Denver school board members voted 6-1 Thursday night to approve a compromise resolution in the controversial co-location of a West Denver Prep charter high school on the traditional North High School campus.
The resolution emerged after Northwest Denver community members pushed back against the co-location recommended by district staff and reached out to West Denver Prep leaders to work together on a compromise.
Under the terms of the compromise, a small group of North High and West Denver Prep parents and school leaders will have a little over two months to identify alternate locations for the charter high school in Northwest Denver.
That could include currently occupied schools, and the resolution specifies “Any proposal for an alternate location must gain support from any impacted school or community.”
If group members are unable to agree on an alternative, the high school charter will locate in a separate building on the North campus. A West Denver Prep middle school charter currently in that building will move to the former Remington Elementary.
Approval of the resolution prompted hearty handshakes and relieved smiles between leaders of Choose North Now or CNN, the community group that opposed the co-location of the charter high school at North, and West Denver Prep founder and CEO Chris Gibbons.
Board members and parents say the process outlined in the resolution could serve as a template for subsequent co-location decisions, several of which have inflamed the communities around the typically traditional schools required to share their buildings.
“This really came out of a very wonderful act by the community of Northwest Denver and the parents of the CNN group, reaching out to say this process isn’t working and can we try something different,” said school board President Mary Seawell, “and the response by the leadership of West Denver Prep to say, we want that too …
“It was profound but in some ways, it’s also very simple,” she said. “There needed to be an opportunity in a much less charged political environment to say, what’s best for both schools?”
Seawell, who facilitated the meetings that grew to include North Principal Nicole Veltze and district staff, said there remains “a real likelihood” that West Denver Prep will be located at North.
But she noted the resolution details the development of a shared campus agreement if necessary, including a guide for the use of common areas such as the cafeteria.
“I believe these leaders can work out a good plan,” she said of Gibbons and Veltze.
Community: “Rebuilding trust where little remained”
Board member Arturo Jimenez, who represents Northwest Denver, read aloud a statement from Choose North Now in which its leaders thanked the board for “their willingness to dive more in-depth on the issues of co-location.”
“The willingness to bring parties together … is rebuilding trust where little remained,” Jimenez read.
West Denver Prep serves predominantly Hispanic, low-income students in the four middle schools it now operates in West Denver. The high-performing charters have developed a following among families, who have filled the first West Denver Prep high school, set to open this fall in Southwest Denver.
The opening of West Denver Prep’s second high school in fall 2013 in Northwest Denver wasn’t opposed by Choose North Now. But the group’s leaders did oppose placing the charter in North, where they say a strong principal is finally producing gains in the long-struggling school.
Marlene De La Rosa, the mother of a recent North graduate, said the prospect of co-location was made worse by the lack of information shared by the district.
“I was never notified, nor was my son, that there’s this possibility this decision is coming,” she said. “It really felt to me as a parent that I’m not important, my thoughts are not important. It caused a lot of angst and you don’t really want to start something like a facility sharing with that kind of feeling.”
Renee Martinez Stone, another CNN leader and Northwest Denver mom, said parents felt as if DPS were setting them up to be on one side or the other – North or West Denver Prep.
“We didn’t dig in along the trenches that were created for us by the district,” she said. “We refused to do that.”
As for the process ahead, “It’s going to take a ton of work but I think there’s a lot of trust that’s starting to be built,” Martinez Stone said. “It could be a whole new way of making these decisions. I guess we’ll set that precedent for the district.”
Search for alternate locations already underway
Already, Jimenez and other Northwest Denver leaders have begun considering alternative locations. A recent meeting was held at Trevista at Horace Mann, a nearby school, and the possibility of putting West Denver Prep high school at Trevista, which would then move to the empty Smedley Elementary, is among the ideas surfacing.
Gibbons said he and Veltze will begin talking today about parents to appoint to the working group – each will appoint half of its six to 10 members – and about the selection of a neutral facilitator. The group is due to complete its process by Sept. 1 and report to the school board on Sept. 17 or 23.
“We believe there’s a real opportunity here to do this differently and have a different sort of community process take place in how we make these decisions,” he said.
“The resolution is very acknowledging of West Denver Prep kids’ and parents’ right to have the school in Northwest Denver and to have a district facility and so we’re very pleased by that. We believe that this time to get the placement right is worth it to build that trust.”
The lone dissenting vote on the compromise came from school board member Nate Easley, who said he could not support a single provision of the resolution. That provisions states that if West Denver Prep moves into North and needs more space than is available in its separate building, the district will build or add mobile classrooms.
On the other hand, if North needs more space, it can request an evaluation to determine whether West Denver Prep should be moved to another location.
“I just don’t like the idea that we say one … school is going to be treated differently from another,” he said.
Approval of the compromise followed a 4-3 vote in favor of granting West Denver Prep its second high school charter. Board members Easley, Seawell, Happy Haynes and Anne Rowe voted in favor while Jimenez, Jeanne Kaplan and Andrea Merida were opposed.
Jimenez said he was concerned that West Denver Prep had no track record as a high school and was essentially asking for “a replication of something that hasn’t been implemented yet.” Kaplan and Merida voiced similar concerns.
DPS board decisions on new schools opening in fall 2013
Charters – Board members approved four of five new charter applications:
- Academy 360 in Far Northeast Denver
- Downtown Denver Expeditionary School
- Highline Academy in Northeast Denver
- West Denver Prep charter high school in Northwest Denver
Performance – Board members approved four of six new district-run schools:
- Compassion Road Academy, serving dropouts or those at risk of dropping out
- Denver Center for International Studies at Fairmont, replacing the existing Fairmont Elementary program
- Denver Public Montessori Secondary School, to be co-located with Gilpin Elementary Montessori School
- Excel Academy, serving dropouts or those at risk of dropping out
Actions on existing schools
- Manual High School was approved to add a middle school, becoming a 6-12 campus in fall 2014
- Trevista at Horace Mann’s innovation plan was approved
- Noel Community Arts School was approved for a move from the Rachel B. Noel campus to the Montbello campus while Collegiate Prep Academy is moving from the Montbello campus to the Noel campus
*To learn more about the new schools, visit this DPS webpage and scroll down to “2012 New School Applications.”