The Denver Public Schools Board of Education Thursday night approved the most contentious co-location plan to date by agreeing to allow a new STRIVE Prep High School to open next fall in a building on the North High campus.
The 4-3 vote – at the tail end of an emotionally-charged, five-hour meeting – was nothing if not predictable. Members Arturo Jimenez, Jeannie Kaplan and Andrea Merida, who initially voted against the granting of a charter for a STRIVE Prep High School, also voted against the campus-sharing plan that they say will upset progress underway at a school that’s finally getting its footing after seven principals in 12 years.
The board had already cast its vote five months ago to place STRIVE at North with conditions, such as if North’s enrollment grew to a point a shared campus wouldn’t work, the district would be obligated to find a new school building for STRIVE.
But community opposition flared almost immediately, which triggered the creation of a working group made up of representatives of North and STRIVE staff and families who were charged with trying to find a viable alternative.
Various options emerged, but none proved viable.
Kaplan resolution shot down
Kaplan offered a resolution to make the co-location medicine go down easier, but it didn’t pass either. The resolution called for STRIVE to be at North for just two years while a suitable alternative could be found – or the school should open its doors to students at the now vacant Remington Elementary building. Her resolution also would have banned STRIVE students from using the North cafeteria.
In fact, Remington was touted by many in the community as a solution for a STRIVE high school in Northwest Denver. But STRIVE leaders said the school does not provide a logical feeder pattern from its two middle schools in that part of the city.
As it stands, STRIVE Highlands middle school – now in an annex at North – will move to Remington while the STRIVE high school takes its place at North.
Leaders from both schools must now work out details such as use of the library, athletic fields and cafeteria.
Before the board meeting, about 35 people – many wearing purple North High Vikings shirts – showed up with signs and chants to protest the co-location, even though most believed the decision was a done deal.
Once the clocked ticked nearer to public comment, more people arrived and an overflow crowd watched the meeting from another room via closed-circuit TV.
Arguments stay the same
The refrain from speakers was largely the same as it has been for months, with North High supporters saying co-location would upset progress in a turnaround school that hasn’t been given a proper chance to succeed and STRIVE staff saying they simply needed to know where the high school would open since open-enrollment season begins next week.
North teacher Tom Bergen said the message the board was about to send was that it “doesn’t care” about North.
“The work we have put in for turnaround is immense,” Bergen said. “We will make North the shining school on the hill. Regardless of your motives tonight, the message you’re sending tonight is, ‘We don’t care. …You’re not good enough.’ ”
Teachers said they wanted to get back to the work of educating kids, describing the divisiveness and hostility of the co-location discussion over the past few months as “one giant distraction.” They also raised concern that STRIVE and North aren’t operating by the same set of ground rules since North is open to any student while STRIVE will mainly accept students from its middle schools.
Other speakers said the board has been set on moving STRIVE high school to North since the beginning and was willfully ignoring a petition signed by 1,200 people opposing co-location.
Parents, especially those who have worked hard to help turn around nearby Skinner Middle School, were irate that the district would not support their vision for a successful comprehensive North High that wouldn’t have to compete on the same campus with STRIVE. Despite having a majority of low-income students, STRIVE schools have consistently defied the odds and outscored district schools on standardized tests.
“Co-location will make it harder to promote North High School,” said Northwest Denver parent Jenny Davies-Schley, to claps.
Concerns grow about co-location
Anita Welsh, a former educator at Collegiate Prep Academy, which was co-located at Montbello High School, showed up to tell the board how co-location doesn’t work. She described lunch hours that had students going for five or more hours without nourishment and the need to “lock-down” students in the cafeteria so they wouldn’t disturb other classes in session.
“It limited a student’s high school experience,” Welsh said. “Many students said they were more restricted in high school than they had been in middle school.”
North teacher Zachary Rowe struck a slightly more positive note, which several board members in favor of the co-location seized upon during closing remarks.
Zachary Rowe said that “regardless of what happens tonight,” the academic growth at North would continue.
STRIVE Highlands Principal Betsy Peterson said her eighth-graders and their families needed a decision soon.
“Our eighth-graders need and deserve certainty,” Peterson said. “We were the highest-growth middle school in the city. We work tirelessly to deliver on our promises.”
Kaplan said she believed co-location could work but “under entirely different circumstances.”
Choose North Now leader Michael Kiley and board member Merida took the discussion to a new level, telling those in the audience to remember this vote when Election Day comes around next year. Kaplan, who is term-limited, will leave an open seat on the seven-member board.
“I believe it’s time for the people of Denver to take their Board of Education back, then take their neighborhood schools back,” Kiley said.
Merida said there is no proof co-location works, despite positive comments about schools sharing campuses from Superintendent Tom Boasberg and others.
“Show me the proof that co-location is actually good for kids,” she said, adding that Boasberg wouldn’t send his kids to the schools in question. “It’s painfully obvious what North Denver wants doesn’t matter.”
Emotions run high in NW Denver
Seawell and other board supporters of the co-location said the months of acrimony showed how passionate people are about their local schools and how they can continue to work to improve them. She said she resented how fellow board members or those in the audience portrayed the superintendent and her fellow board members who supported the co-location.
“It’s ridiculous the ways the superintendent and members of the board are being portrayed,” she said. “It makes me sick.”
She said the process to find a more suitable location was “genuine” but “it didn’t work. We couldn’t figure out another way.”
Seawell inflamed the crowd when she said “shame on you” to Northwest Denver families with younger children who said they wouldn’t send their kids to North under a co-location scenario. To that, members of the audience said, “Shame on you!”
About 45 minutes before the final vote, people starting trickling out of the boardroom the way a stadium empties when the score is unlikely to change.
“I know emotions are high and people are angry,” board member Happy Haynes said. “I’m not going to take that as a personal attack because I know where it comes from is your incredible desire to protect what you see as amazing at North – and it is.
“It doesn’t make any difference what’s going on in the 1913 building (the annex that will house STRIVE Prep). What’s happening at North will continue.”
Jimenez described co-location as Boasberg’s newfound religion.
“We are now allowing the superintendent to force his religion upon us – without any proof it’s good, “ Jimenez said.
Board member Nate Easley said by approving the bond issue and operating tax increase by such large margins earlier this month, Denver voters said they support the types of reforms happening in DPS, including co-location when it makes sense. In the case of North, there are only about 900 students enrolled at North when the building has room for 2,000.
Boasberg said he believed both schools would thrive – even if the campus sharing was not a perfect solution.
“I cannot tell you how much I wish we had found an alternative location that would have made everybody in the community happy,” he said.
Boasberg also said he understood community fears and concerns regarding the co-location, but he said Denver has done more than another other district to level the playing field between charters and neighborhood, district-run schools. However, he said, “We’re not there yet.”