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New Kepner Middle School principal says she needs parents’ feedback, support

A small group of Kepner Middle School parents gave their new principal a quiet reception at a meeting Thursday night.

Elza Guajardo who had prepared to address a large crowd instead pulled up a chair in the school’s library Thursday evening and said pointedly, in Spanish, “your kids are my kids.”

Guajardo, a Denver Public Schools veteran, was named the southwest middle school’s principal May 29. And she already has a lot of ideas, but said she needs the support and feedback of parents.

“Transitions are difficult,” she said. “I want to do my best job for this school.”

The three parents who attended Thursday’s meeting with Guajardo urged the new leader to beef up security especially outside the school and to reach out to parents, who are visibly absent from the school’s community.

She replaces Stephen Linkous, who is moving to Houston to lead another middle school, and will be responsible for phasing out the district run program during the next three years.

DPS officials announced a phase-in, phase-out of programs at the struggling campus earlier this year, which Linkous was to oversee.

Guajardo’s name quickly made it on a short list of candidates, district officials said.

Guajardo comes to the school from the district’s English Language Acquisition team. Previously, she phased out the district run program at Lake Middle School between 2010 and 2012. She also served as Lake’s assistant principal prior to that.

“We wanted someone who had experienced, who has shown success as a leader — especially in a school with similar demographics and challenges,” said Antonio Esquibel, executive director of the West Denver Network, in an earlier interview. “We also [need a leader with] some soft skills, who is positive, motivating, connects with teachers, students the community.”

While Guajardo is in place as the district run program’s leader, a decision on which programs will co-locate at the school has yet to be determined. Three programs have been given the OK to open new schools in southwest Denver in the fall of 2015: charter school networks DSST, STRIVE and the new Southwest Denver Community School, a new charter developed in concert with education advocacy organization City Year.

Also joining the Kepner administration team is assistant principal Chris Denmark. He most recently served as an assistant principal at Rose Hill Middle School in the Adams 14 school district. Previously he worked in Cherry Creek.

He told parents his mission will be to improve the school’s culture, which has been a frequent complaint of parents citing rampant bullying and a lack of adult supervision.

“The goal and focus for us is to support our principal and the vision she has set for the school,” Denmark said. “That includes a correct and proper environment. We take it seriously — that when you drop off your kids at our door, you know they’re in the safest environment possible.”

Kepner assistant principal Mark Harmon, a favorite of teachers and parents, is staying. Harmon pitched a school program for Kepner during the district’s open call for schools, but his team dropped their bid.

Denver’s southwest neighborhood has recently become the focus of education reform organizations. Parents, organized by the Stand for Children and Padres Unidos organizations, demanded DPS move swiftly to enact sweeping reform efforts similar to what the district did in the Mile High City’s far northeast region.

Earlier, Guajardo met with staff and parents who serve on advisory group overseeing the school’s transition.

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