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DPS faces thicket of challenges in placement of new southwest Denver middle schools

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DSST: Cole High School freshman Jayr Cardenas is the first to arrive for the school's morning meeting.
Nicholas Garcia

In its first big test of the 2015-16 school year, the Denver school board next week is set to pick from among a group of applicants vying to open new middle schools in coveted available district building space in southwest Denver.

Denver Public Schools staff is urging that a soon-to-be-closed middle school be given new life as a district-run international school and that growing charter school network DSST open a middle school on the Abraham Lincoln High School campus.

The recommendations, shared Thursday evening during a school board study session, have been the subject of intense speculation and are far from the final word, with the board expressing interest in alternate scenarios.

The competition for the space in southwest features two district-run schools and two charters — three emerged as strong contenders — and represents a test of both a new policy for awarding space to new schools and of how the district juggles roles as both a school operator and authorizer.

Long known as welcoming to charter schools, DPS is trying to cultivate more entrepreneurial school founders of its own. But with building space at a premium, the district finds itself in an awkward position: Those homegrown leaders are competing for the same real estate with charter schools such as DSST, which has a track record of success and big expansion plans.

The board is set to vote on the recommendations for the southwest Denver middle schools Thursday, with public comment scheduled for Monday as part of a work session. As it weighs its decision, the board is struggling with how to compare new and existing schools, including figuring out how much weight to give past performance and measure community demand.

Pushback at Lincoln

As part of a series of reforms in a region that is largely low-income and Latino, DPS put out a call for new middle schools to replace struggling Henry World Middle School, which is being phased out, and to share space at Lincoln, which the district says is possible because of declining enrollment.

A vocal contingent of Lincoln students and parents — joined by the teachers union — is fighting the latter proposal. They argue that the school hallways, parking lot and cafeteria are overcrowded, and that co-locating a middle school on the high school campus would undermine Lincoln High.

On Thursday, the board showed little inclination of changing course. The DPS recommendation tries to extend an olive branch, suggesting that DSST’s middle school opening at Lincoln be delayed a year, until fall 2017, to ease the transition. The school would be “incubated” for a year at the College Heights University campus alongside DSST’s College View school.

The proposal also calls for convening a committee of Lincoln parents, students, staff and community members to help develop an improvement plan for the high school.

In recommending DSST for Lincoln, the district turned away a program its own people devised and built — Academia Lincoln.

The school, which the board signed off on last month without giving it a home, calls for dual-language Spanish and English instruction emphasizing science, technology, engineering, math and the arts.

The staff review found Academia Lincoln’s leadership could not describe the program in the same detail as the other contenders, and was not able to show the same level of community demand.

DPS staff also favored DSST over another charter school, Compass Academy, for placement in Lincoln. Compass opened this fall with a sixth-grade class in temporary space in Kepner Middle School and promises a seal of biliteracy, strong English language development and close connections with Lincoln High.

New policy, questions remain

The site-selection process is being closely watched because it is the first test of a new DPS policy that ties new school location decisions to the schools’ academic performance, student enrollment patterns, community demand and other district priorities.

But as board members’ questions illustrated, the policy has not necessarily cleared things up.

Board member Mike Johnson asked how the district could judge Compass’s academic performance, since it just opened this year.

Alyssa Whitehead-Bust, DPS’s chief academic and innovation officer, said that with new or unproven schools, the strength of the application, school leader and other factors are considered.

Yet with past performance and public demand as determining factors, DSST is going to be hard to beat in any competition for buildings. In 2014, DSST schools accounted for five of the top 10 secondary schools in DPS when taking into account growth and proficiency on state tests.

The school board in June approved eight more DSST schools, putting it on schedule to have 22 schools by 2024-25. Given that aggressive growth strategy, DSST will almost surely be a player for any new building that suits its needs.

In recommending DSST for Lincoln, the district cited that high academic performance, that it aligns to many aspects of the district’s priorities and has a 144-student wait list for its other area school. The report cited as cons that DSST’s program “may not be for every child,” that DSST middle school students may not attend Lincoln and that the school lacks a bilingual emphasis.

DPS superintendent Tom Boasberg noted that DSST would offer a native language instruction program — offering core courses in Spanish — a first for the network.

Board member Arturo Jimenez, who represents northwest Denver, questioned whether placing a DSST middle school on campus is a precursor to closing Lincoln. Susana Cordova, DPS’s chief schools officer, said the district remains dedicated to Lincoln.

Alternate scenarios

Both DSST and Compass sought space in Henry in addition to Lincoln. DPS staff recommended that the Henry building be turned over to district-run Bear Valley International School, which promises an International Baccalaureate program, personalized learning and biliteracy support with every student getting some Spanish.

The district cited the school’s strong design and leadership, its alignment with district priorities and evidence of demand.

Although DSST and Compass already boast waiting lists in the area, DPS staff ranked the Bear Valley school above them both in enrollment demand based on “a substantial number of petition signatures” in support of the school.

Boasberg told board members another important factor influenced the decision around Henry — the fact that the staff already had recommended placing DSST on the Lincoln campus, in effect taking it out of play for Henry. Staff prioritized putting DSST, its highest performing applicant, in the area of greatest need.

The staff report left open an alternative scenario — co-locating DSST and Bear Valley at Henry and moving Compass Academy into Lincoln High School. That, however, has drawbacks, the report noted, including denying the region’s highest-need students access to DSST and the risk that the area around Henry cannot sustain two middle schools.

Still other possibilities include DSST at Henry and Compass at Lincoln, or DSST getting both buildings.

Board member Barbara O’Brien was blunt in sharing her frustration about the site selection process, saying the logic behind the recommendations remain elusive even after multiple explanations. She said she would have “appreciated an attempt to take our questions seriously” and more seriously discuss alternatives to the staff recommendations.

“I just want to make sure we are not being kind of ad hoc in how we rate some of these things,” O’Brien said.

Marcia Fulton, executive director of Compass Academy and former leader of the Odyssey School, an expeditionary learning school, said Friday she is confident the district will find the school a permanent home in this round or a future one.

“They see our strong potential as a gift to the southwest community,” she said. “I heard that loud and strong. This is complex. It is about kids in southwest Denver that we are all trying to serve with heart and soul. There are a lot of factors the district has to weigh.”

The district’s site-selection process is new and features built-in tensions, DSST chief executive Bill Kurtz said Friday.

“We need to have the opportunity for new schools — district or charter-led — to be created because they will ultimately bring innovation and new ideas and opportunities to the district,” Kurtz said. “We were a new school at one point and we appreciated that chance was afforded us. At the same time, I think it’s really important in communities that have not had great schools for a long time that we very carefully consider the track record of schools.”

Tensions over dual roles

Whitehead-Bust, the chief academic and innovation officer, acknowledged the tension of the district staff wearing “dual hats” as both school operator and authorizer. She emphasized DPS offers the same help during the process to both district and charter applicants and maintains a“firewall” between its operator and authorizer functions — making sure people aren’t working on both — to screen out any actual or potential conflicts of interest.

“We’ve worked incredibly hard to mitigate the tensions of being both an authorizer and operator,” she said.

Most of the district’s community engagement took place during summer, and turnout at times was bleak. Southwest Denver parent Jose De Jesus, in comments translated from Spanish and provided by an interpreter, said Friday he does not feel involved. He said he feels kept in the dark about what is going on at Lincoln, where his daughter is a senior.

“Lincoln needs to be given the opportunity to succeed and relocate the resources that it needs to send the students well prepared to be successful in college or in whatever career they choose,” De Jesus said. “If the middle school comes in, it’s not going to get the resources that it needs.”

In an interview Friday, Boasberg said the public should have “lots of confidence” in the staff recommendations after more than six months of work and dozens of conversations with community members.

“We’ve had very, very strong new school proposals come forward that promise tremendously improved school opportunities for our kids in a region of town that for too long has not had high enough quality middle schools,” he said.

“In many ways, this is a terrific position to be in, to have more very high quality new school applicants than buildings for them to fit in,” Boasberg said. “At the same time, that is what is causing so much discussion and anxiety. Of these very good choices, which one is best? Given there are multiple schools and multiple buildings, there are multiple alternatives. It’s not an up or down simple choice.”

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