An arts-based middle school program facing closure for low academic performance and lagging enrollment got a reprieve Thursday night from the Denver school board.
The board voted 7-0 to table a district recommendation to phase out the sixth, seventh and eighth grades at Noel Community Arts School, which serves students in grades six through 12 in the far northeast part of the city.
Board member Happy Haynes made the motion, citing in part the short time frame. Denver Public Schools staff recommended the phase-out Jan. 14 and the board was expected to vote on it a week later. Instead, she asked district staff to develop a plan to improve Noel.
“Part of my purpose in asking for it to be tabled rather than just voted down altogether is to send the message that there is a sense of urgency about what must be done, but there are a lot of questions,” said Haynes, who visited the school Thursday morning.
One question Haynes said she had: What would take Noel’s place? The school is located in a growing part of the city where the district has taken drastic steps to try to improve the quality of education. Noel opened in 2011 as part of the massive school turnaround effort.
“We need to feel that we have a level of confidence in the plan going forward as we do with taking action with what we think maybe hasn’t happened in the past,” Haynes said.
The board recently approved a policy for when to close persistently low-performing schools, but it doesn’t take effect until the fall. Board member Barbara O’Brien agreed that tabling the recommendation was a good way for DPS to take a step back without taking its eye off Noel.
“With the complexity of these decisions, we probably do need more time and more sources of information,” she said. “This gives us a chance to explore ways to do it without watering down our commitment to making sure kids don’t languish in poor-performing schools.”
Noel’s slogan is “Academic Rigor through the Arts.” In addition to core academic subjects, the middle school offers band, orchestra, choir, dance, film and digital art. Unlike the popular Denver School of the Arts magnet school, students don’t need to audition to get in.
But families aren’t choosing Noel. As a result, it ends up with many students who don’t participate in school choice or who move to the area in the middle of the year.
Both groups tend to have higher academic needs, and Noel’s test scores reflect that. On state standardized tests taken last spring, 11 percent of middle school students met or exceeded expectations in English language arts. Only 9 percent met that bar in math.
By comparison, an average of about 35 percent of middle schoolers districtwide met or exceeded expectations in English language arts. An average percentage for math is harder to calculate due to the way the math tests are given, but it’s higher than 9 percent.
Principal Suzanne Morey said she recognizes that boosting Noel’s achievement and beefing up its recruitment are critical to its survival. The school has started to do both, she said. While teachers are working to better understand Common Core academic standards and techniques for teaching English-language learners, students are traveling to area elementary schools and putting on performances as part of an outreach strategy the school is calling “NCAS on Tour.”
Morey commended the board for giving Noel a chance to prove itself. She was especially appreciative of Haynes and board member Landri Taylor, who visited Noel Thursday and met with a group of students advocating to keep the middle school open.
“This is a wonderful example of the power of voice and being offered an opportunity to share your understanding of a very complex situation,” she said.
At a school board public comment session Tuesday night, Noel students and staff did the same thing. Teacher Ambria Reed spoke about one of her students who struggles in his core classes but keeps coming to school because of the arts.
He’ll soon perform in the school’s springtime production of The Wiz, she said.
“Phasing out NCAS middle school is denying our families and community the choice of a rigorous arts program,” Reed said. She pointed to leadership churn as one issue that has plagued the school and asked the board to help make Noel better, not downsize it.
Sophomore Christina Mancuso told a similar story.
“I kept my attendance up because I knew NCAS wasn’t just a regular, boring, cliche school,” said Mancuso, who started at Noel in sixth grade and has since learned to play the flute and read music.
“How can you shut down a beautiful creation?” she asked.
Buddy Noel was there representing the Noel family. The school is named after Rachel B. Noel, who in 1965 was the first African-American DPS school board member.
“If she were here tonight, she’d be sad,” he told the board on Tuesday. “She would not want this program to be changed. She’d want this program to be given a little more time.”
Science teacher Melissa Campanella was in the audience Thursday when the board voted to do just that. A Denver School of the Arts graduate, Campanella has been teaching at Noel since the beginning. She said she was inspired to join the staff because she remembers some of her DSA classmates taking a bus across town to access an arts education — and she wanted that opportunity to exist for more students closer to home.
Five years after Noel opened, Campanella said she believes it’s finally on the right track.
“Some of the biggest challenges in the first four years came from straying from our vision and getting pulled in many different directions,” she said. “We are finally poised to really put that at the forefront of everything that we do.”