie Garrett Dennis campus – Denver School of Science and Technology charter, Martin Luther King Early College sixth-graders and SOAR charter. Vista Academy added in 2011.
- Lake Middle School campus – Lake, Lake International School and West Denver Prep-Lake charter
- North High School campus – North and West Denver Prep-Highlands charter
Beginning in 2011
- Cole Middle School campus – Cole Arts and Science Academy and Denver School of Science and Technology charter
- Ford Elementary campus – Ford and Denver Center for International Studies elementary
- Montbello High School campus – Montbello, Collegiate Prep Academy and Denver Center for International Studies 6-12
- Rachel Noel Middle School campus – Noel, KIPP Middle School charter and Noel Community Arts School
- Oakland Elementary campus – Oakland and SOAR charter
*An earlier shared campus involved Odyssey Charter at Westerly Creek Elementary, an arrangement which lasted four years until 2010, when Odyssey was placed in the former Philips Elementary School building and Westerly Creek expanded.