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Noel Community Arts School could lose struggling 6th, 7th, 8th grades under proposed plan

Noel Community Arts School sixth-graders Serenity Casillas, 12, left, and Sonia Lizardo, 12, watch fellow actors in the drama class run through several scenes from "The Aristocats" in April 2012.
Noel Community Arts School sixth-graders Serenity Casillas, 12, left, and Sonia Lizardo, 12, watch fellow actors in the drama class run through several scenes from "The Aristocats" in April 2012.
Kathryn Scott Osler/Denver Post

An arts-centered school that was part of a massive effort to improve education in far northeast Denver could be downsized because of low student achievement and enrollment.

Only five years old, Noel Community Arts School currently serves students in grades six through twelve. A district plan calls for phasing out grades six, seven and eight — an acknowledgement that an infusion of money and attention haven’t worked.

Noel would become an arts-focused high school serving grades nine through twelve. A new middle school would replace the grades that were phased out.

Denver Public Schools staff recommended the plan to the school board last Thursday. The board will hear public comment tonight and vote this Thursday. If the plan is approved, the process of choosing a replacement school is scheduled to begin the very next day.

Given the late timing of the recommendation, Noel would continue to have sixth, seventh and eighth grade classes next year. It would begin its phase-out by dropping sixth grade in the fall of 2017, the same time the replacement school would open its doors.

Low academic growth

Noel was one of 11 schools opened or reopened in 2011 as part of DPS’s extensive turnaround efforts in the Montbello and Green Valley Ranch neighborhoods. Despite federal grant funds and extra resources such as small group tutoring, academic success at the middle school level was poor from the start and got worse over time.

Nine percent of middle schoolers met or exceeded expectations in math on state standardized tests taken last spring. In English language arts, only 11 percent met that bar.

Noel middle school students also show low academic growth, according to a presentation DPS staff members made to the school board. That means Noel middle schoolers aren’t learning as much in a year’s time as students at other schools.

Academic growth among Noel’s high school students is higher.

In addition, the middle school’s growth scores on ACCESS, a proficiency test taken by English language learners, are among the lowest in the city. Forty percent of the 300 middle school students at Noel this year are English language learners, according to DPS numbers.

But test scores weren’t the only factor that played into the district’s recommendation, staff members said. DPS also considered Noel’s declining middle school enrollment.

Even though the number of sixth graders living in the area has increased, the number attending Noel has decreased. And many who do aren’t choosing it: Just 4 percent of the school’s incoming sixth graders this year listed Noel as their first choice, the lowest percentage of any middle school in the far northeast region, according to the district.

As a result, Noel ends up with students who don’t participate in school choice or who move to the area in the middle of the year, acting superintendent Susana Cordova said. “It’s concentrating the highest-need kids in the lowest-performing school,” she said.

A school quality review conducted by an outside company last month uncovered other problems as well, including behavior issues having a “serious impact on student learning,” little support for at-risk students, few teachers who speak Spanish and can communicate with English language learners, and no coherent curriculum for the majority of subjects.

DPS staff and board members were careful last Thursday not to blame Noel’s students or teachers for the school’s low performance and likely fate.

“There are people who are incredibly dedicated and working very hard,” Cordova said, “but we’re not seeing the level of results needed for us to believe that the solution is more time.”

Noel middle school principal Suzanne Morey declined to be interviewed.

The wrong supports?

Board member Landri Taylor suggested the problem lies with the so-called “tiered supports” the district provides to struggling schools. “I’m feeling very uncomfortable when we’ve been doing tiered supports now and we’re getting the same outcome,” he said. “It’s telling me we’re not doing the right tiered supports. We really need to look at ourselves and say, ‘We’re wrong.’”

Taylor, who represents the far northeast region, said he supports the recommendation not because of the low scores but because middle school families aren’t choosing Noel. “The community seems to be choosing another pathway,” he said. “So I’m going to support their movement.”

The recommendation comes a month after the school board approved a new policy for when to close persistently low-performing schools. That policy won’t go into effect until the fall of 2016, however.

The district estimates it will need to enroll about 90 sixth-grade students at Noel next year, before the phase-out begins. However, if other schools can absorb those 90 kids, the gradual closure of Noel could start a year earlier than planned.

According to DPS numbers, more than a third of fifth graders in the far northeast region have already turned in school choice forms listing their top five middle schools. Of the 379 students who did, only three listed Noel as their first choice for sixth grade. The forms are due Jan. 29.

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