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An Uncertain Future

Dropping Enrollment, Departing Principal Highlight Emerging Crisis At Denver Discovery School  

The milquetoast announcement – that community meetings were planned for the future of Denver Discovery School – did not hint at the gravity of the situation. In reality, the gatherings in mid-March were about a school in crisis that faces an uncertain future. 

During the 2019 Round 1 of Choice only 20 incoming 6th graders selected DDS, which is in the Stapleton neighborhood and one of six middle schools in the Greater Park Hill Stapleton enrollment zone, as their first choice. About 30 percent of DDS’ current students requested transfers from the school for next year. 

The enrollment projections are critically low, the newly-hired principal is leaving at the end of the year and the school’s community appears to be in free fall. 

Down a similar path

The first of last month’s meetings, at the school, was eerily reminiscent of the meetings run by the former chief community engagement for Denver Public Schools that preceded Smiley’s closure some eight years ago. This was the similar path: 

• A prepared Power Point to guide the discussion;

• The head of family and community engagement for DPS, now Theresa Becker, vowing that this was a new dawn, that the district was hearing the demands for transparency;

• Presentations by those who crunch the numbers about the dire situation at hand;

• A list of supports that DPS has provided the school;

• A clear statement about how much extra money DPS has poured into the school to keep it functioning;

• Butcher paper and colored markers placed on tables where the community would have small discussions about the future of the school. 

What wasn’t said

What was missing from the presentation, however, was a clear explanation of what went wrong at this middle school, which is only in its fifth year of existence. 

Hasira Ashemu, who goes by the name Soul, has two children at the school. The founder of an activist movement called Our Voice Our Schools, which seeks quality education for black, brown and indigenous children, Soul called out DPS during the first two meetings and in a Facebook Live session.  

Soul terms the state of the school a “manufactured crisis,” and describes the school’s predicament the result of the district’s own policies and procedures. Specifically, Soul points to the following: 

• The opening of the Denver Green School, a sixth middle school in the zone, which syphoned students away from DDS. 

• A crisis in leadership at the school that set the stage for a revolving door of principals and teachers.

• A subsequent influx of minority students at the school that was exacerbated by a high number of white parents seeking administrative transfers out of the school.

• A co-location that favored the largely white population of Swigert, the co-located school. 

• An increase this year of the available seats offered by McAuliffe, that was already at capacity, that also led to more students being siphoned out of DDS. 

If the playbook sounds like déjà vu it’s because it is. It is the platform that is part and parcel of the portfolio approach championed by education reform advocates. School closures in high poverty and minority schools in DPS have all followed a similar variation on the theme. 

The demise of Smiley Middle School in Park Hill was engineered through the forced co-location of Venture Prep, along with the creation of McAuliffe. The latter school was strategically placed to compete with Smiley’s I.B. program and attract students away, along with a revolving door of principals, and a choice program that has led to more segregation within schools. 

Here we sit, several years later, facing the same possible scenario. And again, it is a school that has a majority of students of color that is prey to the reform agenda. 

DDS’ population is 75 percent minority, and 61 percent of the students qualify for Free and Reduced Lunch. And just a few months ago, Roots Elementary, a charter school that serves a population that is 91 percent minority and 81 percent FRL, announced its closure at the end of this school year. 

Two schools that serve the Park Hill neighborhood and whose families are left dangling is not the picture of a successful portfolio model. 

The uncertainty ahead

Parents attending the first DDS meeting in March did not use their time to comment on the arranged butcher paper. They wanted clear answers to the questions about DDS’ immediate future. Soul proposed having the community take over the process and create a school that would be community driven. At the following meeting, in collaboration with DPS, that is exactly what happened. 

Five DPS board members attended one or both meetings. “The reason we are here is to listen and learn from you,” said Board President Anne Rowe during the first meeting. “This discussion matters,” she added, “we’re not all here to check boxes.” Soul followed up with, “Are you committed to support what this community wants?” Rowe did not answer. 

Board member Lisa Flores, who is up for re-election in November, noted her concern for “timing,” specifying that, “Denver has the most stringent approval process for new schools.” She worried the community could not put a together a strong and cohesive plan in such a short amount of time. 

I specifically asked Flores if, given the fact that this stringent approval process had brought us to the current state of crisis, should we not look at it as having systemically failed the community. I also asked if a new process needed to be developed. Flores did not reply. 

Board member Barbara O’Brien refused to say whether she would support the plan, stating more than once when pressed, “I’m here to listen.” 

Board member Jennifer Bacon was clear about the need for seats in the enrollment zone and that a school needed to be in place in the building. Although she waffled during the first meeting, she committed to supporting the community’s plan at the second meeting: “Yes, let’s work together with the district so that it works.” 

Board member Carrie Olson was the only one who clearly committed to the community and school staff during both meetings: “I will commit to standing with you, to walking with you in this process.” 

Waiting on the shelf

At the end of the first meeting, Molly Ferensic, a Park Hill neighborhood parent, noted her fear that, “A school that is on the proverbial shelf will just slip in.” Indeed, in May 2018, the online education news site Chalkbeat reported that there are at least 24 schools approved by DPS that were waiting for a building. 

The second meeting, which included strong and committed community voices was electric in its atmosphere. A group of teachers stood up and gave their assurance that they would stay with the school to strengthen it. Planning meetings at the school are already scheduled to take place every Wednesday at 6 p.m. 

It is unclear whether the DPS administration and board will fully support a proposed community plan or whether it will decide to continue the continuous churn of school closures in the city. Time will tell whether Susana Cordova’s tenure as the new superintendent will be just more of the same or if we are indeed at the dawn of a new era for schools in metro Denver.  

Lynn Kalinauskas, the author of this opinion piece, is the education chair for Greater Park Hill Community, Inc.

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