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DPS board grills new school applicants

DPS school board members on Monday night heard nearly six hours worth of presentations from representatives of 11 proposed new schools – including a new West Denver Prep high school – plus a presentation on innovation plans at Trevista ECE-8 at Horace Mann in northwest Denver.

On Thursday, the board will hear from staff their recommendations about which of the proposals to approve. They’ll vote on the proposals on June 21.

Among the proposals: Five new charter schools and six “performance” schools.  Both charter schools and performance schools are given broader latitude than other district schools to structure their curriculum, school day and other aspects. But charter schools function under their own board of directors while performance schools do not, so charter schools have greater flexibility in finances and in personnel decisions.

The applicants – all of whom would like to open in the fall of 2013 – range from Academy 360, a health and wellness school in Montbello, to another Denver Center for International Studies at Fairmont in the Baker neighborhood, to Four Winds, a school with an indigenous-based curriculum to serve Native American youth.

West Denver Prep co-location debate continues

Board members politely grilled applicants about staffing plans, funding strategies, proposed student demographics and the like. But it was Chris Gibbons, CEO of West Denver Prep, who came in for the sharpest questioning.

Backers of the school, West Denver Prep SMART (for Science, Math and Arts) High School, want to locate it somewhere in northwest Denver, allowing WDP’s two middle schools in the neighborhood to feed into it. One of the options – the one likely to be recommended on Thursday by Superintendent Tom Boasberg – is to co-locate it within North High School.

That possibility has a faction of the northwest Denver neighborhood up in arms. Opponents of co-location have argued that putting the charter on the same campus as North will send the wrong message about the district’s investment in North, and could eventually impede North’s growth.

“This is not about taking over North or any other school,” West Denver Prep parent Candice Ortiz told the board. “It’s about the education of our children.”

John Aragon, the newest member of the West Denver Prep board of directors, rejected an idea that some have suggested, that West Denver Prep high school plan on moving into temporary quarters to give the school district more time to weigh all the options. “We ask for an expeditious decision,” he said, “because we need to give our kids some certainty.”

But board member Jeannie Kaplan raised the issue of the controversy the proposal has sparked in the northwest.

“I don’t like how this has played out,” she said. “ We have taken what could be a winning situation and made it angst-filled, pitting people against each other. We can quote numbers about empty spaces. Data is data up to a point. But I’ve been to enough meetings about situations like this. Co-location where both sides don’t want it is a very different situation than when both sides do want it.”

Other issues raised: Diversity, need for new school in northwest

But Gibbons countered that West Denver Prep’s Highland middle school campus is already co-located at North, and its other northwest Denver middle school is co-located at Lake. “In our experience, it’s going smoothly,” he said. “We’re optimistic that what’s worked at other sites will be effective here.”

Board member Nate Easley questioned how the proposed high school might attract a more diverse student population, to be more reflective of the diversity of northwest Denver. At present, most West Denver Prep students are low income and Hispanic. Gibbons said outreach to other neighborhood schools is key. “Many of us make decisions about our kids based on the recommendations of their teachers,” he said.

The evening’s most heated exchange was between Gibbons and board member Andrea Merida. Merida suggested that, based on the addresses of the students who had sent letters of intent to enroll, most of them did not live in the neighborhood. “The lion’s share of them, they don’t support the necessity of opening another high school in northwest Denver now. So what’s the rush?” she asked Gibbons.

Gibbons disputed Merida’s conclusions, and Merida accused him of being uncooperative.

Proposals run the gamut

West Denver Prep has gotten the bulk of the publicity, but board members still have lots of other new school applications to ponder this month. Here’s a rundown of the other proposals:

  • Highline Academy for 500 students grades K-8 would be a charter school based somewhere in northeast Denver to serve the Montbello, Stapleton, Green Valley Ranch and Park Hill neighborhoods. The Core Knowledge, liberal arts school would offer a longer school day, and a longer school year, small class sizes, full-day kindergarten, and after-school enrichment activities. It already operates a school in southeast Denver.
  • Academy 360 would serve approximately 360 children in Montbello and the far northeast. Of that number, about half would be learning English as a second language, and up to 90 percent would qualify for free or reduced lunch. The charter school would especially emphasize health and wellness instruction and services. In addition to serving kindergarteners through fifth-graders, it would also partner with the Nurse-Family Partnership, which pairs expectant mothers with health coaches, and with Babies Ready for College, which provides education to future parents. The school would also offer wrap-around services for students starting with a School-Based Health Center.
  • Downtown Denver Expeditionary School, a charter school,  would provide a K-5 school for downtown Denver, especially accessible to low-wage downtown hotel workers and students at Auraria Higher Education Campus, as well as more affluent residents of downtown lofts. Downtown amenities including the performing arts complex and the museum would be incorporated into school life, and an extended school day would provide for extra targeted instruction. The large number of retirees living downtown would be recruited to lead elective classes.
  • The Richard Milburn Academy, a proposed charter, would provide non-traditional, alternative programs – including some online options – for at-risk middle and high school students in the southwest part of the city.
  • The Denver Center for International Studies at Fairmont would expand the current 6-12 DCIS option, providing an elementary school model. The college-prep performance school would offer multi-cultural and multi-language instruction. The school would be a hybrid between a magnet school and a neighborhood school, with students living nearby given priority.
  • Excel Academy-Denver, a proposed performance school,  would serve high school students in the southwest part of the city who have dropped out of school, or are at-risk of dropping out with an accelerated curriculum that would allow them to complete high school in just two and a half years.
  • Four Winds Indigenous Performance School, proposed for the west side or central Denver, would serve about 60 Native American students with a curriculum grounded in Native American culture, including language instruction. Parent involvement would be paramount, and parents and community members would be recruited to lead instruction in areas such as beading, art and storytelling.
  • The Denver Public Montessori Secondary School, a performance school,  would combine a Montessori curriculum with a college preparatory curriculum that allows for long, uninterrupted work times, and small group lessons. The junior high would contain an urban farm, a commercial kitchen and a science lab, while the senior high would have an art studio, a media design center, and work stations to promote collaboration.
  • Compassion Road Academy, a performance school proposed for the northeast quadrant of the city, would be based on the model used at the Gilliam Youth Services Center, which educates juvenile offenders. Compassion Road Academy would serve the city’s most at-risk youth, including those transitioning out of the detention center.
  • The Dreamcatcher Performance Academy, in the near northeast, would target at-risk, under-performing and English-language-learners, and would blend Direct Instruction and Core Knowledge curriculum with an extended day.