Denver Public Schools has postponed finalizing plans for Kepner Middle School for another month in response to concerns about how the district will fulfill its legal commitments to English learners.
The decision follows questions about whether the district’s current plan — which would place two charter schools, Compass Academy and Rocky Mountain Prep, in the building temporarily — would disrupt the district’s commitment to provide certain programs to non-native English speakers at Kepner, including some instruction offered in their native language.
Kepner, where more than 60 percent of students are identified as Limited English Proficient, currently houses the district’s largest Transitional Native Language Instruction, or TNLI, program for middle schoolers. The district is bound by a consent decree overseen by the U.S. Department of Justice to have a TNLI program in Kepner.
Last spring, the district decided to phase out Kepner as part of a broader plan to improve schools in the southwest Denver neighborhood, where the district’s schools have been struggling. It has since issued a series of proposals for the building. In addition to temporarily locating the two charter schools in Kepner, the current plan would permanently open a new district-run school, Kepner Beacon, and a school run by charter network STRIVE in the 2016-17 school year
But the plan to place Rocky Mountain Prep and Compass in the school was pulled from the board’s November agenda in response to the concerns around services to English learners, even as a separate part of the district’s turnaround plan for the rest of southwest Denver, a new enrollment zone, was approved.
“We pulled [the most recent plans for Kepner] off the agenda to give more time for the community to hear about plans around Compass Academy and Rocky Mountain Prep,” said Susana Cordova, the district’s chief schools officer.
She said the district would be reviewing the plans with the school leaders, community members, the Congress of Hispanic Educators (CHE), and the U.S. Department of Justice.
District officials say that their plan to use the space in Kepner for the charters temporarily is in compliance with requirements. The current Kepner program, which is phasing out over the next four years, and at least one program that will be permanently housed in the building will offer TNLI programs.
“This does not affect the district’s commitment to having a TNLI program in Kepner,” said board president Happy Haynes at a board work session last month.
But not everyone is convinced. This summer, an independent monitor expressed concerns about what would happen during the phase-out in a letter to district officials. (See document below, page 27.)
At the work session, board member Arturo Jimenez asked officials how the new plans would affect the district’s efforts to comply with the consent decree and whether there were clear plans for the temporarily-housed charters to leave.
District chief schools officer Susana Cordova told the board that Rocky Mountain Prep is held to the same standards as all charter schools, and that its current program for English learners meets requirements.
She said that Compass Academy had developed a TNLI program that resembles the district’s and had been working with CHE on its plans for its time in the Kepner building.
Alyssa Whitehead-Bust, the district’s chief innovation officer, said that the district would work with the schools to find permanent locations.
Fabricio Velez, a co-founder of Compass, currently slated to be in Kepner for two years, said that he had been talking with the community, the district, the DOJ, and CHE. He himself is bilingual, as are his children.
“We are developing our own model. But we want to offer the very best to the southwest community,” he said. “We looked at the research, and we designed our school to meet the needs of our second language learners in their native language.”
“Our goal is to be there as long as we can,” he said. “My goal is to ensure that the school is a center for the community.”
The board will likely vote on a proposal for the Kepner building in December.