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Denver board sets deadline to find charter site

Denver school board members voted 4-3 Thursday to set a 30- to 60-day timeline to see if the district can find a new location in Northwest Denver for STRIVE Prep Lake Middle School, making way for a new STRIVE Prep High School at the Lake campus.

If the board and district fail to find that elusive place, a controversial recommendation by the district to place STRIVE Prep High School at North High School would stand.

Board members locked into by-now predictable stances on charters and neighborhood schools. A round-and-round discussion pushed the meeting past the five-hour mark. Board members Mary Seawell, Happy Haynes, Nate Easley and Anne Rowe voted in favor of the hastily written resolution for the timeline while Arturo Jimenez, Andrea Merida and Jeannie Kaplan voted against it.

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Easley allowed Superintendent Tom Boasberg to both draft and read Easley’s motion that called for the board to focus on the top choice of a citizens committee formed to find a place for the new charter high school other than North. Several North parents and staff said they wanted to make North into a quality comprehensive high school and that those goals would be thwarted if the school had to share space with another program.

That committee, made up of representatives of both North and STRIVE, determined that the best site for STRIVE Prep High School would be the Lake campus.

Since STRIVE Prep Middle School is already at Lake, that school would then have to move into a facility to be located somewhere north of 6th Avenue and south of Lake. Meanwhile, the nascent Lake International School, a turnaround school, would share facilities with STRIVE Prep High School. The committee suggested selling or leasing the vacant Remington Elementary building to raise money for the changes.

Merida, who joined the meeting via speaker phone, questioned the board’s legal authority to both vote on a resolution written by the superintendent and on an issue that wasn’t on the agenda 24 hours in advance. Legal staff said both actions were allowed.

Boasberg said the original staff recommendation to place the school at North is “in abeyance” for 30 or 60 days or until the board resolves its position on the matter.

How to move forward on touchy co-location

The board decided not to delve into the options presented by the committee. Instead, they focused on how to move forward.

“The challenge I am having is there was a lot of really thoughtful work done by this group,” Rowe said. “I think there’s a lot more information we need to make a decision.”

The board is asking staff to provide more information, including financial considerations, about the proposed solution offered up by the committee. Jimenez, meanwhile, said the board needed to solicit feedback from the Lake campus community.

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 third and final option called 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.

Opposition was quick from representatives of Valdez Elementary and Trevista K-8, which were also presented as top options by the committee.

Valdez fifth-grade teacher Sarah Cohen told the board her school is now known for equality, quality and community.

“Over the past three years, we have seen tremendous growth from our students,” she said. “What we want for all of our students is the best education. What is best for our students and families is to stay where we are.”

Three parents from the Sunnyside neighborhood addressed the board to say they wanted to be involved in transforming the educational landscape in their neighborhood and asked the board to be more responsive to their questions and ideas.

Kellen Kurt, mom of two toddlers, said she was “committed to finding community solutions.”

“We long to see schools that are diverse economically and racially and inclusive to any child that calls Sunnyside home,” she said.

One of Kaplan’s primary issues was that the overall feeder patterns in Northwest Denver be examined to make sure any changes to schools makes sense down the line. Jimenez wanted to see Valdez and Trevista remain on the table and attempted to modify the resolution to that effect, but it was voted down.

“I think we have to talk about all three of those options,” said Jimenez, who represents Northwest Denver. “They were very clear all three of those options are better than the default.”

Kaplan tossed out the idea of finding a new building for Lake IB instead of one for STRIVE Middle School.

“I think a neighborhood school deserves bells and whistles too,” she said.

Merida, meanwhile, said the board should consider postponing the opening of the STRIVE Prep High School for another year.  Seawell declined to even entertain dumping in entirety the board’s prior approval of the school’s charter for fall 2013.

“I’m fine waiting,” Seawell said. “I’m not fine reopening (the issue). I want to find a real solution for that preferred option so we can act on it.”

“This is going to take a little bit of time,” Boasberg said. “It’s important to talk to the communities, particularly the Lake community. We would not be recommending a move of Valdez or Trevista.”

Boasberg said it was important that STRIVE knows where the school will be by the time open enrollment season kicks off just before the holidays.

In other business, a 3-3 vote to approve a contract for a solar garden failed after Merida raised concerns about the rapid request for proposals or RFP process that netted only one vendor who happens to be a former board member of A+ Denver, an independent advocacy group. She said the decision reeked of “cronyism.” In an unusual move, Seawell had staff make contact with Haynes via speaker phone, who left  the  meeting early, so they could vote on the matter again. It passed 4-3.

Also a group representing Padres & Jovenes Unidos made a presentation strongly urging the board to step into the district’s push to offer healthy breakfasts to students in the classroom. Breakfast is now served in 27 schools, but organization members said the district should offer breakfast to students at half the elementary and half the district’s middle schools. Backers said families are still suffering due to the economic downturn.

“Many parents find it difficult to provide breakfast for their children,” said parent Graciela Baez through an interpreter. “A hungry child does not have the ability to learn the way a child with a full stomach does.”

Finally, the board heard a report on the most recent ACT test results. Compared to 2005, 1,000 more students took the test. The average composite score was 17.6, which is in line with recent years. The college readiness benchmark is a composite score of 21.