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Kepner Middle School students hang out in the entrance of the southwest Denver school. In June, the Denver Public Schools board gave its OK to the STRIVE charter network to phase-in a program at the school along a new district run program.

Kepner Middle School students hang out in the entrance of the southwest Denver school. In June, the Denver Public Schools board gave its OK to the STRIVE charter network to phase-in a program at the school along a new district run program.

Nicholas Garcia

Denver board green lights 14 schools to open in 2015

School board members vowed Thursday night to find a building for a new Rocky Mountain Prep charter school after they approved a district-run school to open in a new building the charter school had its eyes on.

Both schools were approved to open a new school for the 2015-16 school year in southeast Denver. And both potential school communities lobbied district officials and board members extensively for the new building in the Hampden Heights neighborhood, built with dollars from the 2012 voter-approved bond.

But last week, Alyssa Whitehead-Bust, the district’s chief of innovation, cited the district-run school’s inclusion of the campus’ natural surroundings in instruction as a primary reason for its selection for the new building. The school will have an expeditionary learning focus.

The board heeded Whitehead-Bust’s recommendation.

“It has been a long journey to this point,” said Anne Rowe, the board’s vice president who represents southeast Denver, before taking a deep breath and describing her rational for her yes vote.

She said both schools will open and serve kids well.

“It’s incredibly inspirational” to have two new schools open in the neighborhood, she said. “[And] we will work very hard from a district level to find a place to serve those [Rocky Mountain Prep] kids.”

Board member Mike Johnson echoed Rowe.

“Rocky Mountain Prep is a fantastic school,” he said. “What I really want to do, is urge staff to work very hard with Rocky Mountain Prep [to find a building]. And if there is anything I can do to help find a facility [let me know.] Let’s help them find a school.

The Hampden Heights vote, which was approved 6-0-1, accompanied more than a dozen others on new schools the board considered that will open in 2015 and where the those schools should be located.

Board member Barbra O’Brien abstained from this vote and two others regarding new schools because of conflicts of interest.

In total 12 new charter schools and two district run schools were approved to open in 2015:

  • Banneker Jamison STEM Academy
  • KIPP Colorado Far Northeast Elementary
  • KIPP Montbello Collegiate High School
  • Near Northeast Community Engagement School
  • REACH Charter School
  • ROOTS Elementary
  • STRIVE Prep Far Northeast Elementary School
  • STRIVE Prep Far Northeast  High School
  • STRIVE Prep Southwest Middle School
  • Hampden Heights School of Expeditionary Learning
  • Rocky Mountain Prep – Hampden Heights
  • Southwest Community Denver School
  • YouthBuild Charter School
  • To-be-determined district-run southwest middle school

Two schools — the Denver Dual Language Expeditionary School and Westside Academy — that applied to open in 2015 were rejected by the board.

The board also approved the co-location of one of its new district-run schools and a STRIVE middle school at the southwest Denver Kepner Middle School campus.

District officials announced a the phase-in, phase-out intervention at the middle school, one of the district’s lowest performing, earlier this year.

The co-location of STRIVE and a district-run school was announced earlier this week.

The district selected the STRIVE network over the DSST network — which earned a charter approval last year to open a campus in southwest Denver in 2015 — because of STRIVE’s track record with teaching a sizable population English language learners.

District officials called it a tough choice. But at its Monday meeting, and Thursday night, board members congratulated each other and district staff on a successful community engagement process.

Co-locating the two schools at the Kepner campus is “very important to our commitment to modified consent decree” and “a solution all parties can agree with,” said board member Arturo Jimenez, despite splitting his vote between supporting the district-run program and voting against placing STRIVE at the Kepner campus.

The modified consent decree is a court order outlining how the district is to serve its English language learners.

Jimenez raised concerns STRIVE would provide only minimal services for English language learners and that would run counter to an earlier resolution the board passed claiming the district would go above and beyond the consent decree.

Board member Rosemary Rodriguez, who represents the southwest Denver community and played an oversized role in community meetings discussing the Kepner turnaround plans, disagreed.

“STRIVE has embraced the challenge and the charge of serving any learner who wants to enter their program,” Rodriguez said. “I’m really confident it won’t be the lowest level of service — it will be aspirational college prep.”

As part of the final agreement, which will be submitted for board approval, STRIVE will agree to share an attendance boundary with the district run program, hire bilingual teachers who will provide core curriculum in Spanish, and serve as a zone school for English language learners.

Zone schools are campuses that students who are learning English as a second language can attend if the school in their attendance boundary does not offer the English acquisition program that parents choose for their child.

More than 60 percent students at Kepner are identified as speaking a language other than English at home.

And while the decision to co-locate a district-run program with the STRIVE program at Kepner was celebrated at Thursday’s meeting by the Congress of Hispanic Educators, some Kepner parents who participated in evaluating possible school models feel the district pulled a bait and switch.

Bernabe Valdvis speaking on parents’ behalf said, through a translator, the end result was a surprise and disappointment.

That’s because an application for a district-run school, designed by some of Kepner’s current administration and teachers, that was presented to parents as an option to replace the district’s current program was withdrawn. Parents were under the impression they would review all options and now feel cut out of the decision.

Valdvis said if DPS officials are certain a district-run school will be in the building they should not wait to phase-in a new program but make changes now.

“Its DPS’s responsibility to guarantee a quality education for all students,” Valdvis said.

Last month DPS announced veteran DPS principal and administrator Elza Guajardo will lead the phase-out of the district’s current program through 2018. Another school leader is expected to be hired to design the district-run concept to phase-in later this summer.