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Reporter’s notebook: In the blink of an eye, a new school is given the OK

The Denver Public Schools board vote to open the Banneker Jemison STEM Academy happened so fast that the school’s founding executive director Tunda Asega and his family almost missed it.

“Congratulations,” the district’s innovation officer Alyssa Whitehead-Bust told Asega’s six children, who crowded around her in the boardroom’s lobby shortly after the board voted on Thursday. “You have a new school.”

The children cheered and jumped up and down.

A few minutes later, outside the district’s headquarters, another adult in Asega’s group could hardly contain her shock.

“That’s it?” she asked. “Just like that? We really have a school?”

More nods and smiles of happy disbelief.

The Asega clan nearly missed the vote not because they were late to the meeting, but because their charter application’s approval was stacked in a lengthy consent agenda with more than a dozen items that the board approved in one fell swoop quickly after the meeting came to order.

This is how most new charter schools open in Denver: early mornings and late night nights are poured into lengthy charter school applications for months — sometime years. There are meetings and interviews with district staff; emails are fired back and forth; there are revisions to the charter, meeting with perspective families; and — maybe — an occasional public backlash.

And yet, in a mere moment, the city’s Board of Education vote decides ‘yea’ or ‘nay.’

“It’s like training for the Olympics,” Asega said. “You prepare, practice, drill, analyze, anticipate. You stay up long hours working as a team. Then, the gun goes off and you put everything out there.”

Preparing the school’s charter has been “the hardest thing we’ve ever done,” Asega said. “It’s the fulfillment of a longtime dream.”

He and many of his board members grew up in the city’s historically black northeast neighborhoods, where the school will be located at the King M. Trimble Building near Curtis Park.

The school’s model, according to district documents, will rely heavily on the Core Knowledge curriculum, with an emphasis on science, technology, engineering, and math, or STEM for short.

Asega and his board believe the students of the near northeast — like many poor students of color across the nation — have been underserved by the STEM movement. And if those students do ever come across a STEM program — most likely at the middle or high school level — they’re so far behind they drop out.

“We’re going to prepare students for STEM programs so they’re ready to achieve, succeed, and thrive in high school and beyond,” Asega said.

But he still has a lot of work to do.

For the charter to go into effect, the Banneker Jemison team must prove there is enough interest to fill 80 percent of its seats by Nov. 1, revise its budget, develop an evaluation tool for Asega, and provide evidence it has resolved a conflict of interest between a board member and the school’s proposed principal.

If the charter can meet that criteria, the school will open in 2015, with another 17 schools the Denver board has approved. Banneker Jemison plans to open with 150 students its first year and grow to 300.

“We know that community well,” he said. “There’s been so many ups and downs. We’re coming back to provide our gifts to that community that supported us. There’s a spirit to right some of the challenges that exist.”