A new charter high school could open by next fall at the Lake campus if the Denver school board pursues the top choice of a committee formed to find a suitable Northwest Denver location for STRIVE Prep, formerly known as West Denver Prep.
Make that a suitable location that is not North High School.
The board heard from committee members Tuesday during its work session.
District staff originally proposed placing STRIVE Prep High School on the North campus due to empty seats there. But community backlash was fierce and immediate. Parents who had worked to boost the quality of nearby Skinner Middle School and other academic options in Northwest Denver said the neighborhood needed a solid, high-quality, comprehensive high school that all area schools could feed into.
Once the tempest erupted, the board backed off the district’s proposal and agreed to the creation of a citizens committee – made up of 10 parents and school leaders from the affected communities – to come up with alternatives.
While community buy-in was initially outlined as a requirement for any viable option presented by the committee, that goal could not be reached, said Bill Fulton, co-director of The Civic Canopy and facilitator of the group. However, the group was able to reach consensus, which it defined as a direction everyone could live with and not undermine.
“It’s better you have these options than have the default kick in,” Fulton said, referring to the North High scenario. “We’re trading different amounts of pain for different amounts of players.”
After considering several options in the weeks after a heated June board meeting on the North co-location proposal, the committee said its top option would be to locate STRIVE Prep High at Lake and identify a new location south of the Lake campus and north of 6th Avenue to house the STRIVE Prep Middle School already located at Lake.
To offset costs associated with finding another building, the group suggested that the district consider the sale or lease of the now closed Remington Elementary building.
Adding a wrinkle to the committee’s top choice is the potential impact on Lake International School, a turnaround school sharing space with STRIVE Prep Middle on the Lake campus. The original Lake Middle School program was phased out due to poor academic performance.
The second option by the committee calls for STRIVE Prep High School to move to Valdez Elementary and Valdez students and staff to move into the vacant Smedley Elementary. The sticking points with this option are the building plans and the amount of money slated to be spent at Valdez if voters approve a proposed $466 million district bond in November.
The third and final option from the committee calls for STRIVE Prep High School and STRIVE Prep Highlands Middle School to move to the building now occupied by Trevista K-8 School. Then Trevista would split up, with elementary grades moving to Smedley and middle school grades given the option of attending STRIVE Prep Highlands at Trevista or Skinner Middle School.
This option is complicated by the numerous disruptions to existing programs, such as Trevista, another turnaround school. And this option comes with a caveat – if Trevista ECE-5 reached capacity at Smedley, the district should ensure that those overflow students could attend Valdez.
The committee worried that the district might reopen Remington to solve possible overcrowding, which could divide the elementary programs between less affluent families in the northeastern part of the quadrant and students from higher-income families at Smedley.
A lesson on inclusive public processes
School board members did not endorse any of the three options offered by the committee. But they agreed to consider a resolution at their meeting Thursday that would detail perimeters of a public process to garner community support for reconfiguration of schools in Northwest Denver and to evaluate enrollment numbers and trends in the area.
Several committee members said Tuesday that their work was a revelation in how to create a good process in an extremely divisive situation. Members from STRIVE Prep and North High said they found common ground and treated the process – and each other – with integrity and respect.
“There was never any point in any meeting when I left and said, “Oh, that Chris Gibbons …,” committee member and Northwest Denver parent Renee Martinez-Stone said, referring to the CEO and founder of the STRIVE Prep charter school network, who served on the committee with her.
Still, Martinez-Stone said there is a lot of healing that needs to be done in Northwest Denver where anger and distrust of the district runs high.
Gibbons said there was no easy solution.
“This was an opportunity for real dialogue and real collaboration,” Gibbons said. “We recognize the gravity of what we’re handing you.”
Board member Arturo Jimenez praised the committee for its work. He said the committee’s ability to overcome differences and embrace solutions that worked for the most people is something the district should aspire to in its public processes.
“It’ll help this body make a decision about what’s best for all the kids of Northwest Denver,” Jimenez said.
Board member Jeannie Kaplan said she hears many complaints about co-locating schools from constituents. She said the district needs to engage in a comprehensive conversation about educational options in Northwest Denver.
“We need to do our homework before we put these options out there,” Kaplan said.
Board members assured the committee they would take some time to engage the community around options, although it was unclear how much time the board was willing to spend on this decision.