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‘We’ve heard you:’ Denver pledges to reopen comprehensive high school in Montbello

Students stand on the lawn of a high school.
Students on the Montbello campus in far northeast Denver in May 2018.
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite

Ten years after the controversial closing of Denver’s Montbello High School, and two years after community members reignited the debate about whether to reopen it, new district leadership announced it is moving forward with opening a traditional high school in the neighborhood.

“We’ve heard you,” Denver Public Schools Superintendent Susana Cordova said at a meeting about the Montbello campus last week. “One of the most important things I think we can do is acknowledge and work in collaboration with the community that has so clearly stated they want to reopen a comprehensive high school on the Montbello campus.”

The details about how and when the district will do that are still to be determined. The district must decide the size of the school and how many students it will serve, what academic programs and sports it will offer, whether to renovate the current campus or build a new school, and which current high schools, if any, will be closed to make way for a new one.

Cordova, a career Denver educator who became superintendent last year, said she wants the process of reopening a comprehensive high school in Montbello to feel more empowering than the one to close it, which she called “one of the hardest processes that I ever watched.”

“How can we think about this being the union — the reunion — of school communities, as opposed to the closure” of school communities? Cordova said.

There are currently two high schools and three middle schools schools on the Montbello campus. Noel Community Arts School and Denver Center for International Studies at Montbello are district-run schools that serve grades 6 through 12. STRIVE Prep - Montbello is a charter middle school.

For the 2020-21 school year, the five schools will continue to operate as usual, district officials said. Future changes will be decided as part of a “community-driven design process” slated to take place this fall, said district spokesperson Winna MacLaren.

Renovating or rebuilding the campus would be expensive. The Denver school board is set to vote in August on whether to ask Denver voters in November to approve tax money for school construction projects — and whether the Montbello project would be among them.

Surveys conducted and commissioned by the district show support among community members and teachers for reopening a comprehensive high school.

In a scientific poll of Montbello residents conducted by the Colorado survey firm Keating Research, 85% of 472 residents polled said they support the return of a comprehensive high school to the Montbello campus, according to a district presentation.

Separately, the district collected survey responses from 105 teachers and staff members at the schools on the campus, plus Collegiate Prep Academy, a high school that was one of the small schools that originally replaced Montbello High but has since moved to a different district building. According to the district, 87% of the educators surveyed supported the return of a comprehensive high school “with some reservations.”

But some have questioned the validity of the survey results.

“To just continuously poll the community about a comprehensive high school without specifically naming what will be and who will be the collateral damage of that, then it’s just gaslighting to our community,” said Stacy Parrish, principal of Northeast Early College, another high school in far northeast Denver.

The closing of Montbello High School was traumatic for many in the community. Though the school was struggling academically, it was a community hub with fiercely loyal alumni. Families and educators urged the district in 2010 to invest resources in the school, which served a largely black and Hispanic student population, rather than shut it down.

Instead, the school board voted to “phase out” Montbello High one grade at a time and replace it with smaller schools that board members believed would better serve students. But some of those schools continued to struggle with low test scores.

In 2018, when the district held a series of community meetings in Montbello to ask residents what they want in their schools, the idea of reopening a comprehensive high school came up. The district did not act on it, instead pledging to continue the conversation.

That happened in 2019, but not in the way the district intended. Spurred by the deteriorating physical shape of the 40-year-old Montbello campus, the district asked for community feedback on whether to renovate the campus or build a new one. The intention was for the new campus to continue to serve as a home for the small schools currently there.

But the idea of reopening a comprehensive high school resurfaced. In February, Cordova said the possibility was officially on the table. At last week’s meeting of a process the district is calling “Reimagining Montbello Campus,” Cordova said the district is pursuing it.

Educators and community members who attended the virtual meeting had lots of questions, including how opening a big, comprehensive high school would affect other small high schools in the far northeast Denver region. The student population in the region is expected to grow in the coming years, but it’s unclear how many schools it could support.

“This is not an effort to gobble up all of the schools into one, because we still believe in those values,” said school board Vice President Jennifer Bacon, who represents Montbello.

Rather, Cordova said, it’s an effort to give the community a school option they’ve been wanting.

“We really believe this is a way to have a ‘both-and’ solution, not an ‘either-or’ solution,” she said.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misidentified one of the high schools that replaced Montbello High, and whose staff was surveyed about a comprehensive high school. It is Collegiate Prep Academy, not Contemporary Learning Academy.

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