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If DPS Builds It, Who Will Choose It?

Park Hill And Stapleton’s Ongoing Middle School Problem

In early 2013, following the decision to phase-out and close Smiley Middle School, Denver Public Schools began a series of meetings intended to convince the community that creating a larger boundary for middle schools would benefit both Park Hill and Stapleton.

Smiley had been struggling, especially following the co-location of another school, Venture Prep, into the building and a churn in its leadership. Stapleton needed seats for its growing school-age population. Could a larger zone and the move of the well-liked McAuliffe program, incubated in Stapleton, solve all problems?

The Greater Park Hill/Stapleton Enrollment Zone for middle schools was fully implemented in the 2013-14 school year. Since then, students living within Park Hill and Stapleton have been guaranteed a seat at one (not necessarily the closest one) of five schools: Bill Roberts, Denver Discovery School, Denver School of Science and Technology (DSST) Conservatory Green, DSST Stapleton and McAuliffe International School.

In June 2015, Greater Park Hill News reported that the very high demand for seats at McAuliffe meant that many Park Hill and Stapleton families that had requested the school as their first choice were turned away. And even though McAuliffe has continued to expand to over 1,400 students, it cannot satisfy the demand. Parents and students in both neighborhoods are frustrated that they cannot or may not get their children into the school.

And then there were six

Attempting to solve this problem and the still-growing middle school population in Stapleton, DPS issued a Call for New Quality Schools for a new middle school in the zone that would serve 500 to 600 students. The school would open next year.

The new school will likely be located in the Beeler Park neighborhood of Stapleton, near the Dick’s Sporting Goods soccer stadium. It would be the farthest away from Park Hill than any of the other middle schools in the choice zone.

In order to hear what the community wanted for the zone’s sixth school, DPS first sent out a questionnaire via email to 4th and 5th grade parents in both neighborhoods. DPS paid Corona Insights $17,538 to perform the 10-minute survey, which was later extended to also reach kindergarten to 3rd grade families. An estimated 4,700 emails were sent with an expected return of 20 percent (940). Paper surveys were not provided to families who may not have had access to a computer, further disenfranchising poorer families.

DPS also held three community meetings (two in Stapleton and one in Park Hill) during the first week of October to “discuss community priorities that will be a key part of how the Denver Board of Education decides which school is the best fit.”

DPS contracted with an outside firm, Insignia Partners, to run the meetings that were heavily scripted. After a brief introduction, attendees were divided up to discuss the different elements of the survey results at “small table meetings” where DPS staff took notes on butcher paper.

Stating the obvious

Ironically – and sadly – in the six small table discussions I attended, most of the conversation focused on how poor the survey questions were. “There’s no information whatsoever in this poll,” said one attendee.

In the section on “school culture,” for example, polltakers were asked to rank their three top priorities from the following statements:

• The school is safe and welcoming to all students

• The school makes sure that all students feel valued

• The school has open communications with parents

• The school supports all students’ social, emotional, and behavioral growth,

• The school has clear, fair discipline policies

• The school’s policies and communications reflect the cultures of the families and school

• The school builds relationships with the community

• Parents are involved in decision-making at the school

Attendees were stymied by the need to categorize these statements, noting that all of them should be included de-facto in any and all DPS schools. “These are the baseline for any school,” said one parent, stating the obvious.

Parents sitting in the “education program” small groups wondered why the poll did not address any programming questions. “There is nothing academic in the survey,” said one parent. “I thought I’d see questions about I.B., expeditionary learning, or multilingual learning in the education program section.” But there were no such questions. Instead, there were statements such as “The school has a rigorous, standards-aligned curriculum.”

Not a real choice

The meetings also allowed for a short open mic period during which parents expressed their dismay at the survey and the process.

“The elephant in the room is not addressed in this survey,” said one. “McAuliffe is the preferred choice; Bill Roberts is hard to get into; and DDS is struggling.”

Others pointed out that campus sharing was not mentioned once in the survey and yet impacts a school’s culture on a daily basis.

“I think that the co-location and the small size of the school is going to be very limiting, said Stapleton parent Dipti Nevrekar. “If it’s not desired by the community, it won’t be successful. The choice parents will be making is, should I choose this instead of McAuliffe.”

Both Park Hill and Stapleton families are frustrated by the choice – or lack thereof – they have.

“If you separate the boundaries between Stapleton and Park Hill, all we have are DDS and two DSSTs. You can’t get into Bill Roberts, so it’s not a real choice,” said one Stapleton parent who did not get into McAuliffe and currently drives her child downtown for middle school.

In Park Hill, which has only one of the five middle schools in the zone, there is increasing frustration about not being guaranteed a space at a school within walking distance. “I want my child with her friend group,” one parent said. “If DPS is about the whole child, then community is important. I want to stay in Park Hill.”

Many pointed out that DPS had put out the call for new quality schools before engaging the community. “The process is putting forth schools that aren’t responsive to the needs of the community,” commented one parent.

“We are going to compile all the information from all three meetings,” said Jennifer Holladay, associate chief of portfolio management for DPS, at the end of the second meeting. “You are helping us annotate the poll. These will be the priorities that the placement committee will then consider.”

To this, an attendee asked, “Can the process change since the questionnaire didn’t address the issues we wanted?” Holladay answered, “Write that down on the exit survey.”

Failure to engage, again

Time and time again, DPS has failed to properly engage Denver communities. It has had countless mea culpa moments where DPS staff and board members have acknowledged this publicly.

The latest superintendent evaluation identified community engagement as an area of growth. In part, the evaluation notes, “The Board believes this is the biggest area of needed improvement. The perception of a lack of transparency in District decisions and community processes continues to be a common feedback received by the Board from community members. We need to pay much more attention to public communication and we need to constantly earn the public’s trust and support.”

And yet, here we are again, having been through yet another failed community engagement process, that came at a high cost to taxpayers, to discuss a poll that had little to no value.

As one person noted at the Park Hill meeting, McAuliffe is clearly the most demanded school. So DPS administrators have a roadmap for what the community wants.

Both Park Hill and Stapleton families currently overwhelmingly request McAuliffe as their top choice school — 76 percent of Park Hill and 73 percent of Stapleton applicants.

In Stapleton, the second top-requested school in the zone as a first choice was Bill Roberts, a K-8 school. But given the priority for students already in the school’s 5th grade, very few Park Hill families can hope to get a seat there. 76 percent of Stapleton families who requested Bill Roberts as their first choice were accepted, versus only 25 percent of Park Hill families. The second top requested school for Park Hill was DSST Stapleton, with only 9.6 percent of families requesting to go there.

Looking at this year’s 6th grade class at McAuliffe, only 33 percent comes from Park Hill, as opposed to 59 percent from Stapleton. An additional 8 percent come from outside the enrollment zone.

Shifting and unclear priorities

When the enrollment zone was first formed, Park Hill families feared the sheer numbers in Stapleton might push them out of their neighborhood even though the enrollment priorities set in place at the time clearly stated that students living inside the zone had first priority.

I asked McAuliffe principal, Kurt Dennis, about the 8 percent of students who come from outside the enrollment zone. Given that McAuliffe always has a waiting list and that both Park Hill and Stapleton families were complaining about not getting into the school, how could such a high percentage of students come from other Denver neighborhoods?

“The 42 students that were accepted in 6th grade that live outside of the Greater Park HIll/Stapleton Enrollment Zone are either students who are siblings to existing McAuliffe students or they were accepted through the Free and Reduced Lunch Floor that was established last school year,” said Dennis.

Yet in 2014, enrollment priorities stated that siblings of enrolled students living outside the zone did not have priority over applicants from within the zone. In fact, as of this writing the McAuliffe website clearly shows this priority. If this priority policy changed, it was never clearly explained to parents.

The FRL floor is a pilot program in which McAuliffe participates. The idea is to give economically challenged students access to some of Denver’s higher performing schools. Once students within the boundary are accepted, FRL students are prioritized for acceptance into the program. The DPS website explaining the enrollment pilot states, “To be clear, in these schools, students living within the boundary still have top priority. However, outside the boundary, priority is given to students from low-income families.”

On the website, DPS explains how priorities will work in enrollment zones. Students who live in the enrollment zone are clearly prioritized over students from low-income families (FRL status) who live outside the zone and are Denver residents.

When enrolling students at schools in our enrollment zone, is DPS following its own priorities? Or has it changed its policies but forgotten to tell us?

Who will attend the new school?

DPS lauds its choice process and the choice numbers are clear. Community members also weighed in during the three community meetings.

For Park Hill families, the new middle school will be further away than any others in the zone, making commuting during rush hour a nightmare. And most Park Hill families are not happy with busing their children out of the neighborhood, when they would rather walk or bike to a school close by. The sixth school will mainly cater to Stapleton families, especially if High Tech wins the bid and expands to a K-8, basically cutting Park Hill out of its enrollment priorities.

If DPS continues to ignore the elephant in the room – the demand for a large comprehensive neighborhood middle school like McAuliffe – will it just be creating more community dissatisfaction?

For Park Hill, a larger question remains: has the enrollment zone benefited the neighborhood, as those early 2013 meetings suggested?

Lynn Kalinauskas is Education Chair of Greater Park Hill Community, Inc.


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