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Popular IB school to be placed at Smiley

The Denver school board voted 6-1 early Friday to move McAuliffe International School from its home in Stapleton several blocks southeast into the much bigger Smiley Middle School building and into a more diverse neighborhood.

The vote caps off a siting process that has sparked anxiety in both the neighborhood that currently serves McAuliffe and the one surrounding Smiley.

Only board member Jeannie Kaplan voted against the move, slated to happen in 2014-2015, saying she was concerned the district lacked a broader plan for quality middle schools in the area.

“I would like to know what other middle school options are happening here,” she said.

Other board members hailed the move as a way to bring two neighborhoods together for the good of the whole.

Landri Taylor, who formerly handled community affairs for the developer of Stapleton, said the process of integrating Greater Park Hill and Stapleton began more than a decade ago and is integral to the concept of the urban neighborhood.

He said he sees Stapleton continuing to integrate with surrounding areas, including Commerce City and Montbello.

“I see great things happening from this,” Taylor said.

People speak up on both sides

Students and parents spoke mostly in favor of the move during a very crowded public comment period.

McAuliffe student McKenna Daly said the move would be good for her school.

“I’ve heard Smiley is a larger school with many lockers,” Daly said. “That would be helpful to students and faculty. With a larger school to accommodate current students, there will be plenty of space to add more students. I think more kids should have an opportunity for the IB program, which I have really enjoyed.”

Former Smiley student and Park Hill resident Joe Lenhart said Smiley is a good location for McAuliffe due to its sports fields and space.

“I want to see my friends from Park Hill interact with kids from Stapleton.”

Stapleton parent Greg Kobak, though, said the district was not upholding promises made to Stapleton that the community would have its own schools within walking distance. He said he was fine with moving McAuliffe into a bigger building, but he said he opposed talk of creating a bigger shared boundary — serving up to five middle schools — that would include Stapleton and parts of Greater Park Hill.

He said by increasing the boundary, the district is decreasing the likelihood that Stapleton students will be able to attend school near their homes due to the degree of competition between parents to get their kids in the top schools through the district’s choice process.

He also said he and people who agree with him have been vilified as being racist or not supporting diversity.

Stapleton mom Leanne Hurley said she, too, has been pegged as an elitist or racist at community meetings that she described as being “hostile.” In truth, Hurley said she moved to Stapleton for its schools and pays extra taxes to support a top-notch public education for her children.

“We accepted the higher tax rate in lieu of paying private school tuition,” Hurley said.

Hurley said what the district really wants is the fundraising might of the Stapleton neighborhood to prop up other parts of Denver.

Miriam Goetzke, though, said the district has failed to adequately support Smiley and the Park Hill community in genera and has, instead, created pathways through choice for more privileged students to attend high-performing schools in Stapleton. She said it was time to give those opportunities to Park Hill students as well.

Some 81 percent of Smiley Middle School’s students qualify for free and reduced price lunch, an indicator of poverty, compared to 22 percent at McAuliffe, according to state figures.

“Regardless of who your parents are, or how much money they make, or where they live, this should not impede (students’) potential,” Goetzke said. “Quality education is not privilege-based.”

Bridging two neighborhoods

The demographics in the two school boundaries are very mixed. In Stapleton, 70 percent of the residents are white, 13 percent Latino and 10 percent black. Greater Park Hill is made up of very different populations. South Park Hill has similar racial demographics to Stapleton. But in northeast Park Hill, 14 percent are white, 51 percent black and 30 percent Latino, according to district figures.

McAuliffe Principal Dennis has said the demographics of his school may not change that much under a new shared boundary. He said half his students already come from Park Hill. About 40 percent of the school’s students are racially diverse.

Jonathan Postal, a Park Hill parent, said the move could provide a “figurative bridge for all of us.”

McAuliffe is wrapping up its first year of operation at Swigert International School in Stapleton but is already a sought-after option by families. Meanwhile, Smiley Middle School is being phased out due to poor performance and therefore will have even more vacant seats in coming years. Smiley is also home to Venture Prep High School, a charter school. Venture Prep Middle School, also now in Smiley, is phasing out.

District officials have portrayed the move as a win for both communities.

For Park Hill, it means a desperately needed high quality middle school option in an area where schools have struggled academically and which has among the highest rates of families choosing schools outside their neighborhood boundary. For Stapleton, it means McAuliffe, a school in the process of becoming an International Baccalaureate program, will have the space it needs as it continues to grow and will be able to equitably serve all students in the northeast region.

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