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DPS board approves two new southwest Denver middle schools, battle building over Lincoln High

Lincoln High School students outside DPS's school board meeting rally classmates against putting a middle school on their campus (photo by Eric Gorski).
Lincoln High School students outside DPS's school board meeting rally classmates against putting a middle school on their campus (photo by Eric Gorski).

The Denver school board signed off on plans Thursday for two new middle schools seeking to locate in southwest Denver, setting the stage for the next step of picking from among a group of district-run or charter schools vying for precious district real estate in the region.

This is the latest in a series of attempts by DPS to lift the quality of schools in heavily Latino and low-income southwest Denver.

The competition for building space in southwest touches on familiar themes, including the often emotional debate about locating multiple schools on one campus, worries that established schools are neglected as new ones open, and differing views over the roles of charter and district-run schools.

DPS wants to put a new middle school in Henry World Middle School, which is being phased out after years of struggles, and on the campus of Abraham Lincoln High School, which DPS says has the available space because of declining enrollment.

The Lincoln part of the plan is causing controversy. Students from the high school turned out in force at Thursday’s board meeting opposing the plan, saying their hallways, cafeteria and parking lots are overcrowded and that a middle school would alter the school’s identity.

“Don’t you believe in us at Lincoln?” said Carlos Martinez, a Lincoln junior. “Aren’t you proud of us? Why are you creating conditions where I have to fight for my education, every day?”

New policy test awaits

No decisions were made Thursday about putting a school in Lincoln. While the board signed off on two district-run schools, it will not vote on which schools will land in which buildings until next month.

That process will mark the first test of a new DPS policy that ties location decisions to schools’ academic performance, student enrollment patterns and other district priorities.

The board signed off on one school that wants space in the high school — Academia Lincoln, a district-run dual-language Spanish and English school emphasizing science, technology, engineering, math and the arts.

The other newly approved school, Bear Valley International School, is seeking placement in the Henry building. That school promises a rigorous International Baccalaureate program, personalized learning with a 1:1 technology ratio and biliteracy support with every student getting some Spanish programming.

Both votes were 6-0.

Two previously approved charter schools are in play for the two buildings — a new campus for home-grown network DSST, and Compass Academy. Compass Academy has temporary space in Kepner Middle School, where it opened this fall with sixth-graders only, with plans to scale up.

The charter schools identified both the Lincoln and Henry options as sought-after locations.

It is unclear what will happen with the approved schools that aren’t given buildings next fall. Board member Rosemary Rodriguez, who represents southwest Denver, voiced concern about the fate of Academia Lincoln if it doesn’t get its wish for space at Lincoln High.

DPS Superintendent Tom Boasberg said schools that are not awarded a facility in this round can try again and get one, which has happened before.

Lincoln speaks out

At Thursday’s meeting, the most noise surrounded the prospect of placing a middle school at Lincoln, which has seen its enrollment decline from about 1,900 in 2009 to 1,371 this year, officials said.

DPS says Lincoln can accommodate a 300-student middle school. An alternative high school, Respect Academy, is already housed at Lincoln, with just over 100 students.

Lincoln principal Larry Irvin attributes much of the opposition to a wariness of change at a proud school with a long history of being a large, comprehensive high school serving generations of neighborhood families.

At the same time, he said, if southwest Denver needs middle school seats and Lincoln has the capacity, “part of it just makes good sense and sound logic.”

“Regardless of what happens, Lincoln will still be here serving our kids and our community and maximizing success in high school and after high school,” Irvin said. “That won’t change.”

Standing with classmates on the sidewalk outside Thursday’s meeting, Lincoln senior Eudelia Koehler was not convinced.

“Seeing it for myself, going to class every day, I don’t see how we’re going to fit another 300 students in there,” she said.

As it stands, DPS boasts more than 20 shared campuses. Typically, multiple schools under one roof share common spaces like cafeterias, gyms, auditoriums and fields but have their own classrooms. The district is also planning for a middle school to share space at Manual High School in northeast Denver.

In southwest Denver, several schools have gotten new principals or programs, and several new charter and district schools have been recruited to open in the region in the next two years. DPS also created two new shared enrollment zones, which mean families are given preference at a cluster of schools rather than directly assigned to one school.

Southwest Denver charter schools in the KIPP, DSST and STRIVE Prep networks claim wait lists 150 to 225 kids deep, and families don’t get their first or second school choices at the rate of other areas of the city, district officials say.

“It tells us it’s important to have higher-quality choices, so people can look across the choices they have, put down a choice of one or two, and feel good they will be able to get into those,” Susana Cordova, DPS’s chief of schools, said at a community forum in August.

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