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DPS’ West High next up for makeover

A proposal to convert Denver’s venerable West High School into two schools run with the help of outside management organizations is one key item on a long list of school transformation and innovation proposals facing the Denver school board Thursday.

Denver West High School
Denver West High School

Under the West plan, which originated with a community advisory group that later worked with DPS administrators, two grade 6-12 district-run “academies” would be phased in over four years starting in the fall of 2012.

The two academies would be operated in partnership with Generation Schools and College Board Schools, both New York-based non-profit educational management organizations. Neither has operated a school outside New York to date, but both have shown some success in graduating students in urban environments.

The proposed West conversion comes on the heels of a controversial transformation plan for Montbello High School and its feeder schools in Far Northeast Denver. West would be the latest in a string of reconfigurations of Denver’s lowest-performing high schools, also including Manual and North.

Some observers note that the track record of district-run high school reforms is distinctly mixed and that challenges and questions surround the West proposal.

Plan born out of fears about West’s future

West, which opened at West 9th Avenue and Elati Street in 1926, has plenty of history.

Susana Cordova, a former West English teacher who is now DPS’ chief academic officer, recalls the time one of her students noticed some scratchings on the school’s brick wall. What caught her student’s eye was the barely legible name “Mike Smith” from the class of 1934.

What concerns West supporters is the school’s recent history.

The college remediation rate of West graduates in 2009-10 was 91 percent, the highest for any Colorado high school. For the same year, 27 percent of its ninth-graders scored proficient or above on state reading tests. A mere 5 percent of ninth-graders were proficient in math.

On the DPS School Performance Framework scorecard for 2010, West’s rating of 35 percent puts it on priority watch status, just two points above probationary status. And West’s enrollment for the just-concluded school year was down to an anemic 726. As recently as 2005-06, enrollment was 1,378.

“There were rumors we were hearing that they were going to close West High School,” said Veronica Barela.

Barela, West class of 1963, is co-chair of a grassroots group that formed early in 2010 as the Friends of West High School. It subsequently renamed itself, after expanding to include a broader cross-section of the community and several DPS staffers, as the West Denver Equitable Education Collaborative or WDEEC.

The collaborative and the district ultimately came up with the two-schools proposal.

The plan calls for West Generation and College Board schools to open in August 2012 with sixth, eighth and ninth grades, growing by two grades each year to full capacity in August 2015. At completion of the phase-in, West’s projected enrollment would be 1,700.

Two firms new to Colorado

West High will represent the first venture for both management organizations outside of New York state. Generation Schools is launching an affiliate relationship this fall with Lafayette’s Sanchez Elementary, which is part of the Boulder Valley Schools.

The school to be called West Generation plans to submit a memorandum of understanding to DPS delineating its proposed working relationship with the district in August or September, according to Wendy Piersee, the organization’s managing director in the Rocky Mountain region. West College Board will submit its full plan to the board by Oct. 1.

“If the board approves the resolutions for West on Thursday, we are confident that there will be an agreement with College Board completed this fall,” said district spokesman Mike Vaughn.

While many details remain to be finalized, both Generation Schools and College Board would have limited personnel on the West High campus, working in coordination with the DPS-hired staffs of both schools.

Both will be classified as “performance” schools in the district’s terminology, meaning, “new Denver Public Schools designed from the ground up by educators, parents and community stakeholders,” with new staffs, students and academic programs.

Performance schools, of which DPS already has four, do not have waivers from district and state requirements or union contract provisions, unless they choose to seek innovation status later. The performance schools already operating in DPS are the Math and Science Leadership Academy and the Denver Green School while two more performance schools – Denver Center for International Studies at Ford and Denver Center for International Studies at Montbello – will open in August.

Academies’ leadership already in place

Principals have been hired for each of the West schools. They are Bob Villarreal at West Generation and Teresa Klava at West College Board. Villarreal has spent the past two years as principal at Garden Place Elementary in North Denver, while Klava has been principal at Valverde Elementary in West Denver since July 2009.

West High at a glance

  • Founded 1893, current building opened in 1926

Student demographics

  • Hispanic – 86%
  • White – 6%
  • African-American – 5%
  • Poverty rate – 92%

Academic achievement

  • 9th grade reading – 27% proficient or advanced
  • 9th grade math – 5% proficient or advanced
  • Dropout rate – 8%
  • Graduation rate – 48%

“I’m very optimistic about the reform at West, and this builds upon our proven success models at Bruce Randolph and Martin Luther King and at Manual, and the very, very encouraging progress so far at Montbello,” said Superintendent Tom Boasberg.

Villarreal and Klava’s most recent schools show differing levels of academic performance. Garden Place has seen dramatic improvement in growth levels in math, reading and writing over the past three years. But at Valverde, growth in each of those three subjects dropped by at least 10 points in the same time period.

Santiago Grado has been named principal for the traditional West as it is phased out. Grado is currently the principal of Northridge High School in Greeley, with prior experience as an administrator at CEC Middle College of Denver.

Boasberg said Villarreal and Klava have substantial prior track records beyond Garden Place and Valverde elementaries – Villarreal in Cherry Creek and Klava at schools such as Denver’s Kepner Middle School.

“I think that both of them have extensive secondary experience, and both are exceptionally strong leaders with very deep roots in the community,” he said.

Tracking the transition will be Antonio Esquibel, the new DPS executive director of West Denver Schools. Esquibel was most recently principal at Abraham Lincoln High School in Southwest Denver and served on the WDEEC committee with Barela and Cordova. His office will be at West.

“One of my main functions will be to ensure everybody gets along and make sure they feel a part of West High,” Esquibel said. “They’ll be sharing facilities and kids will have an opportunity to explore each other’s programs.”

Programs take different approaches

The emphasis of the two programs will differ. Generation’s educational trademark is its longer school year – teachers work the same number of days but stagger their vacations. College Board’s focus is on its Advanced Placement program.

Generation Schools opened its first pilot school in Brooklyn in September 2007. Its presentation to the DPS board showed 75 percent of the Brooklyn Generation School students on track for on-time graduation. And, although only 20 percent of its students entered high school performing at grade level, more than 60 percent of its students in the class of 2011 and 2012 are at grade level in every core subject.

Piersee said Generation has one managed school in New York and has three more affiliate relationships with New York Schools. It has expansive plans for Colorado.

“Within five years in Colorado, we will have four to five managed schools similar to the West scenario, and we will have somewhere around 25 affiliate schools – schools that want to adopt a portion of the Generation model – staggered vacations, 20 days of professional development (for teachers), more instructional time or another one of the elements that we feel is critical,” she said.

College Board, with a focus on helping to prepare students from urban environments for success in college, has 17 schools in New York City, Buffalo, Rochester and Yonkers.

Of 11 College Board schools included in a New York State graduation rates study for the class of 2010, none has a four-year graduation rate lower than 62 percent, only two were lower than 74 percent, and one was at 90 percent. The state average is 76 percent, and eight of 11 College Board schools were above that mark in 2010.

What are the chances for success?

While it will take several years to know whether the West succeeds, those who helped develop the proposal are nearly unanimous in praising the process that led to it.

Bill de la Cruz, a community engagement consultant to the Colorado Department of Education, served as facilitator for the group, which included West alumni, parents, teachers, community activists, DPS board members and employees.

“There wasn’t anything that people couldn’t talk through and work through, with the right environment,” he said. “It went about as smooth as it could go, in terms of community process.”

Several DPS board members joined the effort, led by Arturo Jimenez, who represents Northwest Denver, including West High.

“I think all the board members really had a lot of hope and gave a lot of support to the community effort,” Jimenez said. “There were a lot of folks who all had different ideas but everyone came to the table and understood that we had to compromise, to figure out what would work.”

Paul Teske, dean of the School of Public Policy at the University of Colorado in Denver, said there is skepticism in the educational community about the success of district-sponsored turnarounds such as that contemplated at West.

“Around the country, there are very few examples of a turnaround that is less than shutting it down and essentially starting a new school that has been shown to work,” he said.

He’s backed up by a 2008 Center on Education Policy study that investigated school restructurings in five states and found that only 19 percent of the schools made adequate yearly progress based on 2006-07 tests.

“Even if you have innovation status, which a lot of them have, there’s skepticism about district-run turnarounds,” Teske said, “because at the end of the day they still report to the district in a more traditional way, and the district can change its mind about some things.”

With 13 DPS schools now approved for innovation status and another six on the agenda for Thursday night’s meeting, Boasberg would not rule out that West Generation or West College Board might eventually go that same route.

Villarreal, tapped as the West Generation principal, spoke to the DPS board about the West High reboot at a public comment session Monday night.

He acknowledged the considerable challenge at West but said, “History may never give us another chance to do it right.”

On the board’s agenda

The Denver school board is considering these proposals at its Thursday meeting:

Performance and new schools

  • West Generation School, West College Board – Two 6-12 academies to be co-located at West High School, opening 2012-13.
  • Creativity Challenge Community – A 1-5 elementary co-located at Merrill Middle School; one kindergarten class located at Center for Early Education.
  • Stapleton Middle School – Grades 6-8 to be co-located and opened August 2012 at same campus as Swigert-McAuliffe International School; name to be selected this fall.

Charter schools

  • Elements Academy – K-5 school proposed for Far Northeast Denver. DPS staff has recommended denial.
  • KIPP Sunshine Peak Elementary – K-4 school to be located in Southwest Denver, opening 2012-13.
  • Miller-McCoy Academy – An all-boys 6-12 school in Far Northeast, scheduled to open 2013-14.
  • West Denver Prep – Two middle schools in Far Northeast, both opening 2012-13.
  • West Denver Prep SMART High School – The first high school for this organization, opening 2012-13 on the old Lutheran High School campus along with WDP-Harvey Park Middle School.
  • Rocky Mountain Prep – An ECE-8 school to be located in Southwest or Southeast Denver, opening 2012-13.

Innovation schools

  • Green Valley Ranch and McGlone elementary schools in Far Northeast.
  • Vista Academy, a new 6-12 multiple pathways center, opening Aug. 18 on the Evie Dennis campus in Far Northeast.
  • Godsman Elementary, an existing school in Southwest Denver.
  • Summit Academy, an existing multiple pathways center in Southwest Denver.
  • Swigert-McAuliffe International School, an existing ECE-5 school scheduled to move to a new Stapleton campus, where a middle school will be added in August 2012.

**See this DPS information sheet for definitions of the various types of schools.

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