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Smiley Middle School Program to Begin Two-Year Phase-Out

SmileyLogoPawed5 Choice Schools for Boundary 6th Graders, 2014 Programming Undecided
By Erin Vanderberg/Editor

On December 20, the Board of Education for Denver Public Schools voted 6-0 to close Smiley Middle School by 2015 through a phase-out process that will immediately curtail the school’s sixth grade program in the 2013-14 school year, 85 years after Smiley opened.

The affected sixth graders will have a guaranteed place in and transportation to one of five middle school programs for the next three years: Denver School of Science and Technology–Cole, DSST–Stapleton, McAuliffe International, Morey and Bill Roberts. The seventh and eighth graders who will stay on at Smiley during the phase-out have been assured no change in instruction, electives availability, and will be provided additional support services.

The 80 Percent

“Over the years, Smiley has had a rather erratic performance,” DeVita Bruce, DPS Deputy Community Engagement Officer told a meeting on SchoolChoice at Park Hill Elementary. “Some years have been better than others. They’ve gone through years of school leadership changes, but over those years has been a consistent decline in enrollment, which signals to us that what is currently being offered in the Smiley building is not necessarily what families in the community are looking for.”

Currently, Smiley is rated orange, or “Priority on Watch,” on the School Performance Framework rating due to issues of declining or flat test scores, declining enrollment and student and parent satisfaction. The previous year, Smiley was one point away from a green, or “Meets Expectation,” rating.

According to the district, the community voted to shut down Smiley when it stopped sending its kids there. “80 percent of students aren’t going there,” DPS Assistant Superintendent Antwan Wilson told the GPHN. “It’s not a matter of us arbitrarily ending the program. We put in resources, provided additional teachers, supported the leadership there. Unfortunately, many parents have decided that there are other options already, whether we made a decision or not.”

To Gary Sulley, a social studies teacher who is retiring from Smiley at the end of this school year, enrollment figures have more to do with geography than with school performance.

“The issue is that all the choice schools were put in northeast Denver and they recruit out of Park Hill,” said Sulley. He was part of the effort to bring the IB program to Smiley, the application for which was paid for by a PTA fundraiser, not by the district. Recruiting resources were not something allocated to the school either.

Mixed Emotions About Community Engagement Process

Parents in Park Hill and Stapleton got a hint that change was coming to area schools last spring, when they were invited to participate in the DPS Greater Park Hill/Stapleton Community Committee, a facilitated six-meeting series held at the Odyssey School. The committee’s stated intent was to examine feeder patterns in the northeast region.

“When DPS comes into your community and starts a process, something is going down,” said Mandy Hennessey, a Park Hill Elementary parent. “We were very skeptical but we went to every single meeting, did every single exercise and wasted a lot of time doing that.”

Some in the community are drawing phase-out process parallels between Smiley and Montbello High School in 2010. Former DPS teacher, educational activist, and NAACP member Mary Sam is one of them. To her, in both instances, the district had a predetermined plan that was masked in community engagement.

Happy Haynes, School Board Vice-President, said the hope for the process was that the Greater Park Hill and Stapleton communities would find common interests and see mutually-beneficial solutions for their area schools.

“I think a lot of people felt that we weren’t addressing first the underlying issues of concern before we tried to leap to a solution or a set of shared goals that everybody could embrace,” Haynes told a meeting of concerned neighbors on the subject at the offices of the GPHC. “The Park Hill folks were much more focused about what was happening at Smiley. And the people at Stapleton were asking why should we go to a school when people in your own neighborhood don’t go to it.”

While the format of the next community committee, this one focused specifically on deciding what program will come to the Smiley campus in 2014, has not yet been decided upon, the Office of Community Engagement is expected to announce and begin the process in January.

In response to a letter from the GPHC stating its concerns that Greater Park Hill’s Registered Neighborhood Organization and other stakeholders outside the schools were not brought to the table, Superintendent Tom Boasberg responded with assurances that newly-hired Chief Community Engagement Officer Verónica Figoli, formerly with the Piton Foundation, will work to give all community stakeholders an “equitable opportunity to have their voices heard.”

Future of a Historic Campus

Designed by George Williamson, architect of East High School and the Daniels & Fisher Tower, Smiley was named for Dr. William H. Smiley, beloved 20-year principal at East (1892-1912) and school superintendent (1912-1924). The school opened in 1928 with 350 students, a little over 100 more than currently attend the school today.

Area schools seeking to grow their school’s enrollment levels and facing space constraints, have begun to set their sights on the newly available historic building. The school has the capacity for over 1,000 students, though Venture Prep’s small high school program, which graduated its first class of 17 seniors in the 2011-12 school year, is currently slated to continue on at the campus.

Two schools made public their interest in the campus in December: McAuliffe International, an innovation middle school in its first year of International Baccalaureate accreditation currently sharing a campus with Swigert International elementary in Stapleton; and the Denver Language School, a K-4 language immersion charter school currently residing in Montclair which is seeking to add grades 5-8 to its program.

McAuliffe Principal Kurt Dennis formed an exploratory committee in late November to get feedback from the Park Hill and Stapleton communities. At a December 17 meeting at Montview Presbyterian Church, led by Dennis, that discussion turned practical: What if both communities were guaranteed equal minimum seats at the school? Could Park Hill boundary students continue to feed to East High School, even if Stapleton boundary students did not? Should McAuliffe maintain its innovation status, but amend it to include a broader preference for the new boundary students? How would people feel about Venture Prep being relocated so that McAuliffe could expand to 840 students and maintain its IB program? Could parents organize to make a decision happen sooner?

In a conversation with the GPHN, Dennis outlined the reasons that McAuliffe is courting Smiley: “33 percent of our families currently live in the Park Hill neighborhood so we already have strong ties to the community; Park Hill has a diverse student population and it has always been our goal to have a diverse student body that reflects all of northeast Denver; the Smiley Campus is a beautiful facility that would allow for McAuliffe to deliver a rich middle school experience for all students; and Park Hill needs a high quality middle school program and Stapleton needs additional capacity for its growing student population. If we do this right, it could be a win-win situation for both neighborhoods.”

The Denver Language School took a different tack. Principal Dr. Sara Amodio, DLS PTA president Dr. Dan Baack, and a large group of DLS parents made a presentation directly to the Board of Education, the same evening public comment was accepted about the recommendation to phase-out Smiley. Like McAuliffe, DLS has a number of Park Hill and Stapleton children at the school already. While their program isn’t a middle school yet, they are seeking to add four grades to become one and need space in which to grow the program.

“We are working closely with DPS to ensure an appropriate facility exists for DLS’s growth trajectory,” said Amodio in an email to GPHN. “We trust that it will be a collaborative process and look forward to future conversations with DPS.”

These and other program candidates for the Smiley building will participate in the district’s annual Call for Quality Schools proposal submittal process. The final decision on programming is expected at the School Board’s meeting in June.

According to Assistant Superintendent Wilson, no decisions have been made about the future of Smiley. “This process really is about what you want,” Wilson told the GPHN. “The building is going to be there. We want a program inside that represents what that community is all about. Park Hill has a strong and proud history. It should expect a high performing middle school.”

The Difficulty of Uncertainty

At the Board of Education public comment hearing on December 17, before the board’s December 20 vote to phase-out Smiley Middle School, just five individuals signed up for the standard 3-minute time slots. Mandy Hennessey and her husband Michael were among them. They were there mainly to express their concerns that programming would remain intact for the 7th and 8th grade students who would remain at the school until 2015. In the Board of Education’s resolution, these concerns were addressed.

Smiley parent Karen Roberts, whose son is one of the 28.9 percent of Smiley’s population with special education needs, believes that careful thought needs to be put into programming for students who run the risk of being disenfranchised. While her son will not be affected by this phase-out, he had to transfer to Smiley when his former classroom at Skinner Middle School was closed due to budget cuts. “We need consistent and predictable programming,” Roberts wrote in an email to the GPHN. “Kids in special education are the last kids that should be shuffled from school to school.”

While the majority of Smiley’s teachers will be needed to teach 7th and 8th grade, DPS has a process outlined in the teachers’ agreement. It will involve job re-application and an interview process. “I don’t know that any of us have a guaranteed job,” said Wilson, speaking generally. “We’re committed to quality teachers having opportunities. We’re going to help teachers have every opportunity to do what they enjoy doing.”

During the concerned citizens forum at the Greater Park Hill Community, Inc., offices, Mary Brice, who is active in the Democratic Party, said her concerns about this local school closure were about the broader national agenda of school reform and school privatization.

“When you’re spreading your resources out and using choice, you are forcing schools to compete against each other, to fight for students, to spend money on PR, to be gimmicky,” said Brice. “Choice is mathematically impossible. And it’s usually the poorer and most struggling families who are left to try to find a school somewhere in the city and then figure out transportation.”

Mourning the Loss

For members of the community who have been working for Smiley for years through PTA involvement, fundraising and public relations efforts – Pam Sweetser, Pam and Andrew Marsh, and most recently, Denon Moore and Jason Malec, who briefly formed Park Hill 4 Smiley this year in an effort to boost enrollment – there is nostalgia, a little bitterness and concern for the neighborhood kids in whom they have invested so much.

Sweetser, a Smiley alum, whose parents and now college-graduated children attended the school as well, remembers the period in the late 1990s when she and a group of committed parents worked together to recruit for Smiley through mailings, phone calls and open houses; then to bolster its programming as aides, teaching art classes, organizing science fairs and fundraising.

“I was a loudmouth,” said Sweetser. “I’m sure I offended a lot of people right and left, because I would say things like, ‘We’re living in an integrated neighborhood, this is our neighborhood school, what’s your real reason that you aren’t sending your kids to Smiley? It can’t be the teachers, because they’re outstanding.’”

Like others in the community who have had generations of their families matriculate through the school, Sweetser is concerned about the loss of a great legacy. “The legacy of William H. Smiley, all the bussing for integration that went on and the fight around that, and sort of the excitement around it, that was very historical, and very Park Hill,” said Sweetser, “Smiley is part of what makes our community what it is,” said Sweetser.

The 5 “Neighborhood Schools” for Smiley Boundary 2013-14 Sixth Graders

Due to the phase-out of Smiley Middle School, incoming 2013-14 sixth graders in the Smiley boundary are guaranteed a seat at and transportation to one of five area schools or a school they prefer more for the next three years:

Denver School of Science and Technology – Cole
3240 Humboldt Street
Jeff Osborne, Principal
School Performance Framework (SPF) Rating: Distinguished
125 Choice Seats

Denver School of Science and Technology – Stapleton*
2000 Valentia Street
Mark Heffron, Principal
SPF Rating: Distinguised
70 Choice Seats

Morey Middle School
840 E. 14th Avenue
Lynn Hawthorne, Principal
SPF Rating: Meets Expectations
120 Choice Seats

McAuliffe International School
3480 Syracuse Street
Kurt Dennis, Principal
SPF Rating: Not Yet Rated
100 Choice Seats

William (Bill) Roberts ECE-8
2100 Akron Way
Patricia Lea, Principal
SPF Rating: Meets Expectations
10 Choice Seats

According to DPS’ SchoolChoice office, 295 Park Hill students will be affected by the Smiley phase-out and 430 choice seats are available. SchoolChoice selections must be made by January 31st. The lottery process is conducted via software which weighs entries on seats offered, how school prioritizes, and rank of school preferences (up to five). Students who don’t receive their first choice school will be on the waitlist for every school that they ranked above the school that was chosen for them, at least until mid-first semester.

For more information about the SchoolChoice process, call the DPS Office of Choice and Enrollment Services at 720-423-3493 or email

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