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New DPS school proposals move forward

Two review groups charged with weighing proposals for new schools in Denver recommended Thursday to the Denver Public Schools board that it approve West Denver Prep’s application to open a charter high school in northwest Denver, along with most of the other 10 applications.

But that recommendation from the district School Improvement and Accountability Council came with a number of caveats, including that the district also demonstrate its commitment to helping other high school in that part of the city thrive, and that it consider what evidence there is to show whether co-locating two high schools in the same building is beneficial.

Board members agreed that the wisdom of co-location is ripe for discussion. It has become an especially hot topic in northwest Denver lately since district officials have signaled their intention to put the proposed West Denver Prep High School on the North High School campus. That has created controversy among North supporters, who say West Denver Prep will impinge on North’s ability to grow.

City council members weigh in on co-location

On Wednesday, four members of the Denver City Council – Debbie Ortega, Susan Shepherd, Paul Lopez and Judy Montero – delivered a letter to Boasberg and school board members asking them not to approve the co-location. So far, opponents of the move have collected more than 750 signatures on a petition against it.

“We’ve gotten tremendous traction. The support from the community has been breath-taking,” said Mike Kiley, a leader in the Choose North Now coalition. “Our core concern is the co-location. We wish West Denver Prep well. We understand their parents want a high school. We’ve been talking a lot with DPS and the board about what alternatives we might find.”

District staff, in its own recommendations to the board, also made the case for approving West Denver Prep’s application, and superintendent Tom Boasberg reiterated that he wants to see the school open at North.

“I’ll be transparent. That will be our intention, to recommend that,” he said. But he assured board members that North will not suffer nor lose momentum. “We are very, very committed to North,” he said. “We’re investing more dollar in North next year than in any school in the district.”

Board to ponder issue for two more weeks

Some dissident members of the board remain wary, and would like to postpone any decisions about a new West Denver Prep high school, regardless of where it’s located.

Board chairman Mary Seawell, however, is among those untroubled by such doubts. “We need to look at predictors for what will be a strong school,” she said. “West Denver Prep has shown time and again that they are able to do that. Every predictor that I look at as an indicator of success, that school has.”

But, she cautioned, she’s concerned about the us-versus-them tones the controversy has taken on. “It feels like war,” she said. “I understand, people feel passionately about their schools, but let’s be cautious and careful about how we treat both these schools. Both these schools have an amazing opportunity to serve children. How can we make sure both these schools are set up for success?”

The board will ponder that very question for at least two more weeks. A public comment session is set for June 14, and another for June 18. The board is set to vote on the issue on June 21.

Disagreement over Charter 360

The fate of West Denver Prep High School isn’t all board members must weigh this month. Ten other new schools – four charters and five performance schools – have also submitted applications to open in 2013. Those votes will also come on June 21.

The SIAC studied the applications of the charters and recommended that two, in addition to West Denver Prep, be approved. Meanwhile the staff Application Review Team looked at all 11 applications and recommended eight be approved.

The two groups largely agreed in their assessments, but disagreed about one proposed school: Academy 360, a school serving preschool through fifth graders in the far northeast that would especially emphasize health and wellness. The staff recommended that the school be approved, citing the strong proposal and the impressive board of directors.

But SIAC recommended denial, citing concerns about the proposed school leader’s limited teaching and administrative experience, lack of clarity about how the health and wellness focus would be integrated with the rest of the curriculum, and lack of partner commitments for the planned health clinic and other programs.

Both groups recommended the denial of the application from the Richard Milburn Academy, a proposed charter school in the southwest targeting underachieving and at-risk middle and high school students. RMA runs a number of schools across the country, but not all of them have proven successful, and SIAC members said the school lacked enough local connections.

Four Winds denial causes angst

Staff also recommended the denial of applications by Dreamcatcher Performance Academy, a K-8 school in the far northeast; and Four Winds Indigenous Performance School.

The Four Winds recommendation was especially difficult, said Alyssa Whitehead-Bust, chief of innovation and reform for the district, because the school would fill so great a need to reach out to students of Native American heritage. “The recommendation comes after much, much rich dialogue,” she said.

This is the second year Four Winds has presented such a proposal. After it was denied last year, school officials hoped they could revise their proposal to be accepted.

“They have a very compelling mission, and a a deep amount of expertise to serve this population,” Whitehead-Bust said. “In addition, this is an applicant with considerable community support.”

But the lack of details about how the curriculum would be structured, how it could be made to meet state graduation requirements, and concerns about the financial viability of hiring 12 teachers for 60 projected students again sank the proposal. District officials hope they still might be able to meld a Four Winds program into another existing school.

Other new school proposals recommended for approval include Excel Academy, a 375-student high school for at-risk students in the southwest part of the city; Denver Center for International Studies at Fairmont, an ECE-5 school in the northwest; Highline Academy, a college prep K-8 charter school in the near northeast; Downtown Denver Expeditionary School, a K-5 charter serving downtown; Denver Public Montessori High School, a 7-12 school in the near northeast; and Compassion Road Academy, a high school serving homeless students, juvenile offenders and other extremely at-risk youth in the near northeast.