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Fresh hope for West High turnaround

There was a celebration in honor of Dia de los Muertos at West High School on Thursday, but the minds of many at the school were more fixed on the future than the past.

Denver Public Schools officials gave their most detailed public presentation to date on what is in store for the turnaround starting next year at West, long one of the most underperforming traditional high schools in the district.

The presentation followed a colorful performance of music and dance in the West auditorium by the group Dancing Across Cultures.

“This is a celebration of a community transformation at West High School,” said newly reelected school board member Arturo Jimenez, who represents the northwest district including West.

“It’s a celebration of the parents and the grandparents who said, ‘We want to change West High School. We want to change it for the better. We want to have the best for our children. We want to make West High School the premier high school in all of Denver Public Schools.”

As the entertainment in the auditorium concluded, one of the key figures charged with making that change happen was finding it hard to conceal her enthusiasm.

“This is becoming a little more clear every day,” said Teresa Klava, who will be principal at West Leadership Academy.

Her father once taught at West, and she is excited to be a part of its future.

“We need to make sure we’re doing the intentional work to make it happen, and happen right,” she said.

West High campus home to three schools in 2012

Starting in the 2012-13 school year, the West campus will be home to three high schools. The existing West, in the first year of a phase-out, will have grades 10 through 12, dropping the lowest grade each of the next two years, with just a 12th grade for its final year in 2014-15.

But launching at West in August 2012 will be two new schools – West Leadership Academy, which is a College Board School, and West Generation Academy. Bob Villarreal will be the West Generation Academy principal.

“Generation School wants to bring rigor to West High,” Villarreal said. “Not that it hasn’t been there, but we want to bring another definition of rigor. Rigor that challenges our students. Rigor that forces our students to stand on their toes to reach understanding, to reach knowledge.”

Klava and Villarreal both come to their new posts from principal positions at other DPS schools – Klava at Valverde Elementary in west Denver, Villarreal at Garden Place Elementary in north Denver. They are on leave this year to plan their schools at West.

West Generation will start its first year with a 6th, 8th, and 9th grade, while West Leadership will start with 6th and 9th grades. Both schools will be at full strength by the 2015-16 school year. West Generation will have about 150 students per grade, while West Leadership expects roughly 125 per grade.

The two schools’ students will play on the same sports teams – still known as the West Cowboys. Their administrations will work out of adjoining, or shared, office spaces. Also, both will feature eight-hour school days and 200-day school years.

Villarreal estimated that a sixth-grader entering a school with those longer schedules will receive about 30 percent more classroom time, by the end of 12th grade, than is afforded by the traditional 184-day school year.

Two new programs, each with a different focus

While the schools will be working in a cooperative and collaborative spirit on the same campus, their programs will feature differing emphases.

Key components for West Leadership Academy will include:

  • A college readiness advisory course three-to-five times a week and regular exposure to local post-secondary options for 6th and 9th graders. “Foundational” classes such as literacy and math will be small, about 18 to 25 students.
  • Emphasis on professional development for teachers, including intensive summer training in College Board curriculum; national learning opportunities with other AP teachers; and in-school coaching throughout the school year.
  • Strong focus on preparation for ACT and SAT college entrance exams. College preparation will also include at least two college visits per grade level, per year, starting in the sixth grade.

Key components for West Generation Academy:

  • Classrooms that signify a major shift from the traditional alignment of desks in rows. Instead, there will be large-group instructional areas that are interactive and project-based, making up what Villarreal described as “multi-environments” within one classroom.
  • Intensive month-long, project-based courses geared toward 21st-century careers in disciplines such as sports management, urban planning, medical and bio-science.
  • Seventy-five minutes of both English/humanities and math every morning in classes of 18-to-22 students; 30-minute student “group advisories” each day for groups of 9 to 12 students in topics such as social/emotional development; and college prep work.

The choice of West’s new schools was a product of a year-long process led by the West Denver Equitable Education Collaborative (WDEEC), a group including parents, alumni, community members, DPS staff and business leaders.

Jimenez: ‘The district and the community can work together’

The community, according to Jimenez, said, “What we wanted was students who … were collaborative, who were critical thinkers, who were creative, who could really, really thrive in the 21st century workplace.”

Jimenez stressed that the plan was aided by the DPS administration meeting the community halfway and providing the resources to make it happen.

“This should assure to everyone that the district and the communities can work together, that it doesn’t have to be that one group or another pushes in an agenda from the outside,” said Jimenez.

While there is enthusiasm about the new schools, Domonic Martinez, principal of the traditional West High School, emphasized that, at the “old” West, the next three-and-a-half years are not going to be just about coasting to the finish line.

“With the phase-out, there’s been a lot of ‘Oh my god, you guys are just going to ride it out,’ but we’re highering expectations, for our kids and our staff and my administrative staff as well, along with teaming with the community and the alumni,” said Martinez.

He said West is working on developing a partnership with Community College of Denver to establish traditional West as an early-college model, enhancing its students’ chances of earning associate’s degrees.

“The goal is a college class in 10th grade. The goal is a college class at the second semester of ninth grade; if we can finish this deal and solidify this partnership … It’s going to happen. We’re not waiting. We’re not just the people left over,” he insisted.

DPS is hosting expos to brief parents in the west Denver community about enrollment options for the 2012-13 school year on Dec. 3 and Dec. 10. Details about a DPS open house at West are expected to be announced soon.

One of more than two dozen people attending Thursday’s presentation at West was Veronica Barela, a co-chair of the WDEEC committee.

“Now that we’ve got this far, our role changes a bit,” she said. “Everything is in place. Now we just need to make sure that it works.”

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