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Voices: The problem with co-location

North High school teacher Zachary Rowe admires the reform efforts in Denver Public Schools but he doesn’t believe co-locating a STRIVE Prep high school at North is the best solution for either school.

Over the last five years co-location has played an integral role in Denver’s reform agenda – an agenda I largely support and one I’m proud to execute as a DPS teacher leader. But in Northwest Denver, the co-location of STRIVE Prep at North High School is not aligned to this reform agenda. Instead of accelerating achievement it will add uncertainty to the turnaround of North High School and promote inequity in DPS’s innovative school choice system.

Denver North High School
Denver North High School

When done right, co-location can drive the success of multiple schools. West High School is an example of a promising co-location, although its results remain to be seen. The reinvented campus was a community-driven process and all current schools play by the same set of rules.

Denver also has a history of co-location catastrophes. The original “New Manual” was a small school co-location model that proved disastrous as all three schools failed to achieve success and were ultimately closed by an apologetic then-Superintendent Michael Bennet. Was co-location to blame for this abysmal failure? Hard to tell, but it certainly was not a recipe for success.

The problem with co-location is that it creates more uncertainty, more obstacles for success and more headaches for school leaders and teachers who should be focusing their time and energy elsewhere. Here’s a specific example: This past year the North leadership team went through an exhaustive process to overhaul the master schedule. Sounds simple, right? But when you factor in the needs of a diverse student population (reading intervention, extended math periods, electives, concurrent enrollment students, grade-level professional development) it quickly becomes a Sudoku puzzle of epic proportions.

Locating an additional high school at North will change the numbers in this already impossible puzzle. Can both schools adapt? Yes. But is it best? Will it allow teachers to have the highest impact on our students? Will it accelerate our turnaround process? No, and scheduling is far from the only uncertainty.

Throughout this debate I’ve been disappointed by the misinformation disseminated about STRIVE Prep. Elected leaders have stooped to new lows calling STRIVE Prep an “elitist charter school” – as if it is akin to some New England boarding school. Such name-calling demonizes the STRIVE Prep teachers and is insulting to their students, many of whom are future North High School Viking scholars.

STRIVE Prep middle schools have succeeded for the same reasons all good schools succeed. Much like Skinner Middle School, they have excellent teachers and leaders who are deeply invested in their students and the education they receive. Most of their schools are open enrollment, neighborhood middle schools that serve all kids within their boundary area.

The unfortunate part is that such name-calling has drowned out a legitimate question around enrollment equity at the new STRIVE Prep High School. The new high school will operate with preferential enrollment practices – it will not be a boundary zone high school open to all students. STRIVE Prep will give preference to students from their current northwest middle school programs, but the new high school hasn’t been designed to enroll all outgoing STRIVE eighth-graders (each middle school enrolls roughly 100 students per grade level and the high school plans to enroll only 125 freshman total). The students who make the cut will enter high school with an inherent advantage if for no other reason than they have had enough stability in their lives to have attended the same school for three consecutive years.

All schools need not play by the same set of rules. DPS has long offered magnet options that have played a vital role in increasing the overall growth and achievement of our district. But schools with selective enrollment criteria should not open on the same campus as turnaround schools that continue to play by a traditional set of rules. We simply don’t know enough about the potential consequences.

Most importantly, we should not add additional uncertainty to a turnaround formula that is beginning to show signs of success. North posted the highest cumulative growth percentile of any traditional DPS high school last year. If North’s success continues, two years from now North High School will be amongst the highest performing high schools in DPS and will be a turnaround model that every member of Team DPS will take pride in. Co-location could challenge this success and it’s not a risk worth taking, especially when other options exist.

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