In far northeast Denver, two public schools share a former office building. But the building isn’t big enough for both of them — and on Thursday, the school board is set to vote on a recommendation that makes neither school happy.
District leaders are recommending closing Montbello Career and Technical High School, an alternative school for students at risk of dropping out. MCT has been in the building longer and serves about 70 students, most of whom are on track to graduate this year.
Closing MCT would make room for the newer school in the building, an HBCU-style high school called Robert F. Smith STEAM Academy. The academy serves about 135 ninth- and tenth-graders this year, and plans to add 11th and 12th grades over the next two years.
MCT students and staff don’t want their school to close. And Smith STEAM families don’t want their school to be located in an office building that doesn’t have a library, a kitchen to cook hot meals on site, or a regulation-size gym.
Meanwhile, several of the school board members who must make the decision said they feel conflicted about closing one school that serves Black and Latino students to expand another.
“Let’s say — and this is very, very hypothetical — that MCT closes,” said Michelle Quattlebaum, who represents the northeast region on the board. “Do you know what’s going to happen to the students at STEAM? They’re going to know that we only got our school because other students that look like us, that are marginalized, lost their school.”
School closures are always controversial, and there are likely more of them coming in Denver as elementary school enrollment declines. The situation with MCT and Smith STEAM is both a precursor to those difficult decisions and an entirely unique situation.
MCT pushes back against closure
Smith STEAM is a district-run high school that was founded by a group of Black parents and community members with technical help from district staff. In 2020, the school board approved temporarily co-locating it with MCT for two years while the district continued to search for a long-term facility. The first-of-its-kind school opened in fall 2021.
MCT is what the district calls a pathways school. Intentionally small, pathways schools are designed to serve teens who have been expelled from other schools or who are behind on credits. The far northeast area has other pathways schools, and the district has said MCT students can go to either Vista Academy or Legacy Options High School next year.
But MCT staff say their school is unique. It offers the only automotive technology program in that part of the city, and many students go straight from MCT to good-paying jobs at auto dealerships, staff said. The school also earned the highest-possible academic performance rating from the state this year, signified by the color green.
“How do you close a green school?” Principal Arnetta Koger asked the school board at a public comment session Monday, three days before Thursday’s scheduled vote.
MCT’s 70 students face many challenges, staff said. Some are experiencing homelessness. Others are teen parents. Most, if not all, work full-time jobs in addition to school. Some students have severe anxiety that makes it hard for them to attend large high schools.
“MCT gives them a place to feel at home,” teacher Laura Hutchinson told the board. “It gives them a place to feel like they belong and feel like they have a family.”
Senior Kim Rojas said she didn’t know what to expect when she came to MCT last year. She said she found friends who care and teachers who make her feel heard.
“This school, it’s a good environment for the students to feel welcome and not ashamed,” Rojas said in an interview. “I love this school a lot.”
Teacher Whitney Homra told the board that the former office building where MCT is located may be lacking “but it is our home and we want it.”
Smith STEAM wants the facility it was promised
During the same public comment session, students, parents, and educators at Smith STEAM asked the district for what it promised them two years ago: a different facility that could accommodate their growing high school. They didn’t talk about the recommended closure of MCT but rather focused on the deficiencies of the building.
“The building we’re in is not a school,” said sophomore Jessie Matthews, who is also student body president. “The ninth grade biology classes have to come into the 10th grade chemistry room to do experiments because the biology class is the size of a prison cell.”
Freshman Camille Harley said the cafeteria — which doesn’t have a kitchen to make hot lunches on site — “is small and the food is just bad.”
“We deserve to have a space where we can be ourselves,” said sophomore AiVory Pearson. “We don’t have a field. We don’t have an auditorium. We don’t have a gym that is up to code.”
School board members said they too are concerned about the facility. Vice President Auon’tai Anderson (who no longer goes by Tay) said the district should be uplifting the school, which is modeled after historically Black colleges and universities, especially in light of its 2019 commitment to recognize and foster Black excellence.
“Every time I’m walking into that building, I should feel like I’m walking into Wakanda,” he said.
District staff said at a board meeting last week that they looked for another facility for Smith STEAM but couldn’t find one. While a facility might not be available right now, Superintendent Alex Marrero said, one could be available in the near future “depending on what action the board takes.” He recently said his team is working on recommendations to close some elementary schools and that the board is expected to vote next month.
But the elementary schools, and any others recommended for closure, likely wouldn’t shutter until 2024. MCT and Smith STEAM will run out of room to cohabitate next year.
“I’m struggling with this immensely,” said board member Scott Esserman. “I’m not questioning anybody’s intent, but we’re not getting this right — and we have to.”
Melanie Asmar is a senior reporter for Chalkbeat Colorado, covering Denver Public Schools. Contact Melanie at firstname.lastname@example.org.