Despite the below-zero temperature outside, Denver Public Schools officials were met with a warmer-than-expected reception from about two dozen parents at Kepner Middle School, where plans are underway to re-invent the struggling campus.
Citing “significantly below” average academic growth, DPS officials hope to introduce a new school model at Kepner by the fall of 2015. No immediate program or personnel changes are planned, Superintendent Tom Boasberg and other school officials told parents.
Officials also attempted to debunk rumors the school would be closing. There are no such plans, officials said nearly a half-dozen times throughout the evening.
Kepner serves about 1,000 students in southwest Denver, and the school will continue to enroll students. Nearly 100 percent of Kepner’s student body qualifies for free or reduced lunch. Similarly, 95 percent of the student body is either black or Latino. About 60 percent of students are English language learners.
One of the few teachers at the meeting, initially skeptical of the reforms, left with hope.
“I thought I was going to retire here,” said Carrie Olson, holding back tears before the meeting started. “I probably won’t be part of the new school. Where do I go?”
But her impression of the district’s intentions on a phase-in-phase-out plan of school models detailed Wednesday night — albeit with few details — changed after district officials stayed and answered every parent’s questions.
“I hadn’t seen people at that level in the district stay this long,” she said. “I believe there are going to be more supports for parents and teachers for a while.”
Since Denver’s modern reform movement began in the mid-2000s, transforming, re-booting and closing failing schools has often been met with skepticism and pushback from furiously protective parents and community leaders. But, as DPS launched its latest target effort to turnaround a failing school, Kepner parents who attended the meeting appeared prepared to work in lockstep.
One parent wondered why the reform effort hadn’t started earlier.
“I hope you make a big change,” she said in Spanish.
Others were confused about how their children would be immediately affected and what might happen to some of their favorite teachers.
“What should our teachers do?” a parent asked.
Teachers can submit school models or volunteer to be on the review committee, officials said.
Several parents raised concerns about school violence and culture, citing several instances of fights in and out of the hallways and the ramblings of profanity they hear when visiting the campus.
“I feel afraid to visit the cafeteria,” a parent who sometimes volunteers at the school said.
One parent raised concerns about academics.
“I’m worried about the responsibility of the teachers,” she said in Spanish. “Teachers don’t seem interested in students are learning.”
Kepner was among the city’s lowest-performing middle schools last year, according to DPS’ annual school review process known as the school performance framework. Among similar performing middle schools, Kepner was, until yesterday, the only building not undergoing some form of targeted intervention.
“We know the level of academics is not where we want it to be,” said DPS’ Chief Academic Officer and Kepner alum Susana Cordova.
Her office will be a part of reviewing possible new school models between now and June, when district officials hope to present a plan to the board of education. The new school model will have a one-year planning phase while Kepner continues to enroll students. The district is also beefing up a math tutoring program, reading support and professional development, Cordova said.
While the district believes immediate interventions will improve students’ academic growth and proficiency, it won’t be enough to sustain a positive experience for students, Cordova said.
“We’ve done different [turnaround] approaches,” Cordova said during an interview with Chalkbeat Colorado. “We’ve learned it’s a lot harder to transform a school’s culture. Starting over, one grade level at a time, phasing-in a program, while phasing-out another, has shown results for both programs.”
District officials point to the turnaround process in the city’s far northeast neighborhood as a model of success. While those network of schools have climbed from the bottom of the district’s performance framework and shown positive growth scores, critics point to still below district-average proficiency rates.
DPS plans to hold monthly meetings with the Kepner community as it accepts proposals for a new school model.
Board member Rosemary Rodriguez, who represents southwest Denver, said she’s determined to see a high-quality school in the neighborhood.
“I don’t want your children to have to leave their community for opportunity,” she said. “I want the opportunity to be here. I will fight for it.”