Earthquake rattles far northeast Denver

Posted by Alan Gottlieb Sep 28th, 2010.

After many months of careful process, a community group from Denver’s far northeast neighborhoods is poised to recommend that Denver Public Schools make revolutionary changes to their lowest-performing schools.

The Far Northeast Community Committee got a look last night at how DPS would like that revolution to unfold. Schools will be “turned around,” with new staffs and leaders. Schools will be “co-located,” charters or magnets sharing space with new DPS programs. Virtually nothing will remain the same.

DPS officials promise everything will be better. But, as always, the devil is in the implementation details. The district has  a spotty record implementing its grand visions.  Superintendent Tom Boasberg promises it will be different this time.

“If you look at implementation of new schools in the past few years, they’ve been strong,” Boasberg said last night during the plan roll-out meeting at Rachel Noel Middle School. About 75 people attended the session.

“I’m confident of success here as well,” Boasberg said. “But it will take a lot of planning, a lot of hard work. If you look at these proposals, the schools all have new leaders (already hired), they will have at least a year to plan and get ready for opening. We have a dedicated office of school turnaround…we have a huge infusion of federal funds ($1 million per year each for Rachel Noel and Montbello High School).”

After what organizers hope is a huge turnout at a community meeting October 12, final recommendations will pass to the school board, which, if recent history is any guide, will vote 4-3 to implement them.

Make no mistake, these are big, audacious plans. You can the full roster of recommendations here. Here’s a quick list of the changes, which would begin next school year:

  • Ford Elementary is replaced with an additional campus for the Denver School of International Studies.
  • Green Valley Elementary gets a new leader and teachers must reapply for their jobs.
  • McGlone Elementary: Same as above.
  • Oakland Elementary: Replaced with a second campus of SOAR charter elementary school.
  • Noel Middle: Phase out of current program. Insert a KIPP school, grades 5-8. Also roll out a grades 6-12 arts proram one grade at a time, 100 students per grade.
  • Montbello High: Phase out current program. Launch a grades 9-12 Collegiate Prep Academy with 150-200 students per grade, beginning with a ninth grade only. Also phase in a High Tech Early College.

One of the proposed innovations I found most intriguing is the creation of a far northeast enrollment zone for all secondary schools in the area. This means no middle- or high-schoolers will be assigned to a school. Everyone must make an affirmative choice.  This, DPS hope, will increase engagement and buy-in among families.

The far northeast committee process has been coordinated by A+ Denver, a civic organization created to simultaneously support DPS and serve as a watchdog over reforms. A+ and DPS seem to have learned from the districts’ past mistakes. Work on the current plan has been deliberate and inclusive, and so far the push-back has been minimal. But that’s likely to change, as teachers lose positions and charters move into district buildings.

Last time the district launched a big community process, it was to redesign the then-shuttered Manual High School. What emerged from the process was a plan vague enough to allow the district to do whatever it chose and still claim fealty to the plan.

And because of promises made by then-Superintendent Michael Bennet, DPS rushed the school’s reopening and hired principal Rob Stein very late in the game. This made the relaunch even more challenging.

“That’s a key lesson,” Boasberg said, referring to the importance of hiring principals early enough to give them time to build a team and design a school culture. “That’s a really important thing.”

We shall see where it all goes from here. But the far northeast makeover is off to an auspicious start.

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