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Updated: North High plan stirs controversy

Updated: Members of the Denver Board of Education got an earful on Thursday from irate North High School supporters, who say they love and admire West Denver Prep, they just don’t want to coexist with it. Supporters of the plan turned out in force as well.

The board heard more than three hours worth of speakers during an afternoon public comment session, and most of them were there to talk about possible plans to open a West Denver Prep High School somewhere in northwest Denver. Several of the options the district is considering involve co-locating the proposed new charter high school on the North High School campus. West Denver Prep Highlands Middle School already shares campus space with North, albeit in a detached building.

North supporters expressed concern that putting a separate charter school within their building would limit North’s potential for future growth, and said they are loath to do anything that might derail recent, modest academic improvements at the school. They brought with them a petition signed by 600 people requesting the board not co-locate West Denver Prep High School at North.

Jenny Davies-Schley spoke of her desire to send her child to a traditional comprehensive public high school with a broad array of sports, academic and cultural activities. She said she fears that if North must share its facilities with a charter school, students living in the neighborhood who want to attend North may one day find there’s no room for them.

She also said she fears putting two schools in the same building would harm the North’s culture.

“What I heard loud and clear at the community meeting is there are a lot of West Denver Prep families committed to their school,” she said. “But I also heard they hold North in very low regard. That’s a problem. Putting a culture together in schools where there is no respect, we’ll have problems. We’ll have to revisit that next year and the year after.”

Supporters of West Denver Prep, on the other hand, brought with them 328 letters of intent from parents who say they would send their children to the charter high school if it were located in the neighborhood.

“Since it opened, hundreds and hundreds of students who go there have discovered they are academically capable,” said Marie Sierra, parent of a West Denver Prep middle school student. “I want an opportunity for my son to continue his education in his neighborhood.”

“They don’t need to get on buses and drive long distances,” said Joshua Smith, principal at West Denver Prep’s Harvey Park campus. Smith rejected options that would place the charter school at Remington or Del Pueblo, recently closed school buildings that are empty but are farther away from the northwest Denver neighborhoods where most WDP students live. “Placing the high school at Remington or Del Pueblo would be unjust.”

Original story starts here: West Denver Prep’s request to open a high school in Northwest Denver drew hundreds of neighborhood residents to a community meeting Wednesday night, packing the auditorium at Smedley Elementary to overflowing.

On one side of the room were fans of the charter school, which currently has four middle school campuses, including two in Northwest Denver, all of which consistently rank among the most distinguished academically in the DPS system. They want to see that sort of option available to high school students as well.

On the other side were fans of North High School, the community’s beleaguered public high school that has endured years of failed reform efforts, but that supporters believe may at last be on the road to redemption. They want to see North’s new principal, the highly-regarded Nicole Veltze, given the time and resources needed to turn the school around the way they say she did Skinner Middle School.

Many said they fear charter schools – particularly those sharing a campus with a non-charter – absorb space and resources that the non-charters need to thrive.

And at the front of the room: DPS officials trying to manage a roomful of parents, students, staff and community members whose emotions were running high, and see to it that all felt that their concerns were being heard, and that all understood the options confronting the school board as it weighs the pros and cons of where to put a new school.

Some of the options involve putting West Denver Prep High School onto the same campus as North.

Lack of trust an obstacle

It was apparent that those three groups – Denver West Prep supporters, North High School supporters, and DPS officials – were unsure about one another’s motives.

“I hope we can have some trust as we go through the agenda,” Yana Smith, director of regional community engagement for DPS, told the packed house at the start of the meeting. “You can push back respectfully. That’s welcomed. It’s not our intention to stand here and talk AT you for the next two hours.” No yelling, no name-calling, respectful listening – those were the evening’s ground rules.

Some parents explained why they sent their children to West Denver Prep and would never send them to North. Others explained why they sent their children to North and why they felt every parent ought to consider doing so. North alumni extolled the education they got. Current North students extolled the education they are getting. Most agreed they hoped this dispute wouldn’t turn neighbor against neighbor, but feared it might.

Two-and-a-half hours later, after facilitators had roamed the room with microphones allowing many – but not all – of those who wanted the speak the chance to do so, Smith drew the meeting to a close. “I can’t say it didn’t go the way I had hoped,” she said. “Anytime there’s such a division between perspectives, emotions, options, priorities, having purposeful dialogue is challenging.”

School board to weigh options over the next month

Those who are interested will get another bite at the apple today when the Denver school board hosts a public comment session, starting at 3:30, as part of its regularly scheduled meeting. And another community meeting is planned for May 30 at Smedley.

On June 4, the school board will hear presentations from all those applying to open new schools in the fall of 2013– West Denver Prep is one of five new schools seeking to open in or near northwest Denver – and on June 7, district staff will present its recommendations to the board. There will be time for more public comment on June 14 and possibly on June 18. The board will vote on the applications on June 21.

Here’s the background, and the facts the school board will consider when deciding what to do.

Pros and cons to every scenario

Over the next four to five years, the district expects to see about 400 to 500 more students enrolling in North and its feeder schools. The existing elementary schools in the area are full. But there’s some space available at the middle and high school level.

Another consideration is the number of students who live in the area, but choose to go to school elsewhere. School officials calls this the “capture rate,” and North’s is quite low. There are 1,366 high-school-age students living in the North boundary area who attend school somewhere in DPS, but only 824 of them attend North or one of the small alternative high schools nearby.

That means that roughly 500 high school students who could be attending North have chosen to attend another DPS school, and officials estimate an additional 400-500 high school age students live in the area but don’t attend any DPS school. That’s a total of 900 to 1,000 students who live within North’s boundaries, but who choose not to enroll there.

Enter West Denver Prep SMART High School, which projects it would eventually enroll 500 students. Another proposal, for Four Winds Indigenous, an expeditionary learning school with an indigenous-based curriculum, projects it could serve 200 high school students in the northwest area.

DPS officials estimate that the North campus – including the 1913-era building that West Denver Prep Highlands Middle School currently occupies – could accommodate a maximum of 2,070 students. North’s projected enrollment for fall is 1,254, and WDP’s Highland campus middle school projected enrollment is 314. That leaves space for 816 more students.

Thus, one proposal before the school board is to co-locate North, WDP Highlands Middle School and WDP high school all on the North campus. That’s an attractive option financially because it wouldn’t require much in the way of new construction, North’s central location is highly desirable, and the campus is already well-equipped to meet the needs of high school students. On the downside, that doesn’t leave much room for North to grow. The school presently has 940 students. Under this proposal, it would be able to accommodate up to 1,110, but more than that would be tight.

West Denver Prep middle school might relocate

Option 2 involves moving WDP middle school to Remington, an elementary school at 4735 Pecos that was closed in 2008, and letting WDP high school take over the 1913 building at North, plus just three or four classrooms in the main building, and having the two high schools share the gyms, cafeteria and library. That option provides space for North to grow, but it’s more expensive, and Remington is so far away from other schools that students would most likely have to be bused there.

Option 3 involves putting the WDP high school at Remington. That has the advantage of giving the high school its own independent facility, and the Remington building is in good condition. But Remington was built to serve as an elementary school, so remodeling it to serve high school students would be costly.

Option 4 would bring Smedley, which closed as an elementary school several years ago, back into play. Smedley, 4250 Shoshone St., which has a capacity for 447 students, could house WDP high school, or it could house WDP middle school. Either option would be costly, however. Among several limiting factors: The school doesn’t have the space to create the parking required for a high school and it has no playing fields.

Or WDP high school or WDP middle school could open at Del Pueblo, another school that closed in recent years. But Del Pueblo’s location – at 7th Avenue and Galapago Street – puts it out of northwest Denver, and with a capacity of just 311 students, additional construction would be required.

Also on the table is a proposal to move either the WDP high school or middle school into Skinner Middle School. Skinner has been held up by some advocates as a model of a neighborhood school turnaround. Data from the Colorado Department of Education show that in 2011, an average of 42 percent of Skinner’s students were proficient or advanced in reading, writing and math CSAP tests. That’s up from 32 percent in 2008. And the school’s median growth percentile 58.7 percent in 2011, up from 54.3 in 2008.

Skinner is a large building, and it would be especially well-suited for the middle school students, but adding a second middle school on the campus could constrain Skinner’s ability to grow.

So none of the options are without drawbacks. And community members on Wednesday had some suggestions of their own. Among them: Converting the now-empty St. Anthony’s Hospital into a high school. Or making whatever arrangements are selected only temporary, and building a new school. Or aligning North’s curriculum more closely with West Denver Prep’s, so the two schools could, in effect, become one.

Residents plead for more time

Or doing nothing, at least not yet. “We have the right to ask for more time,” one parent said. “June 21 is not time enough for anyone to present an answer that will succeed. And we’ll have to revisit this again and again if we don’t take the time now to make this work.”

Already, a new neighborhood organization calling itself Choose North Now has formed to lobby against any proposal to co-locate an additional school at North.

“For too long the district has subjected North to almost-yearly reforms, leaving the curriculum and staff in disarray,” said David Diaz, a former North teacher and coach, and neighborhood parent. “Now that proven leader Nicole Veltze is in place as principal, we need to give her the space and empowerment to build the high-quality school that our diverse neighborhood deserves.”

Choose North Now has launched a petition drive to encourage the school board not to mess with what supporters hope will be strong growth for the venerable high school.

“We could be aligning the curriculum at North and West Denver Prep. We could do that, and it’s free. And we could have the school we all want, and it’s North,” said Mike Kiley, a parent of two school-aged children and a leader of the group.

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