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Spat flares over school redesign in Denver

Angry parents from Centennial Elementary School vented to the Denver school board Thursday, demanding that Principal Laura Munro be fired over her decision not to rehire 75 percent of the school’s classroom teachers.

Photo from Centennial website
Photo from Centennial website

A less vocal group of parents wearing matching T-shirts said they supported the sweeping changes underway at Centennial, a previously marginalized school that they believe is on the cusp of greatness as it eliminates middle school and switches to an expeditionary learning model.

One of those parents was Ethan Hemming, who runs the Charter School Institute and formerly served as deputy executive director of Denver Public Schools’ Office of School Reform and Innovation, which oversees charter schools. Hemming and other members of the group said they supported the energy, vision and experience Munro brought to the school when she arrived last year.

Board OK’s redesign

The school board in December voted in favor of giving the Northwest Denver school authority to redesign in light of the fact it slipped from yellow to red between 2010-2011 and 2011-2012 in the School Performance Framework, which means “accredited on probation” and is the lowest rating. Board member Andrea Merida voted against redesign status.

Redesign status allows principals to make changes to academic programs and staffing. Teachers at the school were invited to interview for their jobs, but only 25 percent earned a spot at the school for next year.

Jessica Mullins is in her fifth year teaching for DPS and her first year teaching third grade at Centennial, where her son attends school. She was among the teachers who did not get re-hired. She said the five teachers who did get rehired were not as experienced as most of those who were not rehired.

Mullins said she was also upset that the staffing changes were announced the day after the school choice deadline, meaning parents who choiced into the school for next year had no idea such major staffing changes were coming.

Mullins said she has had great student growth scores and was told her pedagogy was not a problem. She said she believes she was not rehired because of her tendency to speak out at staff meetings and the fact that she is not completely on board with the changes happening at Centennial. She said she believes the bigger plan is to apply for innovation status and even turn Centennial into a charter school.

She also complained that she rarely saw Munro circulating around the school or visiting classrooms.

Parents even complained that Munro got the job because she was Superintendent Tom Boasberg’s neighbor in Boulder. Reached Friday, Munro said she indeed lives in Boasberg’s neighborhood but she wasn’t even aware of that until well into the interview process.

Parent Becky Dibattista, whose daughter is a kindergartener at the school, said she too wanted the principal gone.

“It’s terrible some of the decisions she’s made,” Dibattista said. “Our kindergarten teachers are performing above district levels. That’s a terrible decision to fire these teachers.”

Another kindergarten parent, Karen Nash, also complained that she rarely saw Munro out and about at the school or talking to students and families.

“Miss Munro does not know our community,” Nash said. “My son has told me he has no idea who his principal is and she still has not attended a PTA meeting. How does she know how my son’s teacher is doing if she has not observed the classroom?”

School seeks to re-define itself

Munro said a lot of thought has gone into the redesign. It became clear that 56 to 60 percent of families in the neighborhood were open-enrolling their students at other DPS schools.

In polling community members, it became clear families wanted a school with a special programmatic focus.

“We asked, ‘How can we define ourselves?” Munro said. “What does it mean to be part of Centennial?”

Other area elementary schools have International Baccalaureate or dual language. Munro said she has absolutely no plan to turn Centennial into a charter.

“I am fully committed to remaining a neighborhood school,” she said.

As for the teachers who did not get hired, Munro said those decisions were made by a team of people, including herself, Sandoval Elementary Principal JoAnn Trujillo Hays and the assistant principal. All three had to reach consensus on hiring decisions. She said the retained teachers have a range of experience.

Munro added that of 22 teachers the team interviewed, 12 were hired back. Of the 12, five are classroom teachers; the remainder are support teachers.

Parent Anna Hewson said the school is finally on the right track.

“Centennial has been stagnant for years,” Hewson said. “We all know the only chance our school has of succeeding is if all the staff are working toward the changes 100 percent.”

She said Munro is making the best decisions for the school based on her 12 years of diverse experiences in public education.

“There are many current and future parents who want to see expeditionary learning come to Centennial,” Hewson said.

PTA member Shannon Cruwys said it was time for Centennial “to rise out of mediocrity.”

Board splits on Centennial

Board member Jeannie Kaplan said she was disappointed Superintendent Tom Boasberg was not at the meeting. Boasberg had a personal conflict that caused him to leave early. Board President Mary Seawell was also out due to illness.

“I am deeply disturbed we have destroyed yet another community,” Kaplan said, referring to the lingering tension in Northwest Denver over the board’s decision to place a STRIVE Prep charter school within the North High School campus. “We’ve pitted people against each other.”

“When I voted in December on a resolution… I thought it was going from a K-8 to a K-5. I don’t know where the expeditionary learning came from. I don’t know … whether this is a good model for the population.”

Kaplan also asked for a list of the teachers who failed to get rehired, their ages, years of service and ethnicity.

“This really has to stop in Denver Public Schools. This is bad policy. How can you release teachers when they have another half year of school to go?”

Since the school is 80 percent Hispanic and low-income, Kaplan also wondered where these parents stood on the changes at the school.

Member Happy Haynes said she knew what she was voting for when the board OK’d a redesign strategy for Centennial.

“I had my eyes open when I voted about the changes at Centennial, including the redesign. I know what that means. I wasn’t hoodwinked about what it means. I think the angst is how the redesign is proceeding.”

Haynes said the board and district needed to monitor what’s happening, but not stand in the way.

“The process needs to move forward. We made that decision. I stick with that decision.“

Merida proposed a resolution to postpone the redesign until the board could get more information. Members Arturo Jimenez and Kaplan joined Merida in supporting it. Haynes and Anne Rowe opposed it.

In a last-minute surprise, district counsel John Kechriotis said four votes were needed to pass the resolution, or a majority on the seven-member board. Merida objected, saying that since Easley’s seat is open it is technically a six-member board.

Grumbling and cat calls from the audience ended the meeting.

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