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Denver board approves school changes

The Denver school board Thursday night approved its first shared campus for the southeast area, placing the new Creativity Challenge Community or C3 elementary school inside Merrill Middle School starting in August 2012.

Denver Public Schools administration building at 900 Grant St.
Denver Public Schools administration building at 900 Grant St.

The proposal to do so was one of the most highly contested issues in the DPS community in recent months, with hundreds of opponents signing petitions protesting the move and pleading with the board to reject it. Supporters argued it would strengthen Merrill over the long term and answer a heightened demand for area elementary school seats.

On a night when well over half of the 21 board decisions on new schools, school placements and boundary decisions were decided by unanimous votes, the co-location of C3 at Merrill was approved 4-3.

Voting in favor of the pairing were Nate Easley, Theresa Peña, Mary Seawell and Bruce Hoyt, who represents the southeast area which includes the Merrill neighborhood. Voting to oppose it were Arturo Jimenez, Jeannie Kaplan and Andrea Merida.

“I’m excited – and exhausted,” said Julia Shepherd, the Cory Elementary School principal who spearheaded the creation of C3, which will emphasize creativity-themed learning. “I am totally excited to be working with Amy (Merrill principal Amy Bringedahl) and committed to working with her to make both these schools work, and doing what’s right for the kids in these neighborhoods.”

Shepherd will leave Cory, which is near Merrill, to become principal of C3.

Immediately after the C3 vote was passed, Seawell introduced a resolution stating that, contingent upon C3 being placed there, DPS “will support Merrill through facility and resource support.” It passed by a 5-2 vote, with Jimenez and Merida dissenting.

Thursday night’s votes were the final ones cast by Hoyt and Peña, who both have now completed their second and final four-year terms.

Other issues decided Thursday night which had stirred significant public comment in recent weeks included:

  • A vote to close the struggling Life Skills Center alternative charter high school by denying its application for a charter renewal. DPS board members previously voted to close the school in 2007 but that decision was reversed by the State Board of Education.
  • The rejection of a charter application for the Four Winds Indigenous charter high school with a Native American focus, which would have opened in northwest Denver at the Four Winds Church for two years before moving to another northwest location.
  • Rejection of an elementary school charter application from Monarch Montessori, a private school now housed in the district’s leased Samsonite facility in the far northeast. If approved, it would have served grades K-3 in its first year, expanding to K-5 at full enrollment.

C3 was approved to open next year by unanimous vote at the board’s June 30 meeting, but the decision concerning its placement at Merrill was postponed until this month’s board meeting to allow continued community input.

It will be a district-run school open to students across the city, with priority given to neighborhood families. It is set to open with 100 children in first and second grades, and about 25 more kindergarteners at the nearby Stephen Knight Early Learning Center.

More than a hundred people have attended board meetings in past months to comment on the pros and cons of the co-location but, when the vote was finally taken, there were few supporters or opponents of the move on hand to see the schools’ fates decided.

Monarch, Four Winds urged to boost applications, apply again

The decision to reject the Monarch Montessori charter application was accompanied by several board members, and Superintendent Tom Boasberg, speaking highly of the Montessori model and encouraging the applicants to shore up shortcomings in their application and reapply at a later date.

“I think it’s a strong model for English language learners, and I think it’s a strong enough model for my son, who currently attends a Montessori school,” said Easley. “But I’m not confident that it’s ready yet.”

Urging Monarch Montessori to make another bid at a later time, Easley said, “I can’t say that enough, because I think it would be a great option for Montbello, as well as some of the other surrounding neighborhoods.”

Board members also extended the hope of a better future outcome to the applicants for the Four Winds school in the city’s northwest.

Among the concerns expressed by district staff in its review of the school application was that its planners had not demonstrated evidence of an ability to serve English language learners or students with disabilities.

Still, two board members wanted to give them the chance.

“Basically, the graduation rate for Native Americans in our district is about half that of the rest of the district and so it becomes imperative to do something about this.”
Board member Andrea Merida“Basically, the graduation rate for Native Americans in our district is about half that of the rest of the district and so it becomes imperative to do something about this,” said Merida, who voted against the resolution to deny the application. “This is a situation we need to cure. We have it within our ability to do that.”

Jimenez also voted in support of the school.

“I would really strongly, strongly encourage you to come back, and work with the district, and with us board members to make this happen,” said Jimenez, “because I think we are all committed to the same thing. We want a good education for this particular group of students.”

Board members cite multiple chances in rejecting Life Skills

Board members also voted to reject a renewal of the charter contract for the Life Skills Center, an alternative high school that opened in 2003 but was also recommended for closure in 2007 for poor performance.

The resolution to reject its charter included a laundry list of sub-par performance data, starting with a four-year graduation rate of 6.1 percent, a five-year rate of 12.1 percent and a six-year rate of 16.1 percent.

Jimenez argued that “there could be a case made” for adequate progress by Life Skills toward a set of goals set by the district in 2009, when it was most recently given a conditional two-year renewal.

He proposed the board grant a one-year, conditional renewal of Life Skills’ contract instead of rejecting it – which he said amounted to “a hard close” of the facility with no adequate plans for its students’ immediate futures.

But an amendment Jimenez proposed to that effect was turned down on a 4-3 vote. Hoyt said he believed Life Skills, which is run by a subsidiary of the for-profit White Hat Management, had exhausted its chances with the district.

“This has been a poor performance school year after year after year.”
Board member Bruce Hoyt“This has been a poor performance school year after year after year,” said Hoyt. “This board has come very close to closing Life Skills on several prior occasions. Despite the best efforts of a passionate school leader, the school is not where it needs to be … Let’s move these kids on to a better educational opportunity.”

Easley, Peña and Seawell sided with Hoyt in voting to reject the amendment and to reject the charter renewal.

“I wasn’t surprised,” Life Skills principal Santiago Lopez said afterward. “I was surprised at some of the things that were said. But not at the vote.”

Lopez said that many of his 220 students now “won’t go to school. They’ll be lost, on the streets, not knowing what their educational options are going to be.”

New board members sworn in, Seawell elected president

In other business, new and returning board members were sworn in and a new board president was elected.

Happy Haynes was elected by voters Nov. 1 to replace Peña, the at-large board member who is term-limited, while Anne Rowe won the seat held by Hoyt, who represents southeast Denver and who is also term-limited. Jimenez, the lone incumbent on the Nov. 1 ballot, was sworn in for his second term representing northwest Denver.

“I’m very excited to join all of you,” said Haynes, who was joined by numerous friends and family members for her swearing-in following Thursday’s meeting.

Acknowledging the departing board members, as well as DPS dignitaries including former superintendent Evie Dennis, she said, “I can only hope that in following in your footsteps, and Theresa and Bruce, to provide the same level of service and dedication that you have shown to the children of Denver Pubic Schools. That is my goal.”

Rowe also paid tribute to Hoyt and Peña, acknowledging their work over the past eight years, and said, “I pledge that we will continue to build on that foundation. We want to serve for the same reason that you wanted to serve for the last eight years – to do what’s in the best interest of the kids.”

Once Rowe and Haynes replaced Hoyt and Peña on the dais, the newly constituted board turned its attention to electing new officers. Seawell, in the middle of her first four-year term, was elected by her peers as the new board president; Kaplan and Jimenez had also been nominated.

“I want to echo the appreciation for Theresa and Bruce, for their amazing guidance and mentorship, and tell my new colleagues I’m very excited to have you join this board,” said Seawell. “I have high expectations about where we’re going to go.”

Haynes was elected vice president while Rowe will serve as the board’s treasurer. Easley, who spent the past two years as board president, is now the board secretary.

DPS board votes on new schools, other changes by region

FAR NORTHEAST

  • New schools: Monarch Montessori – Board agreed 5-2 with staff recommendation to deny application, members Jeannie Kaplan and Andrea Merida dissenting; Sims Fayola International Academy, an all-boys school – Board agreed 7-0 with staff recommendation to approve application
  • Charter renewals: Northeast Academy – Board agreed 7-0 with staff recommendation to change grade configuration to 1-5 and 7-8, eliminating kindergarten and grade 6, and to review school performance again in fall 2012
  • School placements: Board agreed 7-0 with staff recommendations to place West Denver Prep campus #5 at Evie Dennis Campus and West Denver Prep campus #6 at Samsonite building
  • Rationale for regional recommendations – DPS presentation, pages 22-48

NEAR NORTHEAST

  • New schools: None
  • Charter renewals: Venture Prep – Board agreed 7-0 with staff recommendation to approve one-year conditional renewal with the opportunity for a one-year extension if the school meets academic benchmarks and contract terms
  • School placements: None
  • Other: Board agreed 7-0 with staff recommendation to approve a shared boundary for McAuliffe Middle School, opening with grade 6 in fall 2012, and Bill Roberts K-8 School in 2012-13 with future boundary decided after community conversations. See the map
  • Rationale for regional recommendations – DPS presentation, pages 49-67

NORTHWEST

  • New schools: Four Winds Indigenous Charter – Board agreed 5-2 with staff recommendation to deny application, members Arturo Jimenez and Andrea Merida dissenting
  • Charter renewals: Life Skills – Board agreed 4-3 with staff recommendation not to renew contract, members Jeannie Kaplan, Arturo Jimenez and Andrea Merida dissenting; Cesar Chavez, Colorado High School and Justice High School – Board agreed 7-0 with staff recommendation for one-year renewals with opportunity for one-year extensions if the schools meet performance benchmarks and contract terms
  • School placements: None
  • Rationale for regional recommendations – DPS presentation, pages 68-108

WEST

  • New schools: None; two new programs at West High already approved
  • Charter renewals: None
  • School placements: None
  • Other: Board agreed 6-1 (board member Andrea Merida dissenting) with staff recommendation to approve a shared boundary for West Generations Academy and West Leadership Academy, extending the West High School boundary to the middle school level, relieving overcrowding at Kepner Middle School. The new Academies at West will grow to serve grades 6-12. Some schools feeding into Kepner would go to West while some feeding into Lake Middle and then to West would instead go to Lake and then North High. See the map
  • Rationale for regional recommendations – DPS presentation, pages 109-113

SOUTHWEST

  • New schools: None
  • Charter renewals: KIPP Sunshine Peak and West Denver Prep-Harvey Park – Board agreed 7-0 with staff recommendation to renew contracts for five years, West Denver Prep-Harvey Park is moving to the newly purchased Lutheran campus in fall 2012; KIPP Collegiate High School – Board agreed 7-0 with staff recommendation for two-year conditional renewal with opportunity for one-year extension if school meets performance benchmarks and contract terms
  • Other: Board agreed 6-1 (board member Andrea Merida dissenting) with staff recommendation to defer opening of KIPP Sunshine Peak Elementary until fall 2013, when it would open either at the Rishel campus, the Kepner/Lutheran campus or elsewhere in southwest Denver; All West Denver Prep campuses in southwest Denver, along with Kunsmiller and DSST, will have a geographic preference for students living south of Sixth Avenue and west of Santa Fe Boulevard
  • Rationale for regional recommendations – DPS presentation, pages 114-138

SOUTHEAST

  • New schools: None
  • Charter renewals: Highline Academy – Board agreed 7-0 with staff recommendation to renew contract for five years
  • School placements: Board agreed 4-3 with staff recommendation to co-locate Creative Challenge Community or C3 at Merrill Middle School, board members Jeannie Kaplan, Arturo Jimenez and Andrea Merida dissenting; Rocky Mountain Prep, approved in June, is locating at Highline facility; both C3 and Rocky Mountain Prep would have geographic preference areas to address overcrowding at area elementary schools
  • Rationale for regional recommendations – DPS presentation, pages 139-155

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