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For southwest Denver principal, three years to create and then close a school

Kepner Middle School principal Elza Guajardo visits a classroom Sept. 12. The students were solving a murder mystery.
Kepner Middle School principal Elza Guajardo visits a classroom Sept. 12. The students were solving a murder mystery.
Nicholas Garcia

When Elza Guajardo agreed to take control of Kepner Middle School, she knew part of her job would be to close the school.

What she did not know last spring when she accepted the job as principal is that she’d also have to build it.

When she arrived this year, Guajardo said, the school lacked many of the basic systems it takes to run a school, like fire-drill protocols and common lesson planning by teachers. “I had no foundation to build upon,” she said.

So now, as Guajardo and her team of administrators and teachers work toward creating a fully-functional school in the city’s impoverished southwest corner, they do so knowing that in a few years they’ll have to pack up everything and turn over the keys to two new programs.

That’s because the current program at Kepner, one of the city’s lowest-performing schools, is being phased-out. In 2017, a charter school and a new district-run program will open in its place.

The phase-in, phase-out plan — a key school improvement strategy for Denver Public Schools — has been in the works since February. Observers say the process has gone mostly according to plan, though it’s encountered a few hiccups.

Student advisor Steve Harvey, center, acts as a traffic medium as Kepner Middle School students pass between classes.
Student advisor Steve Harvey, center, acts as a traffic medium as Kepner Middle School students pass between classes.
Nicholas Garcia

A parent committee, working with DPS officials, helped review possible models for the schools that will take the current programs’ place. But some of those parents and the community organizations that represent them felt slighted in the end when DPS officials announced another district-run program would co-locate at Kepner with a STRIVE charter school. Parents were upset they did not have a chance to help choose the district-run model as they did for the charter school applications.

Those parents and organizations last spring also called on DPS to act faster. Their children, they said, didn’t deserve to wait for a better school while their current program was in disarray.

Guajardo, who was hired last spring as the phase-out principal, is now working toward meeting the needs of those families, who claimed the school was rampant with bullying and mutual disrespect between teachers and students.

Guajardo’s first steps to create a stable school culture and operating system may be an indication of just how dysfunctional the city’s lowest-performing school had become.

DPS Assistant Superintendent Greta Martinez said she believed there were systems in place at Kepner — just not to Guajardo’s standards.

“I think it’s not so much building all new systems, but improving on the systems already in place,” Martinez said. “That’s why we hired Elza, to ensure all systems are improved at the school.”

Improving those systems is a complicated process that starts with “baby steps,” as she likes to call them.

The work to improve the current Kepner began during the summer. Guajardo and math teacher Loyeen Vigil-McKenna retooled the school’s sixth grade academy, where incoming middle schoolers meet to learn about the school and set their schedule.

“The kids learned the academic and cultural expectations,” said Vigil-McKenna, who has taught at Kepner for 21 years. “That made sure everyone was on the same page on day one.”

Returning seventh and eighth graders are a little less familiar with those expectations, given the lack of clear standards and rules in the past, Guajardo said. But new assistant principal Chris Denmark and student advisor Steve Harvey are working on that. Harvey, with arms stretched out, supervises passing time on the third floor and acts as a traffic medium for students scampering to their next class. Denmark parks himself in the school’s main hall during classes to keep an eye on the front door to both welcome parents and detour students from ditching. At the same time, he returns emails and meets with teachers.

The teaching faculty and staff — of which a quarter are new to Kepner — has its own learning curve. Guajardo is hoping to create a school-wide culture of classroom expectations. Teachers should have their classroom’s daily learning objective and work written out in the same place everyday for students. There should be word walls in every classroom. And soon teachers will soon be meeting to plan lessons based on student data.

The school is also getting support from DPS headquarters. Kepner has 20 math fellows to support classroom learning and remediation. The district is paying for a restorative justice facilitator to help with student behavioral needs. Guajardo and her team of administrators will soon be partnered with school consultant group Blue Print that observes campuses monthly for a laundry list of strengths and weaknesses. And being a zone school to support students with limited English language skills, its regularly has access to central support.

Kelle May-Garst, Kepner’s English-language acquisition coach, and Chris Denmark, one of the school’s assistant principals, work in the main hall of the school during classes. Denmark regularly works from the hall to keep an eye on the front door for parents and students.
Kelle May-Garst, Kepner’s English-language acquisition coach, and Chris Denmark, one of the school’s assistant principals, work in the main hall of the school during classes. Denmark regularly works from the hall to keep an eye on the front door for parents and students.
Nicholas Garcia

Morgan Ortega, who is teaching English to Spanish-speakers only for the first time this year, works with some of those supports. She has a coach who meets with her weekly to help plan classes, she’ll be attending a special professional development seminar about multicultural learning later this month, and soon she’ll be sent to observe classrooms run by proven teachers.

“[Kepner] is more positive now,” said Ortega, who has taught at Kepner for four years.

While there is early evidence of a more stable school climate, there’s still work to be done — including in Ortega’s classroom. Some of her students with limited English skills have been placed in the wrong class. Class assignments for Spanish-speaking students are supposed to be determined by proficiency, but some students with advanced skills are in classes with students who are still struggling and vice versa.

And beyond Ortega’s four walls, Guajardo and her team still need to put students in much-needed tutoring programs. According to the most recent round of state testing, only two out of every 10 students are reading at grade level. And only 16 percent of students tested proficiently in math.

Since summer, Guajardo, who speaks Spanish fluently like most of her families, has met with parents and in some instances begged them for a chance to show improvement. Of the 600 students were were expected to enroll at Kepner, only about 40 are missing.

“Students are enrolling every day,” she said. Her team is busy contacting the families of missing students to encourage them see what they’ve done with place.

One parent, Lee Thach, said she’s beginning to see a noticeable change in the school.

“There are a lot of changes. It’s more strict — which is good,” she said.

But there appears to still be some confusion among parents and the forthcoming transition. Thach, who has two more children she’d like to enroll at Kepner, incorrectly believed that when the current program ends, the entire physical campus will be shut down as well.

“They say the eighth grade class is the last one,” she said. “I don’t like that. If they have a good leader now, why don’t they keep the school open?”

For now, Guajardo isn’t concerned with the ephemeral nature of her work at Kepner. Planning for the 2015 school year, which will be the first for the STRIVE school and new district-run program hasn’t even started yet. That planning will likely begin in January.

“I can’t worry about tomorrow. That’s not my job,” Guajardo said. “My job is to make sure these kids get to high school. They deserve it.”

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